Sweet Fuel: The Remarkable Story of Brazilian Ethanol

About this Episode

Guests
Jennifer Eaglin

As the hazards of carbon emissions increase and governments around the world seek to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, the search for clean and affordable alternate energies has become an increasing priority in the twenty-first century. However, one nation has already been producing such a fuel for almost a century: Brazil. Its sugarcane-based ethanol is the most efficient biofuel on the global fuel market, and the South American nation is the largest biofuel exporter in the world.

In this talk, Jennifer Eaglin discusses her new book and offers a historical account of the industry's origins. The Brazilian government mandated a mixture of ethanol in the national fuel supply in the 1930s, and the success of the program led the military dictatorship to expand the industry and create the national program Proálcool in 1975. Private businessmen, politicians, and national and international automobile manufacturers together leveraged national interests to support this program. By 1985, over 95% of all new cars in the country ran exclusively on ethanol, and, after consumers turned away from them when oil was cheap, the government successfully promoted flex fuel cars instead. Yet, as she shows, the growth of this “green energy” came with associated environmental and social costs in the form of water pollution from liquid waste generated during ethanol distillation and exploitative rural labor practices that reshaped Brazil's countryside.

Speakers:

Jennifer Eaglin, Assistant Professor of History and Sustainability Institute
Nicholas Breyfogle (Moderator), Associate Professor of History, Director, Goldberg Center

Co-sponsors:

The Center for Latin American Studies, https://clas.osu.edu/
The Sustainability Institute, https://si.osu.edu/

Cite this Site

Nicholas Breyfogle , "Sweet Fuel: The Remarkable Story of Brazilian Ethanol" , Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective
May, 2022
https://origins.osu.edu/listen/history-talk/sweet-fuel-remarkable-story-brazilian-ethanol?language_content_entity=en.
May, 2022

Transcript

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle 

Welcome to "Sweet Fuel: The Remarkable Story of Brazilian Ethanol" brought to you by The Ohio State University History Department, Clio Society and College of Arts and Sciences, and by the Center for Latin American Studies, a Title VI National Resource Center, funded by the US Department of Education. My name is Nick Breyfogle. I'm an associate professor of history and director of the Goldberg Center for Excellence in Teaching and I'll be your host and moderator today. Thank you so very much for joining us. As the hazards of carbon emissions increase, and governments around the world seek to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, the search for clean and affordable alternate energy has become an increasing priority in the 21st century. However, Brazil has already been producing such a fuel for almost a century. Its sugarcane-based ethanol is the most efficient biofuel on the global fuel market, and the South American nation is the largest biofuel exporter in the world. Today, we are privileged to welcome Dr. Jennifer Eaglin, who will offer a historical account of the industry's origins. The Brazilian government mandated a mixture of ethanol in the national fuel supply in the 1930s, and the success of the program led the military dictatorship to expand the industry and create the national program, "Proálcool," in 1975. Private businessmen, politicians and national and international automobile manufacturers, together leveraged national interest to support this program. By 1985, over 95% of all new cars in the country ran exclusively on ethanol, and after consumers turned away from them when oil was cheap, the government successfully promoted flex fuel cars instead. But the growth of this green energy came with associated environmental and social costs. First in the form of water pollution from liquid waste generated during ethanol distillation and second through exploitative rural labor practices that reshaped Brazil's countryside. Let's take a moment to get to know our speaker. Dr. Jennifer Eaglin is a historian of Brazilian alternative energy development. She is an assistant professor of environmental history and sustainability, and a core faculty member of the Sustainability Institute at Ohio State. Her first book, "Sweet Fuel: A Political and Environmental History of Brazilian Ethanol," just came out with Oxford University Press and she'll be discussing her findings with us today. She's joining us now from Freiburg, Germany, where she's currently working on her next book project on the Brazilian nuclear energy industry. With that introduction, let me just mention quickly the plan. Professor Eaglin will begin with a presentation on the history of ethanol in Brazil, and then she'll take your questions, and we'll open things up for discussion. If you're interested in asking a question, please write it in the Q&A function at the bottom of your screen on Zoom, and we'll do our best to answer as many questions as we can. And now without further ado, let me pass you over to Professor Jennifer Eaglin, who will take us on an exploration of the remarkable story of Brazilian ethanol. Over to you, Professor Eaglin.

 

Dr. Jennifer Eaglin 

All right. Well, first, let me just say thank you Nick, thank you to the Goldberg Center, the Center for Latin American Studies, and the College of Arts and Sciences for having me. And thank you to all of you for joining for hopefully a really interesting conversation about my research. So as noted, my research focuses broadly on alternative energy development in Brazil, and particularly sugar-based ethanol development. I actually began studying...this Brazilian industry first when I was studying corn-based ethanol development in the United States. And many of us are probably familiar and probably have very strong opinions about the corn-based ethanol industry. But many of us probably did not know that Brazil was a large sugar producing, or, not large sugar producing, but a large sugar-based ethanol producing country. And so these are some of the questions that I too, was once unaware of and really drove me to do a larger, longer history of this industry. And really what I found was that Brazil's experience with ethanol goes way further back than I had really expected. And that ethanol has been a very important part of Brazil's energy infrastructure for large parts (most) of the 20th century and in ways that have become very normalized, and present very interesting examples or lessons about what energy transitions of the present and the future might look like as we search for alternatives to petroleum to power our vehicles in our climate-ridden world. So I want to talk about some of the main themes, or one of the main themes that kind of draws out some of the themes from the book, which is really how does ethanol, Brazilian ethanol, become an important part of Brazil's energy infrastructure? And how does it actually get the image of being a green industry? Because one of the things I really found is that celebratory accounts of ethanol, because of its lower carbon emissions than petroleum, often leave out the more complicated history of what actually [is] bringing this energy to a large scale, commercial market really involved and what were some of the costs that came along with it. So for my talk today, we're going to start by just a brief introduction to Brazil. And then I'm going to...give a brief introduction of ethanol itself and then kind of jump into this particular history. So, for those of us that are not familiar with Brazil, I have a map over here. And just a quick overview, we are probably familiar with Brazil is the host of the largest part, the vast majority, of the Amazon rainforest. But its economy is really driven by the southern region. And this particularly includes the cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. And so my research focuses on São Paulo, which is the largest industrial center in South America. So Brazil was "founded" (quote, unquote) it became a colony of Portugal in the 1500s, after which its history was really closely tied to sugarcane, for most of its history, as a major agricultural product. And so really, after its colonial inception, sugar comes to define Brazil's economy for centuries. And actually, Brazil was the largest producer and exporter of sugar in the world for a couple of centuries. And so these are some of the ways that sugar in Brazil has been a foundational part of Brazilian society and earns an important part in its political structure as well, right? So as sugar eventually is going to be unseated by other agricultural and mining products that come to really drive the Brazilian economy in the 17th, 18th, and 19th century (which includes gold, rubber, and actually in the 19th century and well into the 20th century, the leading agricultural export in Brazil was coffee). And so even as these other products become really important, and actually the sugar industry starts to struggle, where they really lose the kind of international market to other regions, particularly other countries in the Caribbean that become large sugar producers, even as Brazil's sugar industry loses that important place internationally, domestically Brazil's sugar industry and sugar producers still hold a very significant political power in the country. And so this is actually really linked to the foundations of how Brazil's sugar ethanol industry really is created. So as the sugar industry is struggling, particularly by the beginning of the 20th century, it's really lost the export market and it's over producing sugar on the domestic market. And so sugar producers are going to push the Brazilian government for some kind of economic help as this industry is really spiraling. And so ethanol becomes part of that solution. So a quick little background on ethanol: "ethanol" or "ethyl alcohol", and as it's known in Brazil, "alcohol", can be distilled from any starchy agricultural product, whether that be corn, potatoes, grapes, or sugarcane itself. Basically, in this production process for producing ethanol from sugarcane, and I always like using this picture because it kind of illustrates like this is what sugar cane actually looks like, you crush the cane, and then from the cane you have the cane juice on the inside and that really becomes the product from which so many other products really are produced in the sugar and ethanol industry. So you could mill it into sugar cane or you can use the cane juice, or molasses and other byproduct too. You add yeast and you distill it, distill it, distill it, and low-grade distillations of this product really is drinking alcohol like rum, or cachaça (a very popular sugar alcohol in Brazil), and high-grade distillations are potent enough to run engines. So the technology to use ethanol as a fuel has been around basically, as long as the internal combustion engine has. And early supporters of using ethanol, rather than petroleum to power vehicles included Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, among others. And another interesting part of this history is, Brazil is going to start investing in ethanol. But actually, Brazil is not the only country that invests in developing ethanol as a fuel option in the early 20th century. So actually, Germany and France are going to be really centers of ethanol development at the beginning in the early 20th century. And what's notable about this, why would these three countries be important investors in ethanol? And it's really that all three of these countries did not have large oil reserves. And so, as oil (petroleum) is becoming a more important part of industrialization, as automobiles are becoming a more important and more popular global product, countries around the world started to say, well, if we don't have oil reserves, what are we going to do to be able to compete, to be able to to work with these products, right? And so, in the Brazilian case, really globally, this becomes a particular point of angst for governments in the 1920s after World War One, where oil (petroleum) and vehicles had become a very important part of this conflict, or at least access to this energy was a very important part of the war. And so the Brazilian government is going to begin investing in state sponsored research on the use of ethanol, sugar-based ethanol, in automobiles in the 1920s. And the research that these Brazilian researchers found was that ethanol could be mixed in cars, mixed with gasoline, at a rate of up to about 20/25%, without having to make any changes to the engine, and without damaging the car (or the automobile). It could efficiently run, these cars could efficiently run. And so this research becomes the foundation for Brazil, the Brazilian government, really looking to ethanol as the way that they are going to support the sugar industry. And remember, I already said, sugar producers are pushing the government to find some way to support this ailing industry and this research becomes the foundation of tying that support to the creation of a domestic ethanol industry.  So they do this in two ways. In 1931, the Brazilian government is going to pass a 5% mandated mixture of ethanol in the national fuel supply. And then in 1933, they're going to create the Institute for Sugar and Ethanol (O Instituto do Açúcar e do Álcool). And so this really ties the future of the sugar industry to creation of a domestic ethanol industry where sugar producers that had been over-producing sugar for export could then redirect that sugar toward, or at least redirect that cane, toward domestic ethanol production. So this 5% mandated mixture in the fuel supply is going to remain in place for the next 40 years, really with very little change. And so sometimes it went up, as it did during the 1940s around World War Two, and actually...this mixture is going to sustain even when domestic politics are going to kind of attack this ethanol initiative, this ethanol incentive. Such as in the 1950s, when Brazil, which finally found domestic oil reserves in the late 1930s, and in the 1950s finally founds its own national petroleum industry Petrobras. The Petrobras officials are going to increasingly say, we don't need this mixture. And here's where sugar producers, private sugar producers, are going, again, their political influence and their political power is going to help sustain this mixture in the national fuel supply, even when it becomes unpopular. This also sustains as Brazil moves from a democratic government to a military dictatorship in the 1960s. As a new military, or a faction of the military, is going to lead a coup in 1964 and implement a military dictatorship, which was supremely focused on economic growth and economic development. And so these are some of the ways that ethanol manages to remain a small part of Brazil's energy infrastructure for decades. But...it's worth noting that they're not going to expand this ethanol industry really extensively until the 1970s. But the 5% mandated mixture does mean that the ethanol industry continues to grow, and with it, so does its environmental footprint. So in this production process of producing ethanol, like I said, you're distilling it to really high levels. And in the distillation process, for every liter of ethanol produced, there's 10 to 16 liters of this other liquidy byproduct that comes along in this production process, and that byproduct is called vinasse. So what is vinasse? It's...a really acidic, really smelly, kind of pulpy, liquidy product and that again, was actually made of mostly organic material, but actually no - mostly water, 90% water, and about seven or 8% organic materials, which includes calcium, potassium, nitrogen, phosphorus, etc. And so for the most part as this mandated 5% mixture is helping support the expansion of this ethanol industry, increased ethanol production also leads to increased production of this byproduct, which for the most part, producers just dumped in local waterways. And perhaps we are familiar with the fact that dumping large amounts of organic materials in waterways causes algae blooms that led to numerous environmental and public health issues.  So these are all some of the ways that by the 1970s, the ethanol industry was actually...well known to be a very polluting industry, as one of the most polluting industries in the state of São Paulo. And so despite all this, and actually, it's really local communities that are going to push the government to increase regulation of the ethanol industry to make sure that they're not destroying their local waterways. Despite this, really, enforcement is very weak. And so ethanol, even by the 1970s, has this kind of checkered environmental history. But despite all of these challenges, ethanol is actually going to increase its importance in the Brazilian ethanol infrastructure in the 1970s, really because of global market, fuel market changes, and that comes in with the 1973 oil shock. And this is when, in 1973, late 1973, the US government is going to provide support to Israel in the Yom Kippur War in the Middle East. After which Arab aligned countries in OPEC (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) are going to then implement a embargo on the US and its allies, and cut back oil production, such that within a span of a few months by early 1974, global oil prices are going to quadruple. And with that, for a country like Brazil that actually still relied on foreign oil for about 80% of its oil consumption, this has an immediate and a long-term impact on Brazil's economic outlook. And again, as I noted, the military dictatorship was supremely focused on economic growth at any cost, right? And so this becomes the foundation for sugar and ethanol producers [to] really lobby the Brazilian government to increase ethanol's position in the country's energy infrastructure as the military government is looking to diversify their energy infrastructure in order to sustain their economic growth agenda. And actually, initially, ethanol was a really small part of that as the government invested in expanded petroleum speculation and actually built the largest hydroelectric, what becomes the largest hydroelectric dam in the world, and also invested quite a bit in a nuclear energy industry or program. But it's really in 1975... due to all of the lobbying from the sugar producers that the government is also going to create the national ethanol program in 1975. And so the program is really gonna go through two central phases. And the first phase is focused on expanding the ethanol mixture from the 5% that had been in place since the 1930s to a  20% mixture, which again, goes back to the research that had already said this mixture up to 20% [or]  25%... will not negatively affect vehicles. And so based on that, they're going to expand their mixture of ethanol in the fuel supply and the national fuel supply to offset petroleum imports. Then there's another oil shock in 1979. That is, again, going to double oil prices are again going to double, which continues the threat of high oil prices on a country that still relies heavily on oil imports.  So it's in this second phase... so essentially Proálcool is going to heavily subsidize the production of sugar, heavily subsidize the cost of sugar; subsidize the price of ethanol; subsidize sugar production, machinery to build distilleries, all of these things to incentivize sugar producers to expand their ethanol production infrastructure. And then also this program is also going to heavily invest in research on the development of an ethanol fueled car. So with that, they're going to launch the ethanol fuel car in 1979, at the same time as the second oil shock. So this is also going to expand the program even more. So the creation, the development, of the ethanol fueled car had actually... Brazilian researchers have been working on this since the 1950s. And so in the 1970s... what one of the key issues is, researchers in Brazil found that ethanol above 25%, in standard, low-compression gasoline powered engines were highly corrosive, and created all of these other problems. So you needed to adapt the car, adapt the engine, to be able to run on ethanol. And so what researchers found was that high-compression engines ran at levels that were comparable to low-compression... High-compression engines with ethanol ran at levels comparable to low-compression engines with petroleum. And so then they had to actually bring these cars to market. And so that required an extensive amount of research and adaptation of other parts of the car, including the fuel tank, the fuel gauge, carburetors, and other parts. So with the assistance of researchers at Volkswagen in Brazil, and also at a Volkswagen in Germany, they're going to successfully adapt these cars for commercial sale. And so actually the first ethanol fueled vehicle... available for commercial consumption was the Fiat 147. But to be able to bring ethanol fuel cars to market also required a major overhaul of the country's fueling infrastructure, right? So you actually have to have pumps at gas stations, you have to have an effective distribution infrastructure. You have to subsidize, as the government did, heavily subsidize the price of these cars to incentivize people to buy them, subsidize the price of fuel to make sure that people would would buy ethanol rather than petroleum and the list goes on, right? All of these things are very expensive but ended up being very effective. So this is actually a table of car sales in the 1980s. And so the car first came to market in 1979. And with all of these incentives that I've that I've mentioned, the ethanol fuel car is going to very quickly overtake the Brazilian domestic car market. And by 1985, over 95% of all new cars on the road ran exclusively on ethanol. So in a lot of ways, this was considered a massive success, right? You've effectively changed the fueling, the fuel infrastructure, in a matter of years. But what ends up happening after that is both inspiring and also a reality check in what are some of the costs that come along with this, right? So first I want to highlight that I talked about vinasse and when I mean... vinasse was already a problem before this Proálcool program was implemented, but with Proálcool, ethanol production is going to expand. Before the program began in 1975, Brazil was producing about half a billion litres of ethanol per year. By 1979, with the implementation of the first phase of expanding production for the national fuel mixture, Brazil produced about 3 billion litres of ethanol per year. By 1985, to help service the growing demand associated with ethanol fuel cars, Brazil produces over 10 billion per year. A conservative estimate means that Brazil was at minimum, producing 100 billion litres of vinasse per year by 1985. And they already were having problems with this. And so then the question became, well, what are we going to do with all of this? And really, lots of reports at the beginning of the program in the mid-1970s said this ethanol program is going to be an ecological catastrophe because of vinasse dumping. And so what really ends up happening is, with increased government oversight and actually innovation within the industry, is going to repurpose vinasse, which, as noted, is an organic material laden liquid, and particularly a nitrogen laden liquid, is repurposed as a fertilizer alternative. And so this is another way that then this is sold. And also they're going to dehydrate this liquid and use it as a animal feed, much like corn syrup in the United States. And so diversifying the uses of this, of this byproduct, is considered a technological solution now. I've done interviews with executives in the industry, and they said "Oh, we fixed that vinasse problem decades ago, that's no longer a problem." And that's not entirely true. I mean, oversight becomes a very important part of enforcing the diversification of this product, or diversified uses of this product, but it's actually still very expensive to store the product, and to reprocess the product. And so, to this day, actually, storage and waste issues continue to exist within this vinasse market in ways that illustrate some of the continued costs, environmental costs, that came along with this large-scale application of an alternative fuel industry. So in that context, the question kind of becomes, how does this thing become a green energy then, right? Why do we think of it as an environmental boon, or potential environmental boon? And a lot of that has to do with research that came out in the 1980s, where researchers at the University of São Paulo started studying the impact of ethanol fueled cars on air quality in urban centers, particularly in São Paulo, in the 1980s. And what they found was ethanol fueled cars released about 70% less hydrocarbons than gasoline fueled cars. They released about 13%, less nitrogen, and about 65% less carbon monoxide. And so these findings became the foundation of reimagining this ethanol industry that had actually already had all these environmental issues, but reimagining it as an environmentally positive product.  And so here's a quick illustration of of what happens. Ethanol fueled cars are actually going to lose the market for a series of reasons. Some of which include the collapse of oil prices in the mid-1980s, environmental limits of... sugar expansion, as droughts are really going to plague the São Paulo region and affect ethanol production. And so ultimately, consumers are going to increasingly lose confidence in ethanol fueled cars. And as consumers are losing confidence in ethanol fuel cars, the sugar industry and government are going to promote a new approach to ethanol promotion, and this is what this ad illustrates. So it says, "with the ethanol fueled car, you can help depollute the air of your city." And so this is an ad from the early 1990s, and it's a picture of the São Paulo skyline with the universal sign for toxicity, being the skull and bones, embedded in the smog-filled sky. And the ad goes through and lists all of these things, these environmental benefits, that come along with driving ethanol fueled cars. And so this promotion, even as ethanol fueled cars lost the market in the 1990s, became the foundation upon which ethanol is going to be able to remain an important part of Brazil's energy infrastructure. And then in the 2000s, in 2003, Brazil is going to launch the flex fuel car, which runs on any combination of ethanol, and or gasoline. And so this flex fuel car was really the extension of the ethanol fueled car. And the marketing of ethanol as a green fuel (that was able to sustain through the 1990s) becomes the foundation of promotion of ethanol in the 21st century, as a low-carbon fuel of the present and potentially of the future. So we've come to the end. I want to show one last slide, just to get conversation started. And this is actually a picture of Brazil's greenhouse gas emissions of the last 30 years. And one of the things I want to highlight... agriculture is the yellow line, land change and deforestation is the green line, and the red line, or the red blocks, are energy. And so one of the interesting things that happens in Brazil, with ethanol, and you can see this particularly here in the 1990s, Brazil has a very low carbon emission rate linked to energy, but an incredibly high carbon emissions linked to agriculture and land change. And so how does the costs of an energy transition of having low carbon emissions in their energy infrastructure get deferred to other sections of the economy, particularly to land change and agriculture through this kind of energy transition? And so I leave that as a little food for thought when we think about what were the costs, who paid the costs, of Brazil's energy diversification.

 

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle 

Jennifer, thank you so very much. That was just a fascinating exploration of the history of this story and of this kind of remarkable, and in some ways, really kind of unusual story of ethanol production in Brazil. And thank you so very much. We will open things up for questions from folks who are here in the audience. And if you have a question, please just type it into the Q&A. And I will ask them away to Professor Eaglin here. We got a few questions that came in during the registration period. And so I wanted to start off with a couple of those. Particularly, I guess, just starting with the sense of the kind of place, you told this great story of Brazil's place in the story in the larger energy story across the world. And a particular, I guess two questions that we've had come in, one was, you know, have other parts of the world mirrored this, or mimicked this? Have other parts of the world tried to produce a similar type of ethanol-based fuel system based on sugarcane, in particular? And given that this is a kind of sugar-based system, are there lessons for biofuels globally that you can take away from this particular story, and obviously the US are very corn-focused in that regard. But are there things to learn in this, lessons from this, that other countries exploring ethanol in its various forms could learn from?

 

Dr. Jennifer Eaglin 

Well, thank you so much for those questions... How does this fit into a global discussion of biofuels? Brazil's energy, or Brazil's ethanol industry, has been tagged as a next-generation biofuel in a way that has often been juxtaposed with the corn-based ethanol industry in the United States. Brazil's ethanol (sugar-based ethanol) is notably more efficient than corn-based ethanol, and has lower carbon emissions, and produces more energy per acre or hectare, depending on how you're measuring it. And so, the interesting thing is... the corn-based ethanol industry has been more explicitly tied to food, rising food prices, and other things that the sugar-based ethanol industry has somewhat been able to evade, sometimes problematically and inaccurately. But the important thing from a policy perspective for Brazil has been actually aligned with the United States with corn-based ethanol producers in trying to expand ethanol production to a point where it can be considered a global product. A very large percentage of the ethanol that Brazil produces is consumed domestically, but they actually also export to the United States. The United States produces a very large amount of corn-based ethanol, most of which we consume ourselves. And so in 2007, Brazil and the US signed a memorandum of understanding to try to expand and bring to scale ethanol production throughout the Western Hemisphere. And particularly they focused on large sugar producing countries like the Dominican Republic and others within the Caribbean. And so how successful has that been? Brazil also invested quite a bit in expanding their biofuel market, investing in technology and other countries to expand the biofuel market in Sub-Saharan Africa as well. And so these are ways that this model... that Brazil has tried to sell this model, right, and tried to say, "well, our ethanol industry is a good model to follow for other countries, large agricultural producing countries." But, and this ties to the question of what are some of the lessons that we can learn. I think it's important, I did not talk as much about the labor issues that come along with ethanol production in Brazil, but the environmental and the labor costs that come along with that are sure to follow in any of these other countries as they try to expand ethanol production. And so I think that's one of the things that often gets swept under the rug when talking about the ethanol industry's expansion, and particularly in Brazil's promotion of this model around the world.

 

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle 

That's great. We have a whole bunch of questions coming in. Let me ask you a couple that are technologically focused. One asks, "So how much have biotech innovations improved the process of making ethanol in Brazil?" And related, but not related, "As... vehicle electrification increases worldwide, is there a pushback within Brazil, from the agricultural sugar industries, against electrical cars?"

 

Dr. Jennifer Eaglin 

I like both of these questions. So first, the biotech innovations. Really in the 1990s, as I talked about, the ethanol industry... found itself at a turning point in the late-1980s as ethanol fueled cars were starting to lose the market and gasoline prices fell globally... actually part of re-marketing ethanol in the 1990s as a green energy involved highlighting a major innovation in the industry, which was cogeneration. So basically, there's another byproduct, bagosse, that was often just burned. And so... basically internally burning that to create thermal electricity to make ethanol, plants [were] basically self-sustaining... and eventually actually selling the excess electricity from the thermal electrical production back to the Brazilian energy grid became a really important part of ethanol's energy contribution. And actually, to this day, some people have actually said that that ethanol's electrical contributions are more important than its actual fuel contributions, right. And actually, in promotions in Brazil, particularly around the COP 26, they already said the innovation that has made our ethanol is part of the innovation that has made our electricity infrastructure more sustainable. So I would say that these are some of the ways that technology innovation has already dramatically improved Brazil's infrastructure, Brazil's biofuel infrastructure. But the interesting thing I'll also add is that cellulosic-ethanol, which is celebrated as a next-generation biofuel actually produces more vinosse than sugar-based ethanol. And so the expansion of these alternate sources like cellulosic-ethanol will bring perhaps unexpected costs along with it that are not often included in the promotional vision of them. So that's my quick answer to that. What the second question was about.... Oh, electrification.

 

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle 

Electric cars, yeah.

 

Dr. Jennifer Eaglin 

Yeah, electric cars. I mean, one of the interesting things in Brazil electric cars... actually, electric cars in the United States.... Even when we think we see a lot of electric cars around.... they actually still only represent like, three or 4% of our car market. And we hope that's going to change soon. It represents an even smaller part of Brazil's car market. And ethanol producers and car manufacturers have really been trying to develop hybrid cars that might be able to run exclusively on ethanol and electricity, rather than fuel (or petroleum) and electricity. So these are some of the ways that at least at present, I haven't seen a large pushback about electrification of the car market in Brazil, in large part because they're really very far from a tipping point on adaptation, or I mean on adoption, but also, biofuels, particularly ethanol can still be part of that transition.

 

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle 

We have several questions about deforestation. And so our audience is very curious to know how much, both historically and today, of deforestation is the result of sugar production, or particularly sugar production for ethanol purposes? And when policymakers in Brazil talk about sustainable biofuels and this sort of thing, are they taking into account forest protections and this sort of thing? And then kind of related to your last point, on your last question, so does all this deforestation, if there is a link, is that connected to the increased agricultural emissions that you showed in that last graph?

 

Dr. Jennifer Eaglin 

I love this question. And it's such an important question, so thank you guys for asking it. So how does Brazilian ethanol connect to deforestation, particularly of the Amazon, but more broadly, throughout Brazil? So if we recall at the very beginning, I pulled up the map of Brazil. So you have this... terrible vision... but you have the Amazon up here, right? And then you had all of these urban centers that I mentioned down below, like São Paulo and Rio. So all of that region of São Paulo and Rio used to be or quote "still is" part of a another major forest that has mostly been annihilated in Brazil, and that's the Atlantic Forest. And so the Atlantic Forest basically crept up to the very bottom of the Amazon once upon a time back in 1500. And slowly has been the center of industrialization in Brazil. And so between 1964 and 1985, which is the period of the military dictatorship, but also includes the most intense first 10 years of the ethanol of Proálcool, sugar cane accounted for the most deforestation... expansive sugarcane accounted for the most deforestation of the Atlantic Forest in the South, and particularly in the region that my book focuses on, which is in the Ribeirão Preto region. And so these are some of the ways the initial expansion of ethanol production is very closely connected to deforestation, but it doesn't get connected to Amazonian deforestation, which tends to get far more attention. But the other thing I want to note about Amazonian deforestation, is that as sugar production expanded to accommodate larger demand of biofuels, you also then saw other agricultural products got pushed into different regions of Brazil. The Cerrado, which is in the central-west of Brazil, is going to become the major agricultural producer of soy, and then slowly that's going to push other products, notably agricultural... cattle grazing further up, right? And so, this is then going to increasingly push into the Amazon. And so these are some of the ways that all of these agricultural products, the large scale production of each of these agricultural products, is really interconnected in ways that I would say the Brazilian sugar ethanol industry very successfully disaggregates, right? So they say, like, "you're not seeing sugarcane... as the cause of deforestation in the Amazon, like it's not sugar that's being produced in the in the Amazon upon deforestation."  But all of these things are connected. So as sugar production has expanded into the Cerrado, then grazing is pushed even further up and further in; soy is pushed further up, further in, into the Amazon. They're all connected. And I think that's really an important part of the story and also links to agricultural missions, right? So as land change for land grazing, maybe gets the most attention, but actually, that's linked to the this move from soy production to cattle grazing, and maybe the soy production was moved from sugarcane, right? So all of these things are part of the emission story, for sure.

 

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle 

Right. Let me give you two quite different questions, but I'm going to give them to you together just in the kind of last five minutes we have here. I thought I'd throw them both out. And you can kind of tackle one or both in whichever ways you'd like to. The first actually has to do with the questions of labor issues. The question, "what specifically are the labor issues? Do workers suffer from handling the product or are they exploited with low wages?" So perhaps you could say a few words about the labor issues? And then the other question, which takes you off into the new research you're currently doing, could you connect a little bit... today's discussion about Brazilian ethanol to recent work on the country's nuclear energy development projects and the ways in which those are linked? So yeah, two different directions, but I think really great questions.

 

Dr. Jennifer Eaglin 

Awesome. I like both of those questions. So thank you for the labor question. I could have done a whole presentation exclusively about the labor question. I talk about it quite a bit... I mean, first of all, when I talk about labor, you have to connect it to Brazil's long history of exploitation in the name of agricultural production, right? And so, from its foundation, sugar production brought in large amounts of enslaved labor to work these sugarcane fields. And the expansion of Proálcool really drives a another expansion of exploitative labor relations that have really been connected to Brazil's long history. Particularly, I talk quite a bit about the ways that Proálcool the program really could not have succeeded without the legal support provided by the military dictatorship, by the military government... undercutting some of the labor laws that had already been in place to protect workers. And this is really through a loophole to allow temporary labor, right? So they're able to avoid a lot of labor laws by using short term labor, seasonal laborers. And so these are a lot of the ways that then this is linked to movement across the entire country, of the migration of laborers from the northern region down to the southern region, and also from the interior into the state of São Paulo to work in the cane fields. I also talked to quite a bit about how they were actually able to organize and the ways that they were explicitly limited. I see that we're running out of time. So I'm going to jump to the other question. So ethanol and my nuclear project. Right now, one of the things I'm really talking about is the military government's diversification strategy, and how that was intricately connected to an exploitation of natural resources. That in Brazil, in the ethanol case that relates to water exploitation, and land, and then also on the nuclear case, that really actually relates quite a bit to water. And that's really a lot of what I'm working on right now. So yes, I will jump out. But I love those questions.

 

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle 

Thank you so very much. We put you through your paces. I want to thank you for giving us your time today to take us through this marvelous research and all these findings that you've discovered in this incredible story, this really remarkable story of Brazilian ethanol. So thank you. And I want to thank all of you in the audience for joining us today. And I'm sure you will join me in thanking Professor Eaglin for sharing her expertise and her passion for history. Perhaps we can give her a big virtual round of applause. Thank you. Thank you. We'd also like to thank the College of Arts and Sciences, especially Maddy Kurma and Jade Lac. Also the history department, the Harvey Goldberg Center for Excellence in Teaching, Clio Society, the Center for Latin American Studies, and the magazine Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective for their sponsorship. And once again, thank you, our audience for your excellent questions and your ongoing connection to Ohio State. Thank you for joining us today. Stay safe and healthy. And we'll see you next time. Thanks so much. Bye.

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