I study scientific (and otherwise) knowledge production around sugarcane-based bioproducts in Brazil. Renewable fuels and materials are concerns for many environmental groups as well as oil and gas companies; the former are wary of sustainability issues and the latter are concerned with making renewables a profitable element of their product portfolio. However, sugar-based petrochemical replacements are often invisible to lay consumers--they don't know that their plastic bottle was made of sugar instead of oil, for example--and this invisibility is sometimes a goal of manufacturers who want a seamless sugar substitute.
One dominant discourse is that climate change and a growing world population require sustainable methods of producing more of the materials that our lives depend on. My interlocutors frame sugarcane--engineered to be even more productive than normal and require less land for cultivation--as a fitting solution to this. However, this assumes, among other things, a continuation of certain consumption practices, rather than any kind of reform of these.
There is a new national biofuels policy in Brazil called RenovaBio that includes national biofuels targets, certification processes for sugar/biofuels manfucaturing plants, and a carbon credit system. This policy unfolds in part through spreadsheets that sugarcane growers fill out with the characteristics of their land and crop, in order to calculate life cycle analyses and other metrics. I came across a university online course that growers could take to learn the ins and outs of this bureaucratic process; thus access to certain knowledges and skills seems to shape how RenovaBio plays out for certain sugarcane growers. In terms of economics, the global markets for refined sugar and ethanol are very important for the Brazilian sucro-energy sector, because producers can choose to make sugar or biofuels throughout the harvest based on the market prices. Sugarcane consulting companies send out daily newsletters with the New York sugar prices at the very top. Scientists seem less concerned with NY sugar prices, but are wrapped up in their own scientific knowledge economies of circulating publications, access to reagents, etc.
There are several large and powerful union-like groups/cooperatives in the sugarcane industry in Brazil that represent growers' interests; many sugarcane consulting companies hired by growers to improve their production and bottom line; scientific organizations for sugarcane and bioenergy in Brazil specifically; the universities and private and semi-public research institutions that scientists work at; various ministries of the Brazilian government that regulate sugarcane/agriculture, biofuels/energy, and science/technology; and biotech companies trying to translate scientific knowledge about sugarcane into profitable technologies (both Brazilian and foreign). I think about geopolitics when interlocutors describe how foreign biotech companies open operations in Brazil to be close to the "cheap feedstock" but import their "own" knowledge/research from abroad.
Petrochemicals can cause many kinds of toxity to human and nonhuman bodies; some sugar-based petrochemical replacements try to change this, but others only aim to be seamless substitutes and thus carry forward these toxic relations (e.g., non-biodegradable sugar-based plastic that's chemically identical to petro-based plastic). There are effects on the sugarcane plant "body" to be considered--scientists are engineering it in unprecedented ways that contest conventional understandings of growth and productivity (see my 4s presentation). There are also the bodies of the sugarcane growers and industry actors, who are affected by shifting labor practices around sugarcane harvesting. And relevant as well are the bodies of people who live near cane fields; with mechanized harvesting today this is less an explicit issue, but historically cane fields were burned before harvest and the resulting volatile organic compounds caused health issues for nearby dwellers.
The phenomena I study is driven in part by the practices of scientists--their labor in the lab, their (re)production of scientific knowledge, their involvement in coordinating and reviewing government research grants. It's also driven by the labor of sugarcane growers and industry actors--driving the machines that harvest the cane, driving the trucks to transport the cane, operating the processing plant. There are also practices within and around sugarcane consulting, academic and industry conferences, and government policies/regulations that seem to animate new social worlds of sugar(cane).
Often scientists, sugarcane growers, and workers in the processing plant are treated as if they exist in completely separate realms; for example, one sugarcane company had plant workers do a virtual reality simulation of driving a harvesting machine so they'd better understand that part of the production chain. I'd like to think more about how this separation between science, agriculture, and industrial processing is (re)produced and the effect this has on subjectivities.
There is the expertise of academic scientific knowledge about sugarcane, which is sometimes framed in contrast to more practical understandings of how growing sugarcane "really works" by those out in the fields. There is also a lot of consulting knowledge produced around sugarcane, which focuses on maximizing production costs and managing volatile markets.
There is scientific data that doesn't seem to leave the lab, biotech data that is more explicitly linked to certain technologies, anecdotal or individual data from cane growers and producers that often draws on very technical and scientific metrics and understandings, and so much market data about sugar and ethanol. Scientists, growers, and industry actors have different ways of conceptually breaking down cane (see the other exercise I did for this workshop on Found Visualizations). In that other exercise I also talk about some of the visualization practices relevant to my research.
Transportation infrastructure like roads is key to how the sugarcane sector works (sugarcane has to be processed very soon after harvesting, so it's immediately transported to a nearby mill). Today sugarcane is mostly harvested with machines, and a lot of work goes into maintaining the fleet. Within the lab, research depends on instruments working, protocols going as planned, reagents arriving on time (having to go through customs, etc.), grant money coming through, global pandemics not shutting down in-person activities.
Rainfall has a large influence on sugarcane production, and rain patterns are changing with climate change. Some of my interlocutors have done research on the effects of increased CO2 concentration in the atmosphere on sugarcane growth too (it actually accelerates it). In the lab, air conditioning is necessary to maintain a proper/consistent temperature for experiments. Refrigeration and freezing is necessary for some reagents and samples, or to slow down protocols/processes. In the new sugarcane harvesting machines, the cabs are air conditioned to make it more comfortable for the operators. And again, the discourse of climate change is what positions sugar-based renewable materials as important and urgent.
Oil/petro-cultures and general extractivism seems to shape approaches to extracting sugar from sugarcane in new ways with biotechnology.