With the modern western diet, sugar cane has become a central crop. Used to produce sugar and molasses, cane is also the basis for rum, cachaça, and other edibles. In Brazil, sugar cane is huge – boosting the country to the position of top sugar cane producer worldwide. The focus on biofuels such as ethanol has further boosted cane growing. Even cane wastes are used for bagasse, fibre weaving, and more.
Sugar cane includes several related grass species that are native to southern areas of Asia. It is now a common crop across most subtropical and tropical countries. All sugar cane species share several key characteristics including rapid growth and a thick stalk filled with sucrose-thick sap. Once the cane is grown and harvested, the stalks are juiced. The resulting sap is boiled to remove the water, so the remaining sugar can be crystallized.
But change is on the horizon in Brazil. A new emphasis on the environmental costs of the cane industry are forcing some major modifications. Globally, manual harvesting is the most common approach. The first step uses controlled burning to remove vegetation. Cutters wielding sharp knives or machetes then harvest the remaining green stalks. The immediate result of burning is thick black smoke, which has proven to be both a health hazard and source of emissions. Responding to changing environmental values, the Brazilian government has announced that burning cane will be phased out over the next decade.
While this is promising for air quality and overall emissions, controlled burning is part of the hands-on approach. It is being phased out in favour of mechanization. This trend has picked up steam over the past several years, with machines offering a cheaper option. A single harvester takes the place of 90 manual cutters.
On the smaller scale, the changes will have enormous impact. People who work as manual sugar cane cutters come from all over the country. Working seasonally in cane fields provides a valuable income for communities with few other economic opportunities. Areas like Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais grow 70% of the country’s cane crop. Most of their cane cutters come from other states, particularly the northeast. It is unclear what employment alternatives will be available.
Photo credit: Breno Castro Alves
Hilary Feldman is a freelance writer based in Vancouver, B.C. She writes for parenting, popular science, and environmental publications - combining her interests in protecting the world's diversity for future generations. She has ...