Posts tagged with: Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association

Blog author: lglinzak
posted by on Thursday, July 7, 2011

Political news changes quickly, and now reports are coming out of Washington DC that Senator Dianne Feinstein, who has been leading the way in killing the ethanol subsidy and tariff, has struck a deal with Senators Amy Klobuchar and John Thune, two stalwarts for protecting ethanol. While the rumored deal does not indicate the repeal of the blending mandate it is a step in the right direction.

However, while we wait on Congress and the President for action, the Brazilian ethanol industry is eying the U.S. ethanol market. Repealing the tariff will allow Brazil to expand its ethanol industry. Many questions need to be answered before ethanol is imported into the U.S. from Brazil.

In a previous post I posed concerns about whether ethanol can meet both U.S. and Brazilian demands. Furthermore, what are the environmental consequences of ethanol? Reports are showing deforestation in the rainforest. Finally, what will happen to food prices?

It is unfortunate that there are even more questions that need to be answered.

Like the corn based ethanol in the U.S., Brazil’s sugar based ethanol is a false market created by the government. Brazil doesn’t subsidize ethanol; instead it resorts to high taxes. Brazilian gasoline taxes are at 53 percent while the tax placed on ethanol is much lower making ethanol cheaper than gasoline. The question is how long can an industry last and actually be sustainable when it is propped up by the government and is a false market?

It is also important to note that the Brazilian ethanol industry needs a large sum of new investment, about $80 billion worth in the next ten years, to meet global demand. In an industry that is heavily dependent on the government one must wonder, who will pay for these new investments?

Another potential hazard of relying on ethanol is crop shortages. Such crop shortages may occur for a variety of reasons, one of which is out of our control: the weather. What happens when fuel relies on crops, and there is actually a shortage in the harvest? How much of the crop goes to fuel and how much goes to the food supply? Both are important. Food nourishes, however, fuel gets people to their jobs where they earn a salary which they use to purchase food. Brazil may be forced to answer these questions this year as sugarcane production is currently down 25 percent as compared to last year. The lack of production is due to bad weather and aging plants.

However, because of the lack of production sugar prices are on the rise as they saw a 14 percent surge in June. While some are sounding the alarm, other analysts are remaining calm, such as Eli Mamoun Amrouk of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization:

El Mamoun Amrouk, sugar analyst at the Rome-based FAO, said: “It’s difficult to predict exactly what’s going to happen to the sugar price because the market’s so volatile and so any new information can have a big effect on price. The speculation is still there, exacerbating the trend and changes in the dollar also play a part.

“But the signs are that production is growing significantly and, especially in India and Thailand, the prospects are very positive, so we should see the price start coming down in the summer,” he said.

Whether sugar prices do come down or not, we still face a critical question. If we continue to pursue an energy plan based on biofuels, what happens when we do face a shortage in crop production? The world will be faced with not just rising food prices but also with rising fuel prices. How do people in developed countries, who already have a difficult time affording food, feed themselves when the food supply is actually going into the fuel supply?

Ethanol subsidies, once considered a sacred cow, are facing the possibility of being axed from the budget. The Senate cast a deciding vote, 73-27 in repealing the 45 cent per gallon subsidy to refiners for blending gasoline with ethanol, and the 54 cent per gallon tariff on imported ethanol.

Cutting the ethanol subsidy and repealing the tariff still face an uphill battle as it must pass the house and get the signature of President Obama, who has vowed not to fully repeal the subsidy. Supporters of ethanol are fighting harder to preserve the subsidy and tariff, and are now issuing claims that the ethanol subsidy keeps gas prices lower than what they would be if the subsidy wasn’t in place.

Iowa State University released a study arguing that ethanol has helped suppress gasoline prices. It is of no surprise that supporters of the ethanol subsidy and tariff have embraced the study by Iowa State University with open arms and are using it to add weight to their position.

Unfortunately for supporters of the ethanol subsidy, the Institute for Energy Research, released its own study debunking the arguments from Iowa State. While the Institute for Energy Research admits that removing the ethanol subsidy will result in a short-term spike in gasoline prices, they argue that in the long run consumers are better off without the ethanol subsidy–ideally the country would’ve been better off if the subsidy had never existed.

Those who claim that removing the ethanol subsidy and tariff will increase gasoline prices also fail to acknowledge principles of basic market economics. By removing the tariff, the United States is able to import cheaper ethanol from countries like Brazil, which produce the cheaper sugar-based ethanol, thus making ethanol more affordable for consumers. As a result, the market adds a product to compete with gasoline, and through competition, may drive the price of gasoline lower.

The concept of competition driving down prices is explained by Joel Velasco, former chief representative in North America for the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association. Velasco argues that competition between corn and sugarcane ethanol will benefit consumers. The principle of competition found in his argument can be applied to competition between gasoline and ethanol as well.

While it may seem like ethanol from Brazil is a perfect solution, there are unintended consequences that must be weighed. Ecology professor at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, Luiz Martinelli, warns of the many problems with Brazilian ethanol in an article published in the Cornell Daily Sun. Martinelli explains that ethanol production pollutes the environment and results cause serious problems:

Ethanol production fosters deforestation in Brazil. Sugarcane needs a well-defined drought season to concentrate sugars in the cane stalk, making the wetter Amazon region less than ideal for growth. Consequently, growers convert increasing areas of land in the transitional area between the cerrado grasslands and the Amazon forests to sugarcane. As a result, the increase may indirectly lead to deforestation as other crops, like soybean, are pushed into the Amazon.

“We don’t have much room for deforestation. If sugarcane causes 1,000 of squared kilometers of deforestation, we’ve set off any savings [of avoided carbon emissions] that we have saved,” emphasized Martinelli.

Such unintended consequences were also articulated by Ray Nothstine on the PowerBlog in 2007 as religious leaders began to express alarm about increasing ethanol production:

Religious leaders are speaking out. In March, Roman Catholic bishops in Brazil warned that a rapid increase in ethanol production based on sugar cane could lead to widespread deforestation, massive relocation of workers and their communities, and harsh working conditions for cane cutters. Analysts predict that Brazil, the world’s largest exporter of ethanol, may increase ethanol production as much as 40 percent in the next four years. “We are going to turn the country into a huge cane (plantation),” said Cardinal Geraldo Majella Agnelo. In Colombia, Christian aid organizations say armed groups are driving peasants off their lands to make way for plantations of palm oil, another biofuel. Acreage dedicated to production of the palm oil tree has more than doubled in the last four years.

Nothstine later explains in “‘Big Corn’ and Unintended Consequences” how corn ethanol will increase food prices, is more costly to produce and transport, and has pollution problems.

If ethanol made from sugarcane gains traction in the United States and other countries, the same questions that have been raised by corn ethanol must also be asked when it comes to sugar-based ethanol. Will we have a problem with unintended consequences? Will sugar ethanol contribute to rising food prices in a manner similar to that of corn ethanol? What effects will sugar ethanol have on the environment, and what are the impacts of deforestation?