Brazil is currently the world’s largest producer of sugarcane, producing over 650 million tons of the crop annually. It is also the world’s largest exporter of sugar. Sugarcane is also used to produce a distilled spirit called cachaca, which is also exported to many countries. Brazil also produces large amounts of ethanol from sugarcane.
Approximately 10 million hectares of land is used for sugarcane cultivation in Brazil. About 90% of the sugarcane crop is grown in the south-central region, in states such as Sao Paulo, Goias and Minas Gerais. A significant percentage of sugarcane is also grown in the northeast, in states such as Pernambuco and Paraiba.
Sugarcane is grown on flat land and heavy machinery is used in sugar cultivation, especially in the state of Sao Paulo. Machines are used to prepare the land for planting. In some areas, planting is done by machine, as shown in the video below.
About half the sugarcane grown in Brazil is used to produce sugar. The other half is used to produce ethanol, a biofuel that can be used in motor vehicles. The government of Brazil began to encourage and support the production of ethanol because of the high price of oil in the 1970’s. It provided subsidies, loans to ethanol distillers and tax breaks for the purchase of ethanol fueled vehicles. It also required gas stations to provide ethanol and vehicles to use it. In 1977, vehicles were required to use at least 4.5% ethanol in their tanks. As of 2018, they are required to use at least 27.5%. Today, Brazil is the second largest producer of ethanol in the world.
Unlike gasoline, ethanol is a renewable fuel. Also, the use of ethanol in vehicles reduces greenhouse gas emissions. The vast majority of vehicles in Brazil are flex fuel vehicles which are capable of running on a mixture of gasoline and ethanol or pure ethanol.
Employment and Mechanization
In 2015, the sugarcane industry employed over a million people. Workers in the cane fields earn low wages. By 2020, the number of workers had dropped to 712,000. A major reason for this decline is the increased use machinery for harvesting. In some places, sugarcane was harvested by hand and fields were burnt prior to harvesting. This would burn away the sugarcane leaves and make it easier for workers to cut the sugarcane. However the Brazilian government wants to put an end to the practice of burning the fields because of its negative impact on the environment and health.
Sugarcane growers are encouraged to use machinery to harvest as this does not require the burning of the fields. Today, about 99% of sugarcane in the south-central region is harvested by machine. Many farm workers have been retrained to operate farm machinery. This allows then to earn much higher wages than they did previously as farm workers.