Brazil has been the world’s largest producer of sugarcane since 1980 when production and area harvest surpassed India’s (Figure 1). By 2030, sugarcane production in Brazil could expand by more than 5 million hectares (12,355,200 acres) to meet the growing demand for ethanol.  This increase in demand is due to Brazilian law gasoline which requires that gasoline be blended with ethanol; so far, the only sub-product of sugarcane to be used on a large scale. The majority of the country’s current sugarcane ethanol production (representing 64% of the total sugarcane crop in 2018) is sold domestically, and in 2018 a total of 33 billion liters of biofuel were consumed (91% of its production & 26% of world production). Brazilian law requires that domestic gasoline be mixed with 27% ethanol to produce a blended fuel. In Brazil, a majority of lightweight vehicles known as “flex-fuel,” can run on either blended fuel or 100% ethanol, giving individual drivers a choice between the two. Without even mentioning sugar refinement, the importance of sugarcane in Brazil is clear. However, sugarcane is a crop, meaning that it is not immune to the problems crops face all over the world, such as pests.

Figure 1. Brazilian sugar cane area harvested and yield 1961-2017

BT Sugarcane

In June 2017, the Comissão Técnica Nacional de Biossegurança (CTNBio – National Biosafety Technical Commission) approved the commercial use of the first genetically modified (GM) insect resistance sugarcane (Bacillus thuringiensis – Bt Sugarcane) developed by the Brazilian sugarcane breeding and technology company Centro de Tecnologia Canavieira (CTC). The CTC is the world’s leader in sugarcane research and variety development. Their innovation is the first GM sugarcane approved for commercial use in the world. The new variety, CTC 20 BT, is resistant to damage caused by the main sugarcane pest in Brazil, the sugarcane borer (which causes R$ 5 billion or USD $ 1 billion in damage per year). The Bt gene found in CTC 20 BT, has been used widely in world agriculture for over 20 years in biotechnology-derived crops like soybean, corn and cotton.

An interesting fact about CTC 20 BT’s approval in Brazil is that the initial request for commercial production took place in December 2015. It was approved 18 months later, in 2017. A quick approval, when compared to the processing times of other countries. In the US it takes about 2,467 days (6.8 years) for a GM crop to be approved, and in Europe, frankly there has been no desire to approve any more GM crops.  

Impact on Brazilian Sugar Exports

Brazil exports sugar to 150 countries, of which 60% do not require regulatory approval to import sugar derived from GM crops. Other countries have deemed that sugar derived from Brazilian Bt sugarcane is safe to consume, among these are leaders in agricultural biotechnology such as the United States and Canada. The United States’ Food and Drug Administration deemed the sugar derive from Brazilian Bt sugarcane safe, and imports into the US were not disrupted. This notification came after Health Canada notified the CTC that it had no objection to the food use of raw and refined sugar derived from Bt sugarcane. The Canadian food regulatory agency stated that sugar derived from Bt sugarcane “…is as safe and nutritious as food from current commercial sugarcane varieties.”

Brazil’s Sweet Move

By adopting BT sugarcane in Brazil, farmers will need to spray significantly fewer pesticides on their farms. The Bt protein will increase pest abatement, thus stabilizing sugar cane yield. With this innovation, ethanol production will increase (making it cheaper), and the international sugar market is left unaffected. All in all, adopting BT sugarcane was a sweet move on Brazil’s part.