Pest threatens Brazil's Sao Paulo cane fields

SAO PAULO (Reuters) - A new pest in Brazil’s largest sugar cane growing state, Sao Paulo, could cause annual crop losses of up to $245 million, if it spreads as expected, a leading sugar cane research center said on Tuesday.

A worker cuts sugar cane for raw sugar and ethanol fuel production on the property of the Sao Martinho mill in Pradopolis, about 300 kms (186 miles) northwest of Sao Paulo July 6, 2007. REUTERS/Rickey Rogers

The giant cane borer (Telchin licus), which is common in Brazil’s northeastern states, was spotted for the first time in Sao Paulo last July, in the Limeira area and “has disseminated,” the Sugar Cane Technology Center said.

“As it is a new plague in the center-south, combative methods have not yet been developed,” said Enrico De Beni Arrigoni, technological research coordinator at the CTC.

“Chemical treatments have not shown any positive results,” he said, adding that in the Northeast, where the plague was identified for the first time in 1927, the only solution was to catch the insects manually in the cane fields.

Sao Paulo accounts for about 60 percent of the national sugar cane crop and has the world’s highest productivity. The current crop is estimated at around 340 million to 350 million tonnes.

The insect larvae can reach up to 8 centimeters (3 inches) and reduces cane yields significantly, Arrigoni said. The larvae bore holes, causing damage to the cane.

“After the infestations in the Limeira region, CTC draws a worrying picture for the ethanol and sugar sector in Sao Paulo,” CTC said in a statement.

Considering the planted area of around 4 million hectares (10 million acres) in the state, CTC projects crop losses could reach 400 million reais ($245 million) per year “just in Sao Paulo.”

“We do not know when the plague will arrive through the whole region, but there’s no way of impeding its spread. We don’t know if this would be fast,” Arrigoni said by telephone.

One branch of the studies to combat the giant cane borer is a genetically modified variety of sugar cane.

Arrigoni said the cane pest is restricted to Brazil and Guiana.

CTC is sponsored by 180 ethanol and sugar mills in Brazil’s center-south.

Reporting by Inae Riveras; Editing by Reese Ewing and Walter Bagley