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January 26, 2015

90% of Eligible Sugarcane in Sao Paulo Harvested Mechanically

In 2007, the state government of Sao Paulo working along with the sugarcane producers of the state, adopted what was called the Agricultural Environmental Protocol that would gradually phase out the practice of burning the sugarcane fields before harvesting. The fields were burned to remove the dry leaves making it much easier to cut the cane by hand. Unfortunately, the burning also caused a lot of atmospheric pollution and respiratory problems for residents living in the area.

Since burning was being phased out, sugarcane producers started to gradually harvest more of their sugarcane mechanically. According to the Institute of Agricultural Economics (IEA), the number of mechanical sugarcane harvesters in the state of Sao Paulo has tripled since the 2007/08 growing season. In 2007/08 there were 917 mechanical harvesters working the sugarcane fields of Sao Paulo and that number increased to 2,865 during the 2013/14 harvest season.

By the end of the 2013/14 harvest, 90% of the sugarcane in the state of Sao Paulo grown on land suitable for mechanical harvesting was harvested mechanically. Areas of steep terrain where the mechanical harvesters cannot operate are exempt from the requirement to be harvested mechanically as well as small sugarcane plots grown by subsistence farmers.

Some producers who have made the switch to mechanical harvesting, but have land that is too steep for the machines, have taken that land out of sugarcane production. Since 2007, approximately 70,800 hectares of sugarcane has been taken out of production because the terrain was not suited for mechanical harvesting.

Sugarcane producers are being alerted to make sure the harvesters are not being operated at excessive speeds. If the harvest speed is too fast, the sugarcane stalk can be damaged resulting in less than desirable sprouting for the subsequent crop. A field of sugarcane is harvested annually for 5-6 years after planting. If sprouting of the sugarcane is hindered by damaged stalks, the damage can be carried forward for a number of years resulting in lost productivity and income. Excessive speed also increased wear and tear on the machine and reduces the machines life expectancy.

The reduced burning has helped to lower pollution levels across the state during the harvest season, but it has also caused tens of thousands of low skilled cane cutters to lose their job. Some of these workers were retrained to use the new machinery, but the vast majority had to find other work.

Sugarcane producers are also moving more toward mechanical planting as well. IEA estimates that 68% of the sugarcane in the state was planted mechanically in 2013/14.