Brazil Looks to Sweet Sorghum

Monsanto providing seed for off-season ethanol feedstock
By Holly Jessen | November 15, 2011

Every year, Brazilian sugarcane mills clear and replant about 1.7 million hectares (4.2 million acres) of cane. This year, some mills are planting sweet sorghum developed by Monsanto Co. in the off season. “This isn’t a replacement crop. It’s planted in addition to cane,” says Jose Carlos Carramate, business leader for CanaVialis, Monsanto's sugarcane breeding and technology program.

Sweet sorghum was planted in October and harvested as early as February, a time when sugarcane plants have low sucrose levels and produce little ethanol. Monsanto expects to sell enough sweet sorghum for about 20,000 hectares of the secondary ethanol feedstock in Brazil this year. That’s enough to produce about 80 MMly (21.1 MMgy) of ethanol.

The company is working with 20 sugarcane mills and will either sell the seeds or take a cut of the profits in exchange for seed, Carramate says. Some farmers have had difficulty planting the small sweet sorghum seeds. On the other hand, sugarcane mills can use the same equipment to crush and process sweet sorghum as they do for sugarcane.

A project to grow sorghum seed was first attempted in Brazil in 1980 but wasn’t considered successful due to low yields and sugar content. At that time, sugarcane was considered far more profitable for ethanol production. In 2004, Monsanto began a sorghum project for crossbreeding for biomass and sugar traits. In 2008, the company acquired CanaVialis, moving the work in Brazil even further forward. The company planted test areas and evaluation fields in 2010, says Urubatan Klink, sorghum breeding leader for Monsanto Brazil. The first harvest of those sweet sorghum acres began March 17, with the first Brazilian gallons of industrial-scale ethanol from sweet sorghum produced two days later. 

—Holly Jessen