Trade, biotechnology, biofuels, ethics: some issues that the sugar industry is thinking about

Having more or less recovered from the flu mentioned in Sarah’s blog entry of 22nd November (no, I wasn’t complaining I was dying — quite the opposite; I kept expecting to be fully recovered the next day and then finding I wasn’t), I went last week to the International Sugar Organization’s annual international seminar (see the ISO events page) in London, featuring two days of presentations about subjects related to the economics of the sugar industry. This was more interesting than you might think for a non-economist like me — many different subjects affect or are affected by economics, and even the presentation about the changing face of sugar futures trading was quite well-explained.

Quite a lot was said about the ongoing process of reforming the European Union sugar regime and the consequences of this; on the other hand Dr. Peter Baron, the ISO’s executive director, said in his introduction that the Doha round of the World Trade Organization negotiations were not on the programme because they were effectively moribund.

Duane Grant, a sugarbeet grower from Idaho, USA, and member of the Sugar Industry Biotech Council, gave an enthusiastic presentation about genetically modified beet and cane. GM cane is being studied in various countries, but is not yet grown commercially. Commercial planting in the USA of GM beet resistant to the herbicide glyphosate began in 2006; based on experience on the speaker’s own farm, he argued that there were considerable advantages to the environment (e.g. less cultivation, less herbicide use) as well as the farmer. Some of the questions expressed concern about consumer resistance (not very significant in the USA, apparently). One questioner from Kenya asked about the problem of farmers becoming dependent on seed companies, but apparently beet farmers in the USA buy in seed every year anyway.

Production of ethanol for fuel has become an important aspect of the sugar industry in recent years as interest in biofuels has increased, and there were several presentations on the subject. Paulo Roberto de Souza of the International Ethanol Trade Association (based in Brazil, which has the world’s largest sugarcane-based ethanol industry) expected continued steady growth and expanded international trade, with current first-generation ethanol production forming a necessary bridge to second-generation production from cellulosic waste material. Eduardo Carvalho from ETH Bioenergy, also in Brazil, was also very upbeat about the development of the Brazilian ethanol industry so far, its future prospects, and the potential for other non-food uses of sugarcane products.

Dirk Dens of Ford gave a car maker’s view of  ethanol fuel. He agreed that there were many challenges to the achievement of sustainability by the car industry, and argued that there was no one single solution and that biofuels were one important way towards a solution (he didn’t mention reduction in unnecessary car use, which in my view is part, although not the whole, of the answer). Ford aim to produce a flex-fuel version, capable of using any ratio of petrol and ethanol, of all their models, and these are already beginning to be popular in Sweden where the government plans for the country to be free of dependence on oil by 2020.

The issue of competition for land and resources between food and fuel received a few mentions, and one presentation by Josef Schmidhuber of FAO. According to his calculations, there is plenty of land in the world (in particular in Brazil and parts of Africa) for growing more sugarcane, and plenty of scope for yield increases, enabling a significant proportion of the world’s energy to be produced from this source without encroaching on any forests or any protected areas. The sugar industry representatives were pleased to hear this, but I get the impression that not everyone in FAO agrees with him.

Many participants seemed to be conscious of the need to think about environmental sustainability and the welfare of people working in the sugar industry, especially (but not only) because some of their customers now expect this. Several questions to speakers were on these issues, and some speakers mentioned them unprompted. The longest mention was by Eduardo Carvalho in response to a question from David Willers, Project Manager of the Better Sugarcane Initiative; he gave a robust defence of the Brazilian industry’s environmental and employee welfare record, saying that it was in their interest to be sustainable and to be good employers, without complaints from others whom he suspected of being motivated by protectionism.

Many of the issues discussed at this conference are well covered by CABI’s abstracts database subsets, including Sugar Industry Abstracts, Biofuels Abstracts and World Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology Abstracts. Subscribers to CAB Abstracts, the database from which the more specific products are derived, already have access to a wide range of records, and this book discusses in detail the environmental issues around the growing and processing of sugar crops. Not only that, but CABI’s Chief Executive Officer Trevor Nicholls also discusses some of the issues to do with biofuels in a recent article on the CABI website.

2 thoughts on “Trade, biotechnology, biofuels, ethics: some issues that the sugar industry is thinking about

  1. Thiago Prado April 20, 2008 / 11:25 pm

    I think sugar cane is the best raw material to produce ethanol currently. It doesn’t affect the price of the food and it’s very good for the enviroment.
    Brazil is investing a lot of money in research to improve the use of the sugar to produce ethanol.

  2. biofuel forum June 17, 2008 / 4:55 am

    Sugar cane may well be the best crop for biofuel. Lots of money is going into algae too though…

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