As demand for corn-based ethanol rises, legislators from sugar-producing states are citing Brazil as a model of a country successfully producing ethanol from sugar. The United States produces its domestic sugar from sugar cane and beets, but skeptics question if following in Brazil’s footsteps is economical for America. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Chief Economist Keith Collins said that the increasing demand for ethanol and Brazil’s successful track record make sugar-based ethanol worth investigating.

“We can look at the technology of conversion and learn some things from them about that,” Collins said. “But it’s a little hard for us just to look at Brazil and conclude that their structure of production would be our structure of production.”

Sugar in the United States is made from beets in some northern and western states and from sugar cane in Hawaii and a few southern states. According to the American Sugar Alliance, there is no difference in sugar made from beets or cane. Sugar cane is a giant grass that thrives in a warm, moist climate such as Florida, the largest producer of cane sugar in the country. The sugar beet grows best in a temperate climate, and Minnesota is the largest producer of beet sugar in the nation. In total, nineteen states produce sugar.

Hawaii has sugar cane fields such as this one.

Hawaii has sugar cane fields such as this one. Credit: DOE/NREL, Warren Gretz

Twelve states grow and process sugar beets.

Twelve states grow and process sugar beets. Credit: USDA, Scott Bauer

“It would be absurd in ten years if we’re doing 60 billion gallons of ethanol and the only crop in America that’s not participating is sugar,” said Senator Norm Coleman from Minnesota, who backs a proposed 100-million gallon mandate for sugar-based ethanol.

Senator Coleman recently met with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for a hearing concerning Brazil as a model for American sugar-based ethanol production. He has personally seen Brazil’s success during three trips to the country. Also attending the hearing was President of the Brazilian Association of Sugar Cane and Ethanol Producers Eduardo Carvalho, who explained how Brazil’s government invested in ethanol production through the use of significant ethanol mandates, favorable tax treatment for ethanol at the pump, incentives to cover the building of ethanol plants, construction of an ethanol pipeline, and promotion of E85 infrastructure.

“Brazil’s thirty-year path to energy independence, which I’ve had the opportunity to witness firsthand, is a wonderful model for our own efforts to increase the vitality of our renewable fuels industry,” said Senator Coleman. “One of the most important points brought up today was the fact that Brazil’s success required a serious government commitment to renewable fuels and sugar ethanol in particular.”

As stated on the American Sugar Alliance’s Web site, U.S. farmers produce approximately 8.5 million tons of sugar per year, and Americans consume roughly 10 million tons per year. U.S. sugar policy operates under the 2002 Farm Bill, which stipulates that after the USDA estimates the country’s annual sugar consumption, it then subtracts the foreign sugar the United States has committed to import. The remainder is then allocated to U.S. farmers. America is the second largest net sugar importer in the world, importing from forty-one countries.

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