What would fuels, plastic, synthetic fabric, and even toothpaste be made of if we stopped using petrochemicals? Some scientists in Brazil have an answer: sugarcane.

Brazil has grown sugarcane since the early 1500s and remains the world’s largest producer of both sugarcane and refined sugar.

Amid fossil-fuel-driven climate change and intensifying consumption from development, finding sustainable replacements for petroleum-based fuels has been a pressing concern for decades. Recent scientific advances have offered plant-based products as a solution. Renewable and often biodegradable, these could replace the wide variety of petrochemicals used daily, from fuel to plastic to synthetic fabrics.

Fuel station in São Paulo showing the prices of both gas (red sign) and ethanol (sugarcane-based biofuels, green sign).

However, given histories of plantation-based colonialism, scientists in places like Brazil contend that such plant-based solutions to climate change will not be one-size-fits-all.

Ruins of a sixteenth-century sugarcane mill in São Paulo.
Colonial-era sugarcane mill equipment, used to transform cane into refined sugar through the labor of millions of slaves as well as animals over several centuries in Brazil, on display at a museum.

My research studies how scientists make bioproducts from sugarcane in Brazil in the present day. If between the 16th and 20th centuries Brazilian sugarcane was located at the nexus of plantation and factory, in the 21st century it is located at the nexus of industrial-agricultural field, flexible factory, and biotech laboratory. Building on the extensive Brazilian scholarship on contemporary sugarcane labor, my research looks at a different, increasingly important site of sugarcane production: the production of knowledge in the lab. I ask how scientists transform this crop with a long, violent history into biofuels, bioplastics, and beyond.

Sugarcane and other biomass samples in the lab, used to study the production of various plant-based bioproducts—from biofuels to bioplastics to sugar-based pharmaceuticals.
Breaking down sugarcane into sugars and chemicals that can be used to make bioproducts.

Drawing on ethnographic methods—including participant observation and interviews—and a methodological technique I call a sugar library, my research demonstrates how such sugary transformations of cane into bioproducts sometimes reproduce petro-extractivist capitalism under the guise of sustainability, yet also create possibilities for material and social change. My work spells out how technical practices of transforming molecules in the lab traffic with broader social ideas of transforming society.

This research is supported by a NSF Dissertation Improvement Grant (BCS-1918156) and the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship (1842494).

Plastic bag made from sugarcane in Brazil. Even though it is plant-based, it is not biodegradable because it is an exact chemical replica of petroleum-based plastic. What are the differences we care about—the differences that make a difference—when it comes to plant-based renewables?

All photographs on this page by Katie Ulrich, with the exception of the last one, taken by a sugarcane genetics researcher.