By Daryl James, Thunderbird Magazine editor
Decades before a massive oil discovery off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil turned its attention to the power of sugarcane. Today the developing nation consumes more ethanol than petroleum. Thunderbird School of Global Management Professor John Zerio, Ph.D., led a group of MBA students to Brazil in January 2011 to see the biofuel revolution firsthand. This five-part Brazil Winterim series follows the students on their journey to the plantations, mills and research centers driving alternative fuel innovation.
Chapter 3: Doing More with Less
All the sugarcane fields surrounding the Cane Technology Center in Piracicaba look about the same as Thunderbird students arrive with Zerio for a site visit on Jan. 13, 2011. But chemical engineer Jaime Finguerut sees important differences.
His for-profit center about two hours north of Sao Paulo develops sugarcane varieties for domestic growers, and each experimental field represents different innovation.
“The domestication process is not new,” Finguerut tells the students gathered in the center’s main auditorium. “After more than one thousand years of selection and crossing, we have a complex hybrid grass somewhat like Frankenstein’s creation.”
Even before the Portuguese arrived in the 1500s, people realized sugarcane was tasty and began crossing the sweetest varieties with other grasses suitable for different regions.
Finguerut says the process continues today in a race to maximize production and reduce costs. “We have to produce more sugarcane in the same area,” he says. “The only way to produce more or to decrease the cost is to produce with new varieties.”
He says different varieties thrive in different regions, and finding the right type for each location allows growers to save on fertilizer, water and other costs. Different varieties also mature at different times, which allows growers to extend the harvest season.
“Sugarcane has to be processed fresh and very fast,” Finguerut says. “You cannot store sugarcane because it contains very edible sugar that everyone loves — including bacteria, fungus and insects.”
He says Brazil provides an ideal climate for the crop, which requires months of heavy rain followed by a dry harvest season. But even within Brazil, conditions vary.
“Even in a 20-kilometer radius around the processing site, we have different types of soil, different types of water availability and different types of pests,” he says. “Sugarcane has to be adapted to these stresses.”
|Quest for Sugarcane Variety: Jaime Finguerut of the Sugarcane Technology Center (CTC) talks Jan. 13, 2011, during Thunderbird School of Global Management’s Brazil Winterim. View the video on YouTube or on China’s www.tudou.com (3:13).||Evolution of Brazilian Sugarcane: Jaime Finguerut of the Sugarcane Technology Center (CTC) in Sao Paulo state talks Jan. 13, 2011, during Thunderbird School of Global Management’s Brazil Winterim. View the video on YouTube or on China’s www.tudou.com (2:38).|
|Sustainability at Wal-Mart Brazil: Julia Noble, a Wal-Mart sustainability director in Sao Paulo, talks Jan. 10, 2011, during the Thunderbird School of Global Management Brazil Winterim. View the video on YouTube or on China’s www.tudou.com (2:01).||Thunderbird Brazil Winterim: Narrator Marcela Cubas shows the sights and sounds of the 2011 Thunderbird Brazil Winterim with Professor John Zerio, Ph.D. View the video on YouTube or on China’s www.tudou.com (3:59).|