Brazil introduces restrictions for sugarcane production

By Kris Bevill | September 15, 2009
Report posted Sept. 18, 2009, at 2:51 p.m. CST

On Sept. 17, Brazil President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva proposed a bill that, if passed, will greatly restrict land available for sugarcane farming and processing in the world's largest sugarcane-producing country. Promoted as an "unprecedented initiative," the bill would effectively make 92.5 percent of Brazilian land off-limits to the sugarcane industry. The bill was drafted in response to findings from the National Agro-Ecological Zoning for Sugarcane (ZAE Cana) study, which was the first study conducted in Brazil that incorporated economic and social considerations into its sustainability model.

Specifically, areas of native vegetation, as well as all protected lands in the Amazon, Pantanal and Upper Paraguay River Basin regions would be restricted from use. Expansion of sugarcane production plants would be limited to unrestricted areas that do not require irrigation and have slopes less than 12 percent, which would allow for mechanized harvesting and prevent the need for crop burning to clear the ground. Credit extension policies will favor expansion of sugarcane facilities to areas that consist of underused or degraded pasture land. Currently operating industrial facilities will be granted exemptions from the proposed policy changes.

According to the Brazilian government, the proposed criteria leave approximately 64 million hectares (158 million acres) available for sugarcane production. The sugarcane industry currently utilizes approximately 8.89 million hectares for sugarcane fields.

The Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association (UNICA) said while it supports the ZAE Cana concept, various aspects of the proposal demand greater analysis. The association said it was not allowed to review the full proposal prior to its release. One specific concern that UNICA has declared needs to be addressed involves defining the concept of food security, since sugarcane is used to produce both food and energy. "The proposed approach could lead to restrictions in growing sugarcane that would have the reverse effect in terms of food security, by restricting the production of additional sugar," the association stated.

While the association will continue to analyze the proposal, members welcome the restrictions on deforestation in protected areas and reiterate that UNICA's stance has historically argued there is no need to clear forests for sugarcane expansion. Total sugarcane production area currently occupies 2.4 percent of the country's arable land and only 1 percent of the land has been dedicated to ethanol production, according to UNICA. Of the 1 percent of arable land used for ethanol production, the country has benefited by supplying 50 percent of its fuel needs with domestically produced ethanol.