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Revolution in the sugarcane industry

New distilleries, more productive sugarcane varieties and genetic research are the solutions to increase the supply of alcohol

CABAVIALISDevelopment of new varieties of sugarcane: an increase in productionCABAVIALIS

One of Brazil’s current challenges is to increase the supply of ethanol. The solutions encapsulate new varieties of sugarcane, including transgenic plants, and run to the simple expansion of the growing areas, as well as production line innovations at the distilleries. A renewable fuel, which pollutes less in comparison with oil derivatives, ethanol has returned to occupy a highlighted position within the country’s energy scenario and has also begun to be sought after by other countries. In the Brazilian case, those responsible for the resurrection of alcohol are the double fuel cars, or flex fuel cars, which can be filled up with alcohol or gasoline, or even both together in any  proportion. Abroad, over the last few months various government and company manifestations have demonstrated the market potential and the technology of ethanol production.

The expressions of interest, with eulogies and citations as an example to be followed, have come from the North American president George W. Bush, from the editors of the New York Times and in news items in the British newspaper the Financial Times. They were also the highlight of interest of millionaire Bill Gates, one of the owners of Microsoft, in producing ethanol and in the visit of two entrepreneurs no less well known, Larry Page and Sergei Brin, the owners of the Google site, to Brazil to find out about alcohol distilleries.

The international interest in ethanol has heated the sugar/alcohol sector within the country. During this same period, according to the distilleries themselves, the crop ran out and the alcohol was becoming scarcer and going to a higher price, in a situation similar to that at the end of the 1980’s when the slump in supply broke the consumer’s confidence in alcohol cars. With growing demand, the government, distilleries and business within the sector are only thinking about increasing alcohol production. Any increase to this end, according to the specialists, will only come about, even in the short term, with an expansion of the sugarcane crop and the opening of new distilleries. Demand is going to increase, in the short term, because of the increase in sales of flex fuel cars. In 2005 they represented 53% of the total cars and light commercial vehicles produced. In February of this year that sales percentage had already risen to 76%.

Currently, of the 15 billion liters of alcohol produced, Brazil exports only 3 billion. The foreign market demand is going to increase mainly because of the high cost of a barrel of crude oil and in order to meet the requirements of the Kyoto Protocol, in which the developed nations are going to have to reduce their emissions by 5% of the resultant carbon dioxide (CO2) gas, which comes mainly from the burning of oil derivatives. Also, adding weight, is the decline in the world reserves of petroleum. “The expectation of a demand in the internal and external markets will only be attended to if there were to be an expansion in the planted area of sugarcane, in traditional regions or in new frontiers”, comments Antonio de Padua Rodrigues, the technical director of the São Paulo Sugarcane Agro-Industry Union (Unica), an entity that brings together the São Paulo producers of sugarcane, alcohol and sugar.

The expansion in São Paulo is beginning in the municipality of Araçatuba, an area traditionally directed towards cattle ranching, which already corresponds to 20% of the state’s sugarcane production. Other areas of expansion include the Mineiro Triangle and the states of Goiás, Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul. Within the sector it has been calculated that, between 2006 and 2010, some 89 new distilleries will be installed in the country. Today there are 300 distilleries.

But is there enough lands for the planting of so much sugarcane that will feed all of these distilleries? This question can be answered through a study being conducted by professor José Antonio Scaramucci, from the Energy Planning Interdisciplinary Center (NIPE) of the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), under the coordination of professor Rogério Cerqueira Leite and carried out on behalf of the Management and Strategic Studies Center, in conjunction with the Ministry of Science and Technology. “More than 90 million hectares (ha) of agricultural land exist in Brazil, without counting on the destruction of the preserved areas of the Amazon, the Cerrado (savanna), the Pantanal (swampland) and the Atlantic Rainforest”, says Scaramucci. During 2004, the cultivated area reached 58 million hectares and Brazil possesses in total some 851 million hectares. Even this year, sugarcane was the third crop, with 5.63 million hectares, well behind corn with 12.34 million hectares and soya with 21.54 million hectares. “There is a band between the states of Mato Grosso do Sul, Mato Grosso, Goiás, Tocantins, Piauí and the east of Bahia and the northwest of Minas Gerais in which sugarcane could have good productivity.”

Scaramucci says that Brazil could increase, over a period of twenty years, its production of sugarcane by 35 million hectares and produce 100 billion liters of alcohol per year. “A large part would go for export.” According to the study, these numbers will create 5.3 million jobs, after twenty years, and an income of R$ 153 billion, a value similar to that of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the state of Rio de Janeiro.

The only region that does not appear on the expansion map of sugarcane growing is the Northeast, even being a traditional production area, mainly the states of Pernambuco and Alagoas, in the so-called Forest Zone. This area is responsible for 15% of the country’s production and has a productivity of 55 tons per hectare (t/ha), while the Central-South region, which covers the states of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Espirito Santo, Minas Gerais, Paraná and Mato Grosso do Sul, concentrates 85% of the sugar/alcohol production with 82 t/ha. “Over the last few years drought has been very frequent, overtaking the historical level”, says Luiz José Oliveira Tavares de Melo, a researcher at the Federal Rural University of Pernambuco (UFRPE), a participant in the Inter-University Network for the Development of the Sugar/Alcohol Sector (Ridesa), also composed of a further seven federal universities, namely Alagoas (Ufal), Goias (UFG), Sao Carlos (UFSCar), Viçosa (UFV), Parana (UFPR), Rural of Rio de Janeiro (UFRRJ) and Sergipe (UFS), and responsible for the development of new varieties of the sugarcane.

“Another problem with the Forest Zone is the region’s relief that impedes the use of a harvester”, adds Melo. In Pernambuco, 75% of the sugarcane lands have an incline that is above 12% of slope, which impedes any harvesting using a machine. The state’s 2005-2006 crop, which is ending now in April, should result in 13.5 million tons, a result that is 20% less than the previous crop. These reasons have led the producers to search out lands in the Center-South of the country in order to invest in new plantations.

Genes in the field
Whilst new distilleries are being constructed, other flanks are being opened up in the realm of technological research. New situations are coming about mainly  from genetic studies, with new varieties and transgenic plants. The most recent news is that of the registration of a patent for 200 identified genes in various varieties of sugarcane that are related to the production of saccharose, a substance fundamental for the manufacture of sugar and also essential in the fermentation process, serving as the raw material for the yeast to produce alcohol. Thus, the more saccharose, the more alcohol.

The identification of the 200 genes that produce sugar was carried out within a project between the Sugarcane Technology Center (CTC), the Lucelia Central Alcohol Distillery  and researchers at the University of São Paulo (USP) and Unicamp, and was funded by FAPESP. The CTC is a civil association maintained by 101 independent distilleries and 15 producer associations. “We registered the patent with the 200 genes in March in the United States”, says Glaucia Mendes Souza, a researcher at USP’s Chemistry Institute and the project’s coordinator. The identification of these genes was carried out with material resulting from the Sucest sequencing, an acronym for Sugar Cane ESTs (expressed sequence tags, corresponding to the expresses or active genome of an organism), but known as the Sugarcane Genome, carried out between 1999 and 2003 by universities from the states of São Paulo, Pernambucano and Rio de Janeiro. Using these results the researchers were able to recognize around 90% of the sugarcane genes, resulting in 43,000 expressed sequence genes. “We analyzed 2,000 genes and we found these 200 targets related to the accumulation of saccharose in the plant”, explains Glaucia.

The search for these 200 genes was carried out on plants coming from commercial varieties of sugarcane and the results of crossings between them. As well as this, the research group analyzed the ancestral genes of the sugarcane. “Since the current varieties of sugarcane are hybrids, formed many years ago from the species Saccharum spontaneum and Saccharum officinarum, we also searched for genes of economic interest in these ancestral species, as if in an archeological study”, explains Glaucia. Some of the 200 genes are already in use for the production of transgenic plants that are more productive towards saccharose. “During the traditional crossings carried out in field tests (in which the pollen of the two varieties is crossed in order to produce a third variety), the researchers looked towards selecting plants with the characteristic of interest without knowledge of the genes. This work is very slow. With the knowledge of the molecular processes associated to the genetic characteristics, we can choose very productive varieties of  saccharose and introduce genes related to the production of this substance that they don’t possess”, explains Glaucia. Another option is to introduce these genes into varieties that are resistant towards drought or illnesses, but which do not present a good production level of sugar.

Transgenic plants can also have the capacity to take on other functions, such as the resistance to certain illnesses and insects. But all of this needs to be tested in the field in order to verify if they are truly inheriting all of the potentiality of the genes. There are already thousands of plants that are in the CTC laboratories, in greenhouses and nursery rooms. The next step is to carry out field tests under the authorization of the National Biosafety Technical Commission (CTNbio). Glaucia believes that in three years it will be possible to obtain the first results.

Another situation of the biotechnological research into sugarcane is the identification of molecular markers based on the Sucest sequences, which are those short repetitions within the genome, used in the studies of genetic variation and the identification of lineages, as well as the fact that they contribute to the mapping of the genes. “Some of these markers are related to interesting commercial characteristics of the sugarcane”, advised researcher Anete Pereira de Souza, from Unicamp’s Biology Institute. These markers can also be used in the identification of a specific gene, for example, that might be linked to the production of saccharose. “We’re identifying these markers and producing the first functional mapping (of genes) for the sugarcane, analyzing the genome of the plants that are the daughters of a crossing between two varieties, for example”, stated researcher Anete. This gene mapping of the sugarcane, whose first partial result will be available in August, is going to serve as a support tool for the CTC’s sugarcane improvement programs.

“For the biotechnological area of the sugar/alcohol sector, the Sugarcane Genome Project was a watershed. As well as the sequencing and identification of genes, some of the university research groups, who had lost interest in the sugarcane, went back to studying this plant”, explains the agronomy engineer Eugenio Cesar Ulian, responsible for the CTC’s Biotechnology Program. “As well as their basic academic studies, they’re helping us to produce new varieties in the laboratory.” Between 1999 and 2000 the CTC had in their hands transgenic plants ready to be transplanted to field tests when the CTNBio had its activities paralyzed for new studies about its attributions. “We had  plants resistant to herbicides, to insect damage of the crop and to illnesses. But we remained paralyzed for almost five years. Now we have indications that some of the transgenic plants that we have  here may increase the production of saccharose by 20%. However, we still need to perform field tests to confirm this number.” A plant that produces more saccharose is going to generate more alcohol for the same area of sugarcane plantation. “We hope that we can produce a transgenic totally developed in the country”, says Ulian.

It is in the varieties improvement program that the country must, in the short term, be looking to itself for a production increase. The problem is that the creation of a variety does not take less than ten years. Strains and individual plants with the desired characteristics need to be chosen, crossed and field tested over a number of years, and it has to be verified if these characteristics are passed on to the plant’s descendants. The increase of the genetic diversity of the sugarcane is important because it makes the plantations more protected against illnesses and pests. When there is little genetic variability, the plants become susceptible to the same problems.

In order to avoid situations such as these, the country can count upon three major genetic improvement programs for the sugarcane, sponsored by the CTC, the Agronomy Institute of Campinas (IAC) and the Ridesa, the network that is responsible for the genetic archive (varieties, research results, laboratories) from the National Sugarcane Improvement Program of the Sugar and Alcohol Institute extinct in the early 1990’s. The Ridesa, responsible for almost 60% of the country’s total production, launched in March another four varieties of sugarcane. All of them have the acronym that identifies the Ridesa’s varieties, RB, which signifies the Republic of Brazil. The unit responsible for this development was UFSCar. One of them, the RB925211, has a precocious maturing period with a high level of saccharose and high productivity, as well as being resistant to the main sugarcane illnesses. In total the Ridesa has already launched over more than ten years 17 varieties for the Central-South region and 13 for the North-Northeast.

Over the last few years the IAC has launched 13 new varieties of sugarcane, among them four types with regional calling. These are varieties adapted to the specific regions of the states of São Paulo, Goiás and Minas Gerais. With this adaptation, the response to the cultivation could be greater. “We could create strategies for each environment, respecting the characteristics of the soil and climatic conditions”, says the agronomist Marcos Landell, the director of IAC’s Sugarcane Center. More recently the institute launched another four varieties that attend to the climatic and soil conditions for the Center-South of the country, and are adapted to be harvested in the middle and end of the crop, the periods of greater volume of production.

As well as the traditional centers, the company Canavialis entered this area in 2003 in order to develop super precocious varieties and transgenic sugarcane plants. “We’re in the selection process of varieties that are to be harvested in April with a high level of saccharose”, says  Hideto Arizono, Canavialis’ technical director. “Currently there is only one option for the April harvest in the Center-South.” With the growing demand for ethanol some distilleries, in order to harvest the sugarcane in March (normally the harvest begins in April and goes on until November in the Center-South), are using a maturing agent, which is a chemical product to be applied to the plant that interrupts the vegetative period, concentrating the saccharose. The company is also developing transgenic plants together with Alellyx, the biotechnology company within the same group, the Votorantim Novos Negócios. The first transgenic plant is already under test on a private plantation in the state of Paraná. This sugarcane possesses a gene removed from the virus that causes mosaic, one of the illnesses that attacks this type of plant. In the laboratory, the gene, manipulated by Alellyx, confers resistance to the illness. Now field tests, approved by the CTNBio, are being carried out.

“Some thirty years ago, Brazil had five or six commercial varieties, and today there are around 500 (also adding in those that have been in the country since its discovery), representing an unequalled genetic patrimony. With this the growing of sugarcane has become safer, with plants that are less exposed to pests and to illnesses”, analyzes Padua, from Unica. The work of improving sugarcane is also responsible for an increase in sugar products production over the last 30 years. During the decade of the 1970’s, the crop produced 47 t/ha and in 2005 this has reached 82 t/ha.

To invest in mechanization and in the adoption of agricultural precision techniques are other alternatives towards elevating the production of alcohol in the country. “The level of harvest mechanization of the sugarcane in Sao Paulo is at 35%, but some crops, such as  soya, have reached 100%”, says the engineer Suleiman José Hassuani, a researcher with the CTC. For him, the process of mechanization, which began in the 1990’s, brings major benefits to the sector, although some obstacles still need to be overcome, such as soil compacting and the damage caused by the machines to the sugar cane stumps (the sugarcane root that remains in the ground for replanting). For the researcher, the mechanization of the sector is irreversible because a government decree prohibits the burning of the sugarcane fields as of  2018. “There’s a social cost, with the reduction of the labor force, which must be brought into consideration, but the new work positions require much greater qualification.”

Advances in the industry
As well as the advances in the field, researchers have been working to develop more efficient industrial processes for distillation and fermentation. The team led by the geneticist Gonçalo Amarante Guimarães Pereira, from Unicamp’s Biology Institute, has created a genetically modified yeast capable of simplifying the production process and of lowering the distillery’s costs. Yeasts are organisms responsible for the transformation of sugar into alcohol, in a process known as fermentation. Unicamp’s modified yeast has turned one of the fermentation stages obsolete, that known as centrifuging, which makes the process more expensive and of a longer duration. “We made genetic alterations to the yeast that functions very well during fermentation”, says Pereira. “We worked with laboratory yeast. Now our challenge is to manage to carry out the genetic modification on industrial yeast, that which is used by the distilleries.”

Still at Unicamp, another piece of research to perfect the fermentation process is being developed at the laboratories of the Food Engineering School. There, researcher Francisco Maugeri Filho and his doctorate student Daniel Atala have created a technique that carried out the vacuum extraction of ethanol while still in the fermentation vessels. “The conventional method is limited by the elevated concentration of ethanol in the medium, which inhibits the action of the yeast. By using vacuum extraction, the ethanol always remains in low concentration in the fermentation vessels, and the microorganism reacts in a more efficient manner”, explains Maugeri Filho. A direct consequence of the reduction of ethanol is the possibility of elevating the concentration of sugar in the juicy mixture. “On elevating the sugar level, we managed to double or triple the system’s productivity and we reduced the production of poor wine, a residue within the process. Now we’re in discussions to start a pilot test in the distilleries during this very harvest. Simulations of alcohol cost by way of this process point to a final reduction of between 10% and 15%”, explains Maugeri Filho.

In the distillation area, a new idea developed in the country is already responsible for almost one third of the production. This is the process for the dehydration of the ethanol,  known as extractive distillation, a method for the production of ethanol anhydride, which is then added to gasoline. After the distillation stage, which separates a liquid mixture of the components as a function of their different volatilities, it being that the higher volatility is concentrated in the vapor and the lower in the liquid, the hydrated ethanol still contains around 4% water.

“By way of the extractive distillation technique, we add in a third component, monoethylene glycol, (MEG), which reduces the water’s volatility, allowing the vaporization of the ethanol. Next, the alcohol is condensed generating ethanol anhydride. The monoethylene glycol, for its part, is purified and returns to the process’s first phase”, says Antonio José de Almeida Meirelles, a professor at Unicamp’s Food Engineering School, who studied the process and participated in the technology transfer to the industrial sector. “Distillation with MEG in the face of the conventional method, reduces by half the consumption of vapor in order to distill the ethanol hydrate. Introduced into the productive sector in 2001, the new distillation process has already been adopted by 28 distilleries and accounts for the production of more than 2.5 billion liters of ethanol hydrate per year, around 30% of the total produced in the country.

Another system that promises to bring elevated gains to the distilleries’ productivity is the use of the bagasse and straw developed by the CTC jointly with the Dedini Group, one of the major manufacturers of equipment for the sugar/alcohol sector. Baptized as the Dedini Rapid Hydrolysis (DHR), the technology has already been patented in Brazil and in other countries and promises to transform the bagasse and straw into alcohol within a few minutes by way of a hydrolysis process (a chemical reaction involving the elements of water). A demonstration unit has been operational since the start of 2004 at the São Luiz Distillery, in the town of Pirassununga, in the state of São Paulo. “We’re picking up information as to whether there’s still a need to improve it”, says the chemical engineer Carlos Eduardo Vaz Rossel, the head of the CTC’s project. “The major advantage of the new method is that it raises the ethanol production by up to 30% without increasing the sugarcane planted area.”

All of these factors, plus the new alcohol production, will be involved in the expansion spurt of the sugarcane and in the improvement of productivity over the next few years. During the 2005-2006 crop the Brazilian production reached 386 million tons and studies indicate that by 2010 this will be 535 million tons. “For the 2013-2014 crop there could be 670 million, but for now the 2006-2007 crop should come to 420 million tons, producing 17 billion liters of alcohol and almost 29 million tons of sugar”, says Padua. The 2005-2006 crop should hit 15.7 billion liters of alcohol, higher than the 15.1 billion liters of the previous crop.

A history of sucesses and polemic situations

The sugar/ethanol sector is responsible for 2% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), something around R$ 39 billion per year. It is seen as an exemplary agro-industrial system for the production of a renewable fuel, as demonstrated in the constant visits of foreign delegations to gain knowledge about the distilleries that produce sugar and alcohol. It is also the oldest sector of our economy. The sugarcane arrived here with the Portuguese, right at the start of colonialism. Probably the plant originated in the Southeast of Asia and was developed mainly in the Northeast of the country. Shortly afterwards it gained economic importance with the production of sugar sent to Portugal.

By 1600, 200 sugar plantations already existed that also served as a strong part of the Brazilian elite: the sugar plantation lords. They grew in numbers, manufacturing sugar and white rum, and they only diversified their activities in 1931, when president Getúlio Vargas decreed the addition of 5% of alcohol to gasoline. This proportion has varied throughout the years, including the beginning of 2006, when the government reduced from the addition of alcohol to gasoline from 25% to 20% due to the increase in its price.

“This crisis signaled to the government that it wasn’t possible to have full confidence in the companies. It’s necessary, as exampled by other agriculture products such as the bean and wheat, to maintain regulatory stocks, reducing the high pressures during the periods between harvests”, says professor Walter Belik, from Unicamp’s Economics Institute. He points out that the situation was completely different a few years ago. “In 1942, the Getúlio Vargas government launched the Sugarcane Agriculture Statute, which attributed to the Sugar and Alcohol Institute (IAA in the Portuguese acronym) the responsibility of regulating the sector. It was up to the IAA to administer the power balance between the growers, the industry and the work force. For example, the statute established that whoever possessed a distillery couldn’t plant more than 40% of its necessities”, recalls Belik.

The deregulation of the sector began in 1990 and marked the end of the National Alcohol Program (Proálcool). Established in 1975, the Proálcool program received generous financial incentives and had its peak in the middle of the 1980′s, when almost 100% of the cars manufactured were fueled by alcohol. During this era the growing of the sugarcane gained new impulse in the state of São Paulo. “The sugarcane industry began to grow in São Paulo during the second half of the 1950′s, when it went ahead of the Northeast with modern distilleries and with better lands adapted to the growing of the sugarcane”, says  professor Belik.

With fiscal incentives and private investments during the era of the Proálcool program, the sector transformed itself into an advanced agro-industry, incorporating technology into the planting and the distilleries. But its image was damaged at the end of the 1980′s when the high price of sugar on the foreign market made the distilleries produce the sweetener instead of ethanol fuel. The lack of fuel and the lines at the pumps broke the consumers’ confidence.

The good winds and the improved image of the sector returned in 2002, when the car manufacturers in Brazil decided to adopt Flex Fuel technology, or bi-fuel, which was developed by the Bosch company, in the middle of the 1990′s, in its branch in the city of Campinas. For this work the company was recognized with the Finep Technology Innovation Award in the category of Product in 2005.

The success of the bi-fuel system, however, shortly afterwards brought about discomfort among the consumers who saw the price of alcohol rise sharply, taking away its advantage over gasoline. “Today there is a certain decontrol and it’s the producer who decides on his own where he’ll build a distillery and what lands he’ll purchase around it in order to grow the sugarcane. This is leading to an industrial concentration and reveals the need for strategic planning for the sugarcane industry over the long period.” Professor José Antonio Scaramucci, from Unicamp’s Inter-Disciplinary Energy Planning Center (Nipe),  also agrees that a strong industrial concentration is happening. “The sector is dominated by five large groups. This is an oligopoly (a situation in which a few companies have control over a large part of the market) in which the larger distilleries are transforming the sugarcane agriculture into a concentrated industrial structure”, says Scaramucci.

Besides the concentration, the sector is also modernizing itself and is becoming multinational, although part of this sector still has work force problems related to seasonal field workers. Normally they are migrants who come to Sao Paulo from the Northeast region of the country, as well as the state of Minas Gerais. Very often these workers are hired by intermediaries and work and live under very precarious conditions.

“The major problem is that between 2004 and 2005 we had the deaths of 13 seasonal field workers because of excess hours of work. They earn for their daily production and their goal is to cut 12 tons of sugarcane per day”, explains the sociologist Maria Aparecida de Moraes Silva, a post-graduate professor in the geography course of the University of São Paulo, and a collaborator at the São Paulo State University in the town of Presidente Prudente. “The Prosecuting Attorney has already held six public audiences concerning the deaths”, says Maria Aparecida. “Furthermore, the workers are often defrauded because they cut per meter and receive per ton.” The Prosecuting Attorney’s Office wants to put an end to the pay per production in 2007. The distilleries, who want to pay R$ 410,00 per month, and the workers, including the very unions themselves, don’t want this new system. “A good sugarcane cutter can manage to earn up to R$ 800,00 per month”, points out Maria Aparecida.

“The Sugarcane Agro-Industry Union of São Paulo (Unica) understands that the units that don’t comply with the work, environmental or transport legislation, will be responsible for any consequences of non-compliance. As to the deaths of workers through excess work loads, there’s no definite proof. The remuneration system by way of productivity is the most adequate in the understanding of the employers and the workers themselves. The point to be revised is transparency in the system of payment checking”, suggests Antonio de Padua Rodrigues, Unica’s technical director. In the country, the sugar/alcohol sector employs around 450,000 workers during the agriculture phase, in accordance with studies from Nipe.

The Projects
1. Transcription  of the sugarcane (02/01167-1); Modality: Technological Innovation Partnership (PITE Program); Coordinator: Glaucia Mendes Souza – USP; Investment: R$ 555,693.00 – US$ 82,867.00 (FAPESP) and R$ 800.000,00 (CTC and Alcohol Central).
2. Development of molecular markers starting from  the ESTs of the sugarcane (03/07244-0); Modality: Technological Innovation Partnership (PITE Program); Coordinator: Anete Pereira de Souza – Unicamp; Investment: R$ 172,403.00 and US$ 45,495.22 (FAPESP) R$ 103,675.30 (CTC)

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