RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Brazil has abundant farmland available to plant sugar cane to satisfy surging world demand for biofuels without damaging the environment, a leading ethanol expert said on Monday.
“There’s no need to cut a single tree in the Amazon rainforest either to grow food or produce ethanol,” Roberto Rodrigues, Brazilian coordinator of the Inter-American Ethanol Commission, told a workshop on agroenergy’s environmental impact.
A former agriculture minister who now heads the agribusiness center of the Getulio Vargas think-tank, Rodrigues said Brazil had some 220 million hectares of livestock land.
It included 90 million ha of degraded pasture which could be used for crops with 20 million ha for sugar cane.
He said that sugar cane occupied only 6 million ha of the 62 million ha of Brazil’s cultivated farmland. Roughly half the cane area is used to produce ethanol and the rest for sugar.
Environmental groups are concerned that a huge expansion in Brazilian sugar cane planting to produce ethanol would result in forests being cut down and Savannah cleared.
They are worried that rivers and water supplies will be contaminated by massive additional use of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides.
They also say it will increase air pollution due to the practice of burning cane fields before manual harvesting so as to clear undergrowth and pests.
“It’s absolutely false to say that Brazilian food production will fall with an increase in ethanol output,” Rodrigues said. As for the Amazon, he said the climate in the region was generally unsuitable for growing sugar cane.
But Rodrigues said Brazil needed a strategic ethanol policy to cover issues such as zoning of agricultural farmland to ensure that sugar cane is planted in suitable areas.
Cane burning, water supplies, ethanol credits, production mix, logistics, labor and social issues also needed to be examined, he said noting that eight government ministries were involved with ethanol but only the agriculture ministry had drafted a national plan.
Brazil is the world’s cheapest producer of ethanol and is competitive when oil is above $37 a barrel, he said. Oil was trading around $63 a barrel on Monday.
Brazil is the world’s biggest producer and exporter of cane-based ethanol with output of 17.6 billion liters in 2006/07 (May/April).
In Brazil, agroenergy covers the production of ethanol from sugar cane and from wood and plant cellulose. It also includes biodiesel from oilseeds.