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UNICA’s A Wolf in Blog’s Clothing

July 9, 2010


The advent of social media has forever changed the way our society discusses and debates important political and social issues. Points and counterpoints whiz through cyberspace at the speed of light and anyone with a computer (or iPhone or Blackberry, for that matter) has the power to shape public opinion at his or her fingertips. Blogs have been particularly popular in serving as forums for lively debate over timely political issues and current events. Blogs allow anyone with an opinion on anything to transmit virtual editorials to the masses in an instant. And the true beauty of blogs is that readers are afforded the opportunity to respond immediately to the original post with their own views and opinions. Wellmost of the time anyway. Unfortunately, the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Associations (UNICA) new Sweeter Alternative blog doesnt afford its readers such an opportunity. In fact, it isnt really a blog at all. Its a wolf in blogs clothing. Sure, it has the look of a blog, but it certainly doesnt have the feel of one. Readers dont have any opportunity to express their views or respond to the slanted opinions served up by UNICA. The site isnt interactive and theres nothing social about it. Every week or so, Joel Velasco of UNICA posts a new entry to the non-blog. As you can imagine, the posts typically sing the praises of Brazilian sugarcane ethanol and disparage the U.S. renewable fuels policies that have been so successful in building a robust and vibrant domestic biofuels industry. Without fail, the posts try to convince readers that the United States should eliminate the tariff on imported ethanol and roll out the red carpet for more Brazilian product (the tariff, of course, was put in place to offset the tax credit that gasoline blenders claim for each gallon of ethanol they use). It probably goes without saying that we often disagree with the posts on UNICAs non-blog. Just about every new post on the site has at least one misleading statement about the U.S. ethanol industry and/or U.S. energy policy that wed like to dispute. Unfortunately, we havent had the chance to set the record straight. Since theres no opportunity for the public to comment on UNICAs web site, readers are intentionally deprived of exposure to opposing viewpoints and open debate. Weve asked Joel on a few occasions to correct misinformation on the site and publish unsanitized responses from us to his most egregious claims (after all, honesty and being fair and balanced are among the web sites guiding principles, according to Joels first post). Our requests to submit responses have twice been denied, and there remains today no vehicle for the public to offer their thoughts and comments. The latest incident occurred June 28 when a post was added to the site accusing RFA of cherry-picking data for a recent presentation (see slide 10) to the House Ag Committee that shows Brazils increased ethanol output over the past decade has come primarily through expansion of the land area dedicated to growing sugarcane. (This is an important point because EPAs land use change analysis for the RFS2 suggests U.S. corn ethanol is somehow responsible for 22 times more land use change emissions occurring in Brazil than Brazilian sugarcane itself! See Figure 2.4-41 of the RFS2 RIA). Joel derided the presentation as an intentionally dishonest portrayal of Brazilian sugarcane ethanol. He went on to try to refute the information that we presented. He was rather unconvincing in doing so, I might add (indeed, how can you argue that sugarcane harvested area hasnt expanded dramatically when your own chart shows a four-fold increase since 1975!?). Since we arent able to address the cherry-picking allegations on UNICAs non-blog, well do so here. First, UNICA alleged that we somehow misrepresented the yield of total recoverable sugars (TRS) per hectare and pretended those yields dont matter. Quite the contrary; we do fully understand that both the physical yield and the yield of recoverable sugars are important when discussing the productivity of sugarcane. Our analysis did in fact account for both. Our data on TRS yields came directly from USDAs Brazilian attach, which regularly publishes assessments (called GAIN reports) of commodity and trade issues. See for yourself: To figure TRS yield per hectare, we also need to know the physical sugarcane yield per hectare. We got data for physical harvested sugarcane yields from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), which is a widely cited and publicly available government source (Joel chastises our use of the IBGE data, despite the fact that it is the only publicly available data set and is regularly referenced by USDA and others). Then its simply a matter of multiplying physical yield per hectare by TRS yield per metric ton. Its not rocket science. What the data shows is that while physical cane yields have risen slightly over the past decade, TRS yields have not. The net effect is that TRS yields per hectare havent grown much at all in the last 10 years (and have actually receded in recent years). Again, TRS per hectare is the amount of sugar produced per hectare that is actually available for conversion to ethanol (or other purposes). So, if net sugar yields per hectare arent really increasing, theres only one other way to enlarge sugar supplies for increased ethanol productionexpand sugarcane acreage. And thats exactly whats happened in Brazil. IBGE data shows a doubling in sugarcane area since 1999 and UNICAs own chart shows a quadrupling since the mid-1970s. Next, Joels post accuses us of somehow doing an apples-to-oranges comparison of corn yields and sugarcane yields because sugarcane is a semi-perennial crop that takes about a year to reach maturity and is then harvested for 5-7 years without needing to be replanted. Whats that got to do with the price of tea in China? I fail to see what the growing cycle has to do with our point that annual TRS yields are flat or falling and physical yields are increasing only marginally. Sugarcane plantings are staggered such that sugarcane is harvested annually. As such, annual data is published by government agencies on physical yields and TRS yieldswe simply presented their data. Joel says we included non-harvested cane in our calculation of TRS yield per hectare. Rest assured, we did not. The IBGE sugarcane yield data is for harvested sugarcane only. Im not even sure how or why one would estimate the yield of unharvested sugarcane. The post also scolds us for purportedly not recognizing that sugarcane has uses other than producing ethanol. Joel says we shouldnt have included sugarcane that isnt used for ethanol in our yield calculations (at least I think thats what hes saying). This argument just doesnt stand up. Average yields are average yieldsit doesnt matter what the sugarcane is being used for. The end use doesnt change the cane yield or the TRS yield of the sugar. Talk about obfuscating the facts. The bottom line here is that sugarcane area is expanding and the yield of recoverable sugars per hectare isnt increasing much (if at all). Yet, somehow Brazilian sugarcane ethanol has largely escaped being penalized for predicted land use changes in EPAs analysis (U.S. corn ethanol was saddled with a penalty of 32 kgCO2e/mmBTU in net international land use change emissions, while Brazilian sugarcane ethanol was assessed a penalty of just 4 kgCO2e/mmBTU). In closing his post, Joel urges RFA to shoot straight. Make no mistake. We shoot straight and our aim is true (literally and figuratively: we have two former U.S. Army expert marksmen on staff, including myself). We would have been more than happy to sit down with Joel or anyone else to walk through our analysis. Alternatively, we would have been happy just to defend ourselves and our work on UNICAs non-blog. If UNICA wants to have the open and transparent debate that its ground rules aspire to, they should allow us to comment in real time when they post something new. If theyre not willing to do that, then they should stop calling Sweeter Alternative a blog.