The Movement to Mechanized Sugarcane Harvesting in Brazil

Joanna Schroeder

I recently had the opportunity to go to Brazil to learn more about the sugarcane ethanol industry. While there, I also learned about several agricultural initiatives, including the country’s move to mechanized sugarcane harvesting. In the past, the sugarcane was harvested through what is widely known as slash and burn. Not only is this harmful to the environment, but not an economically sound approach.

In Brazil, sugarcane accounts for 8.14 million hectares of land or 2.5 percent of the arable land. Of that 2.5 percent, 1.5 percent is sugarcane for ethanol, while 48.1 percent of the country’s arable land is used for pasture for cattle. It is interesting to note that 87 percent of sugarcane production is in the state of Sao Paulo – no where near the Amazon Rain Forest.

This year the industry harvested 471.5 million tons, an increase of 7.5 percent from last year, even accounting for excessive rains that left a significant amount of sugarcane in the fields. So how many people does it take to harvest that much cane? The industry employs 850,000, of that 550,000 are cane cutters.

However, this is rapidly changing with the new mechanized harvest, spurred in part by the Green Protocol in Sao Paulo State. This protocol is an agreement between UNICA, the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association, and the Sao Paulo state government, to end sugarcane straw burning by 2014. By the 2008/09 harvest year, 49 percent of the harvest was mechanized.

I was able to see a mechanized harvest when I visited, along with 19 other international journalists, a sugarcane field in Ribeirao Preto. The fields were being harvested for sugarcane delivery to Pedra Agroindustrial sugar/ethanol mill. While the state average of mechanized harvesting is 48 percent, 77 percent of Pedra Agroindustrial’s fields were mechanically harvested. Unlike the corn ethanol industry, a large portion of land is owned by the sugar mill and the remainder of the sugarcane is purchased from farmers and suppliers. Here is a brief harvest video.

While mechanized harvesting is good news for the economic vitality of a mill as well as the environment, it is not good news for cane cutters. Therefore, to address the loss of jobs issue, the renovAcao program was developed to retrain 7,000 cane cutters to work in the sugar mills and ethnol plants as well as to work in other industries. The coordinators of the program are UNICA and Feraesp; Syngenta, John Deere and Case IH are sponsors; and funding comes from the Inter American Development Bank.

Interested in seeing more of my trip? Check out my virtual tour here.

Equipment, Ethanol, Farm Machinery, Video