Sugarcane Cultivation in Brazil: Challenges and Opportunities

Sugarcane cultivation in Brazil has been a key part of growing their local economy in recent history. “Key”, may be an understatement, as it brings in 43.8 Billion dollars every year (as of 2012) and gives 1.09 million people jobs working in that sector. For more impressive sugarcane production numbers, Brazil produces 25% of the world’s sugar and ethanol. Sugarcane contributes to 80% of sugar produced worldwide. In the last 35 years the sugarcane sector has grown tremendously, thanks to outstanding technological progress enabled by new varieties, fertilizers, chemicals, mechanization and different cropping practices. Between 2005 and 2009, the sugarcane industry grew by 10% each year. Unfortunately, the global economic crisis slowed down its growth in recent years, but it still grows at a respectful 3% a year.

Sugarcane production may as well be threaded in the fabric of Brazilian culture, as without it, a huge part of the global economy is eliminated. Due to Brazil being a top producer of sugarcane in the world, there are a unique set of challenges as well as opportunities that come with that. In this post, we’re going to look into the set of opportunities and challenges impacting the boom industry of sugarcane cultivation in Brazil.

Opportunities for Sugarcane Cultivation In Brazil

It Helps Combat Global Warming

Global warming is becoming an increasing threat to the world and it’s up to world citizens their actions to combat it. One way to do this is to reduce the use of greenhouse gas and start using products that are clean and renewable. Luckily, ethanol production reduces greenhouse gases by about 90% when compared to gasoline. So far, this is one of the most effective ways to reduce the use of greenhouse gas for the whole world, and Brazil has the leading market share on producing sugarcane, which is used to produce ethanol.

This puts Brazil in a unique position to have something that the whole world needs more of. In result, sugarcane cultivation in Brazil will increase as the world relies more on increasing its renewable energy sources and reducing greenhouse gases.

More Sugarcane Cultivation Happens In Brazil Than Any Other Country in the World

Brazil was the place to pioneer sugarcane production in the 1530’s, and it has only grown since then. Because of that, it has become the world’s leading producer of sugarcane. When including all aspects of the industry, it generates $86 billion dollars annually. That’s a lot of cash and unlocks even more opportunities.

Due to this lead, the opportunities to continue to grow their market share and produce even more sugarcane is even higher. The demand for ethanol and sugarcane is only going up, and so is the opportunity for Brazil.

Sugarcane industry has enormous potential to adopt new technologies

The Brazilian sugarcane industry is a very dynamic sector, which is industrialized and consolidated by about 300–400 large sugar/ ethanol mills. These large industrial producers have necessary agronomic, technological and other capabilities to adopt new technologies on a large scale. Key areas for optimization of sugarcane cultivation and processing include:

  • Due to inaccessibility of sugarcane fields in 3–4 months after planting crop monitoring technologies can provide a grower with a solution to analyze a crop development throughout the season.
  • More efficient management of the harvesting process and associated logistics, as a production system of sugarcane is extremely complex. Gamaya is working on the solution to optimize the harvesting process by providing accurate and reliable yield forecasts.
  • More efficient use of available resources, such as water, agrochemicals, vinasse, etc. Reuse of water consumed by a mill in the industrial process is a typical example how to minimize use of water by a sugarcane producer.
  • Further mechanization of the planting and harvesting processes. While 90% of the harvesting process is mechanized in Sao Paulo state, it’s still not the case in other states of Brazil and other countries.

The Challenges With Brazil’s Sugarcane Production

With sugarcane production at this scale, there are always going to be growing pains too. Here are some of the challenges that Brazil is dealing with while going through their boom in sugarcane production

Extremely difficult sugarcane harvest logistics and production system

The sugarcane harvesting process includes three different operations, that should be coordinated and synchronized: field operations, transportation to sugarcane mill and the mill operations. The field operations are performed on thousands of fields in the same geographical zone, but still widely distributed. Transporting of harvested cane to a mill is done using trucks and trailers. Finally, the trucks are unloaded at the mill. Figure 1 below illustrates the sugarcane harvest logistics.

Source: Sugarcane Harvest Logistics in Brazil — Iowa Research Online

The complexity of the sugarcane harvest logistics problem is characterized by following:

  • Crushing capacity management on a daily basis during 9 months of the year. Sugarcane mill should work non-stop fueled by a continuous supply of harvested cane.
  • Planning for planting: accounting for topography, climate, soil fertility, production of seedlings, etc. Control over a planting efficiency of sugarcane is absolutely necessary to minimize multi-year crop losses. Gamaya has developed a solution to detect planting failures in sugarcane early on to minimize potential crop losses.
  • Synchronization between planting, harvesting and crushing: harvested, trucks, trailers and the mill.
  • The decision variables are the location of the fields, the speed of harvesting, the capacity of trailers and trucks, yield estimates and crop maturity, distance to the mill.
  • Management of multiple sugarcane varieties adds an additional dimension to this problem.

Environmental protection

Sugarcane production in Brazil is great for the population, as it helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but it can be harmful to the overall environment which may come back to bite the world in decades to come. Rainforests and plots of land need to get demolished to make way for sugarcane farms in Brazil and across the world, which has an opportunity cost to it.

In addition, pollution goes up as sugarcane production goes up, and there are organizations who are looking to challenge the status quo when it comes to upping production of sugarcane, due to the negative impacts it has on the environment.