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Biofuel Impact on Brazilian Economy

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Energy pundit Amory Lovins (2005) notes in Winning the Oil Endgame: Innovation for Profits, Jobs and Security, an analysis of solutions  to petroleum dependence in the United States from an independent, transdisciplinary perspective that the nation of Brazil has fostered numerous incentives and benefits to ethanol fuel initiatives, which places it in stark contrast to the petroleum dependence of automobility among most industrialized nations.

            As the second largest producer of ethanol (as well as the world’s largest exporter), Brazil is considered to have the global leader in the biofuel industry, and the world’s first sustainable biofuels economy. 90% of the ethanol it produces is used for fuel. In 2006, ethanol production in Brazil amounted to 16.3 billion litres, which represents 33.3% of the world’s total ethanol production and 42% of the world’s ethanol fuel. (World Bank, 2008)

While some regard the fuel scenario of Brazil as some kind of anomaly, a queer paradigm of automobility that “could only happen in Brazil,” such a supposition overlooks the large amount of reforms that Brazil undertook in order to get to its current state. Brazil is not just the fifth largest country in the world in both geography and population, but it is also one of the ten largest economies in the world, a far cry from the ‘mere’ Portuguese colony it once was. As such, it is a technologically sophisticated and industrialized nation, whose current prosperity is a direct result of privatization and free trade reforms in the late 20th century. (CIA, 2008; Virtual Brazil, 2007)

            In this light, the adoption of ethanol as a primary fuel source within the nation has come to attain special significance to other industrialized nations such as the United States. This is the result of a consequent realization that petroleum dependence is not mutually inclusive of industrialization, and such nations have now begun to seek ways of implementing fuel policies and technologies intended to curtail dependence on environmentally damaging petroleum and foreign imports of increasingly expensive crude oil.


The Brazilian government began to promote ethanol fuel industries following the 1973 oil crisis of 1973. They guaranteed purchases by the state-owned oil company Petrobras, fixed the price of hydrous ethanol to 59% of the government price for gasoline and they gave low-interest loans for agro-industrial ethanol firms. The untaxed retail price of hydrous ethanol continues to be lower than that of gasoline and an approximate research budget of US$50 million has been allocated in Sao Paulo for developing improvements in sugarcane ethanol distillation. (Renewable Energy World, 2007)

            Dickerson (2005) notes that these developments were necessary to a country that was once entirely dependent on outside economies to fuel its automobiles, and that in the coming years, the country will be self-sufficient. What helped expedite this transition was the Pró-Álcool or Programa Nacional do Álcool, a nation-wide government financed program to phase out all fossil fuel-based energy sources in automobiles and replace them with ethanol.

The program made use of public subsidies and tax breaks to encourage increased sugar cane production and the construction of distilleries to convert them into ethanol. Automobile manufacturers were also encouraged to develop cars which ran on 100 percent alcohol. Additionally, it financed a massive distribution network to get ethanol to fuel stations and kept them at enticingly low prices. By the mid-1980s, the program helped reduce the number of cars running on gasoline by 10 million and subsequently reducing Brazil’s dependence on imported oil. (Dickerson, 2005)

Policy developments notwithstanding, certain technological and infrastructural considerations were key to the adoption of ethanol in Brazil: First, for adoption of ethanol as a fuel source to be possible, automobile technology – particularly engine design – had to be developed to operate on it. Second, it was necessary to implement a means of producing the ethanol supply that would power such vehicles.

Figure 1. Market share history of ethanol fueled cars in Brazil.

When the government made it mandatory to blend gasoline with 20-25% ethanol content, this necessitated some minor adjustments to the existing gasoline motors. Most of these adjustments were meant to support the characteristics of ethanol such as compression ratio, corrosive properties, the use of colder and more heat resistant spark plugs and the inclusion of an auxiliary gasoline-based cold-start system to aid engine starting in lower temperatures.

In 1976, the government demonstrated such modified vehicles to Brazilians in the form of a modified Volkswagen Beetle, Dodge and Gurgel and by the 1980s, every foreign and domestic automobile manufacturer in Brazil was producing ethanol only cars. (Luhnow & Samor, 2006)

After a brief period in which petroleum prices had depreciated to a point as to make gasoline automobiles attractive again, 2003 saw local car manufacturers begin to develop full flexible-fuel vehicles which can operate on any proportion of gasoline and ethanol. Such cars are primarily aided by a computer device which enables an automobile to adjust its engine configuration according to the mixture of ethanol and gasoline in the tank (Lemos, 2007; Associated Press, 2004; Luhnow & Samor, 2006)

Production of ethanol in Brazil benefited not only from the economies of scale that resulted from the above mentioned policy initiatives but from the use of high-pressure boilers which allowed the simultaneous generation of electricity. Additionally, because sugar cane is an abundant crop within in the agriculture of Brazil, it was possible to allocate 3 million hectares of land which would yield the feedstock necessary to produce 4.2 billion gallons of ethanol annually. (Diaz, 2007)

Luhnow & Samor (2006) note that improvements to the distillation of ethanol from sugar cane have also made ethanol more attractive to Brazilians over the years. Not only is the residual cane-waste used for heat and power the sugar and ethanol plants, but the industrial waste produced is used to fertilize sugar fields. The result is that in the span of thirty years, Brazil has managed to triple the number of gallons of ethanol it can produce from each hectare of sugar cane.

Additionally, there are no longer light vehicles operating on pure gasoline as it is now mandatory for gasoline to be blended with ethanol. In 2006, between the ubiquity of flex-fuel vehicles and ethanol fuel use mandates, 40% of fuel consumption was derived from sugar cane-based ethanol comprising 20% of total fuel consumption (accounting for trucks and other such diesel vehicles). (Ministério de Minas e Energia do Brasil, 2007; Shurtleff, 2008)


Isaias, et al. (2004) note that because fossil fuels are used in the production of ethanol, the consequent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions must be evaluated in relation to those produced by such processes (i.e. fertilizers, sulfuric acid, electricity) used to produce in the first place. As such, ethanol can only be considered a clean and renewable fuel alternative to the extent that the aforementioned production-related emissions do not eclipse the reduction in emissions.

However, they concluded that the production of anhydrous ethanol has an increased greenhouse gas savings of 43 percent when compared to hydrous ethanol. Furthermore, they posit that in a scenario in which Brazilian ethanol fuel consumption is around 12 million cubic meters per year with equal shares of anhydrous and hydrous ethanol, an estimated 7 million tons of carbon emissions would be saved per year. (Isaias, et. al, 2004)

Also, in a recent study regarding the conversion of forest and grassland into new farmlands, a team of researchers led by Timothy Searchinger (2008) calculated that greenhouse emissions have doubled due to the rapid change in patterns of land use incited by the growing ethanol industry. Because a substantial amount of grain production has been diverted towards the biofuel industry, farmers have converted grasslands and forests to compensate for this.

The study asserts that such a massive land-use change will double greenhouse gases over the next three decades, and it would take close to two centuries to pay back the carbon losses incurred from the soil, though the figures would be lower if switchgrass feedstock replaces corn to produce cellulosic ethanol. (Searchinger, et al., 2008)

It is important to note that the study does not assert that the production of corn ethanol increases greenhouse emissions. Rather, the findings suggest that land use changes in the magnitude of six times the current production incur costs that would need to be paid back. Therefore it would be unwise to dismiss ethanol as merely the political tool of conglomerated agribusinesses with no interest in a clean, sustainable tomorrow. (Searchinger, et al., 2008)

In another study led by Joseph Fargione (2008), the direct impact of land clearing for biofuel crops is examined. Whereas Searchinger and his team focused on land use and conversion in the wake of food production displacement, Fargione and his team examine the costs of claiming new lands for the growth of biofuel feedstock. They note that the conversion of rainforests, savannas, peatlands and grasslands create a carbon debt by releasing about 420 times more carbon dioxide than is compensated for by replacing fossil fules with biofuels. The study declares that biofuels made from waste biomass or perennials incur drastically smaller carbon debts that give them a sustainable greenhouse gas advantage. They are therefore, much more desirable.

Alex Steffen (2006) notes that any environmentally minded solution should take into account “not the natural capital we currently have, but the smaller pool of capital” that will be present once any change actually takes effect. In essence, Steffen’s argument suggests that the development of sustainable solutions will require the same kinds of resource consumption that non-sustainability does, and that the future relies on having the courage to make such wagers. The environmental costs of land use conversion are therefore not the cause for alarm that ethanol opponents make them out to be.

            Many mainstream publications have taken reports like those of the Searchinger and Fargione’s study and reduced them into a general condemnation of the viability of ethanol as an environmentally friendly fuel alternative. The New York Times reported on the Searchinger study with the headline “Biofuels Deemed A Greenhouse Threat”. This headline oversimplifies the study, though to the Times’ credit, it also notes that Nicholas Nuttall, a spokesman for the United Nations Environment Program maintained support for biofuels. Nuttall framed the issue by stating that biofuel solutions require a well-developed set of sustainability criteria, rather than being treated as the “silver bullet of climate change” that is all too easy for opponents to find fault with. (Rosenthal, 2008)

Cellulosic ethanol is also being touted as an increasingly brighter possibility for the ethanol future. Evan Ratliff points out that the fundamental obstacle facing the adoption of cellulosic ethanol is the difficulty of producing it at a commercially feasible cost. This is because cellulose is a notoriously difficult molecule to break down. The natural processes of breaking down cellulose into the simple sugars necessary to distill ethanol that exist in bacteria and herbivorous animals are difficult to replicate. However, Ratliff endorses its potential because of its abundance, its dramatically better energy yield and the ability to produce it from non-food crops. (Ratliff, 2007)

The short word on all this is that ethanol still has a sustainable future in and out of Brazil, land use costs notwithstanding. Fan (2007) reports that the maturation of cellulosic technologies is taking cellulosic-based ethanol in a direction towards its increasing economic viability. “By 2012, if the cost-cutting trend continues, the cost of producing ethanol via cellulosic technologies could slip to a cost-effective $1 per gallon.”


The re-engineering of agriculture and fuel industries to accommodate for the adoption of ethanol fuel has resulted in significant social impacts. Although the ethanol industry has lead to the creation of hundreds of thousands of new jobs in rural areas, some of these jobs entail adverse working conditions such as long twelve hour shifts, exhausting temperatures for low pay, while residing in squalid rent houses at high prices. (La Rovere, 2006; World Bank, 2008; Phillips, 2007).

Kenfield (2007) asserts that the Brazilian ethanol industry, by virtue of its very dependence on sugarcane merely intensifies many of the socio-economic dynamics of sugarcane production that have dated back to the colonial times. Because of the increasing demands placed upon an industry dependent on slave labor, the individual sugar cutter is under greater pressure to cut more daily tons than ever. Gröna Bilister (2006) noted that harvesting sugar cane is also seasonal work, and as leave many without work after harvesting. The work is also hazardous insofar as unburned cane hides snakes and other perils.

The Economist’s Ribeirão Preto (2008) notes, “The Brazilian labor ministry sometimes uncovers cases where workers are paid almost nothing and live in squalid conditions. Cane-cutting is back-breaking work, and every year some people die during the harvest,” but he also contends that the sugar industry is less hazardous than other sectors of Brazilian agriculture. Also, the increasing mechanization of cane-cutting is putting many of these laborers out of work. As such “the most noticeable thing about cane-cutting labourers is how fast they are disappearing.” Concerns are that while the industry may be ‘safer’ it will leave a vast number of unskilled workers out of work.

Also, the explosion of demand has merely increased multinational agribusiness interest in the sugarcane industry which has resulted in a larger ownership concentration. Multinational agribusiness corporations are buying out the smaller companies, seeing them as prime investments in a national industry with one of the lowest costs of production in the world. The conversion of vast swathes of land to areas allocated for sugarcane growth also creates a monoculture that not only damages the environment by initiating land use changes that threaten biodiversity, but create an economic dependence on the crop for work and income thereby impeding job diversity.  (Kensfield, 2007)


With a 2007 export volume of 933.4 million gallons, Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of ethanol, and as such, relies heavily foreign demand from nations such as Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden and South Korea for its global export revenues. (Gröna Bilister, 2006) Some countries within the Caribbean Basin import ethanol as well, but not much of it is used for local consumption. Rather, they convert into anhydrous ethanol that is subsequently exported to the United States, enjoying the revenue of a value-added product as well as avoiding the tariffs placed on Brazilian ethanol.

The United States is the largest market for exports of Brazilian ethanol. In 2006, exports of Brazilian ethanol to the United States reached a total of US$ 1 billion. This figure is an insanely dramatic increase over 2005 export revenue of US$ 98 million but fell significantly in 2007 due to sharp increases in corn-based ethanol production. It has the potential to be larger, but it currently imposes trade restrictions in the form of tariff set to 54 cents per gallon, primarily with the intent to encourage domestic production of ethanol. However, production of corn-based ethanol is wildly inefficient when compared to that of sugar cane based ethanol, let alone the emerging ethanol production technologies utilizing cellulosic feedstock. In any case, there are concers that by reducing or eliminating tariffs on Brazilian ethanol, the (Preto, 2008)

Additionally, concerns regarding the relationship of ethanol industries such as those of Brazil’s with the soaring cost of food and fuels. Some have chosen to attribute these price inflations directly to biofuel production. There is a certain degree of substance to this argument. John Vidal (2007) notes that while food riots and starvation in areas ranging from Mexico to the Philippines are a direct result of the soaring prices of bread, corn, dairy and rice, this is far less a result of failure within the agricultural system and its distribution networks as it is the indirect impact of disastrous climatological conditions brought about by climate change. However, also impacting the situation is the rising cost of fuel.

            Sustainability journalist Sarah Rich (2006) notes that one part of the problem is that agriculture, regardless of whether it is organic or not, consumes a vast amount of fossil fuels merely from shipping it across the world. A conventionally grown apple from a nearby orchard, she argues, consumes far less fossil fuels than one that is organically grown and shipped all the way to the United States from a New Zealand farm. Therefore, while organic produce may help assuage concerns regarding health, they also have economic effects that are frequently overlooked. It follows then that the rising price of fossil fuels directly affects the costs of industrial agriculture and the exponential increase in the production of corn or sugar cane to meet the demands of both the food supply and the biofuel industry results in even greater prices for fossil fuels.

Heinberg (2007) notes that fossil fuels saw widespread use in the production of ammonia-based fertilizers across the planet not long into the 20th century. Today, a total of 150 million tons of ammonia-based fertilizers is manufacture to sustain modern agriculture, a number that is still growing. This, combined with the invention of the internal combustion engine shifted tilling of methods away from horses towards horsepower, while the development of synthetic pesticides and herbicides following World War II increased agriculture’s dependence on petrochemical resources. Heinberg opines, “The world began to enjoy the benefits of “better living through chemistry,” though the environmental costs, in terms of water and soil pollution and damage to vulnerable species, would only later become widely apparent.”

Additionally, the dependence of industrial agriculture upon fossil fuels is massively inefficient. The extents of disproportion are such that, as Pimentel (1994) argues, ten calories of fossil fuel energy are needed to produce each calorie of food energy in modern industrial agriculture. Thus, globalized food distribution, combined with industrial agriculture is an economically unsustainable model of development. In this context, it comes as no surprise then that, as a result of an exponentially increasing intensity of use, oil prices should increase. The result of these higher oil prices is an increase in the operating costs of industrialized agriculture, which requires massive amounts of fuel to power tractors, produce agricultural chemicals and transport its inputs and outputs.

Sustainability consultant Alan Atkisson doesn’t hold much stock into the ethanol future. A stronger proponent of hybridized electric automobiles, Atkisson muses that, between recent concerns regarding corn-based ethanol production’s effects on the food supply, he worries that his concern for climate change threatens the food security of others. His concerns are not unfounded. The UN Environment Program declared that Earth’s environment, including animal and fish stocks, were all in “inexorable decline.” 57 nations have been hit by catastrophic floods, while harvests in South Asia, China, Europe, Mozambique, Sudan and Uruguay have been affected by drought and heatwaves. The result of these food crises is massive food price inflations, and many nations are struggling to keep things in order with price controls.

This is not just a result of the rising cost of fossil fuel inputs in industrialized agriculture but the massive expansion of biofuel production. Farmers are increasingly looking at biofuels as a prospect for wealth due to their extreme profitability. In a cover story for TIME Magazine, Michael Grunwald observes that the diversion of grain-based agriculture from the food supply and towards the production of fuel means that biofuels like ethanol are imposing dramatic impacts upon the costs of maintaining food supply for both the world’s hungry and the world’s well fed, noting that “the grain it takes to fill an SUV tank could feed a person for a year.”

Alexei Barrionuevo, a reporter for The New York Times, notes that because the manufacture of corn-based ethanol requires grain from the existing food supply, production of the biofuel has a direct affect on the price of food around the country. “Ethanol has raised the incomes of farmers” and “given new hope to flagging rural economies” but the result is a major impact on the cost of food. Thus, while corn experiences the most dramatic impact, sugar cane is affected as well. This is an important point to consider, as the pricing effects of corn have an impact on a vast number of food commodities. Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute said, “This unprecedented diversion of corn to fuel production will affect food prices everywhere.” As such, the production of corn-based ethanol must be approached with caution.

Not that industrial grain-based agribusinesses are worried. Sustainable farmer Tom Philpott supports distrust of the uncritical embrace of ethanol, based on the same premise: that it benefits to industrialized agribusiness. In recent years, much attention has been accorded towards sugar cane as an alternative feedstock for ethanol, the production of sugarcane-based ethanol, however, still favors ADM. Philpott notes that because Archer Daniels Midland’s ability to sell high fructose corn syrup depends upon how their prices compete with sugar, ADM lobbied against foreign sugar imports ostensibly to protect local sugar.

But such lobbying also ensured that the price of local sugar remained at an inflated price. Increased production of sugarcane-based ethanol in countries such as Brazil, combined with sugar quotas ensure that local prices of sugar continue to inflate. ADM benefits because demand for high fructose corn syrup remains high, regardless of price and as a result they are able to charge more for without fearing that sweetener-dependent companies will retaliate by switching to sugar.

There are environmental effects to consider as well. Manning notes that the homogenous and unsustainable approach of industrialized agriculture is detrimental to the health of the soil which means that massive conversion of lands towards the production of corn could recreate the conditions of The Great Dust Bowl, a period in the American heartland which saw hundreds of thousands of would-be wheat farmers plow the soil to death to profit from golden grain. Environmental investment expert Mindy Lubber agrees, and notes that expanding production of feedstock for biofuels like ethanol, combined with government subsidies, means that parallels exist between the ethanol boom and the Dust Bowl. She argues that emerging observations about biofuel production and its effect on food prices are a revelation on how poorly-conceived government subsidies fail to take into account long-term sustainability measures, and are basically failed good intentions. The result is that regardless of whether agriculture is used to feed people or fuel cars, its massive expansion has potentially disastrous effects on future food production. These issues and concerns are of increasing relevance to Brazil.

But in light of this and similar revelations about these matters, Atkisson makes the optimistic claim that by exposing some of the shortcomings that comes with the uncritical and thoughtless establishment of biofuel and ethanol industries and production practices, it will encourage us to rethink our patterns of consumption that are efficient and rethinking the ways in which we exercise our options for mobility.

More importantly, an increasing awareness of the interconnectedness between food and fuel will most definitely force us to re-evaluate existing models of production necessary to supply the resources required to support human civilization, not just in terms of food security but in terms of sustainability as well.


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