Redesigning Growth: Sugarcane Biotechnology and Post-Petroleum Futures in São Paulo, Brazil

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In São Paulo, Brazil, sugarcane-based energy and materials, such as biofuels and bio-plastics, have become an appealing strategy in sustainability efforts. Sugarcane scientists who research such biotechnologies thus work to transform a plant with a centuries-long history of plantation violence and land dispossession into the basis of an environmentally sound future. This paper examines one way these scientists work toward this transformation: in their words, by “redesigning growth” in sugarcane varieties to give the cane higher productivity and in turn require less cultivation area. The concept of growth, particularly unlimited growth, has been situated by scholars within capitalist, petroculture, and liberal frameworks. This paper seeks to bring these literatures on growth into conversation with scientific and industrial technical practices around modifying the sugarcane plant’s growth process, asking what social conceptions about growth are required for the latter. Based on ethnographic research with molecular biologists and sugarcane industry actors, this paper analyzes how sugarcane growth is understood in terms of the physical location and form of sugar within the plant itself—for example, sugar in the leaves versus the stalk. It argues that by redesigning growth through the manipulation of the place and form of sugar within the plant, scientists also work to modify the place and form of sugar within social imaginaries. Ultimately, this paper suggests that redesigning sugarcane growth might be redesigning growth in other ways as well, by nuancing certain social understandings of growth in relation to petro-capitalist liberal progress. 

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Contributed date

July 19, 2020 - 6:31am

Critical Commentary

Abstract by Katie Ulrich, submitted to the EASST/4S 2020 PANEL: SUSTAINABLE BIOFUELS?

Cite as

Katie Ulrich, "Redesigning Growth: Sugarcane Biotechnology and Post-Petroleum Futures in São Paulo, Brazil", contributed by Duygu Kasdogan, STS Infrastructures, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 19 July 2020, accessed 2 December 2021.