Technological changes transform the profile of the ethanol refinery workforce | AGÊNCIA FAPESP

Technological changes transform the profile of the ethanol refinery workforce The transition from manual to mechanized harvesting and the production of second-generation ethanol reduce the size of the workforce but lead to increased pay and schooling according to a study presented at BBEST Conference (photo: Léo Ramos / Pesquisa FAPESP magazine)

Technological changes transform the profile of the ethanol refinery workforce

November 08, 2017

By Elton Alisson, in Campos do Jordão (Brazil)  |  Agência FAPESP – The technological changes undergone by the Brazilian sugar and energy industry in recent years, such as mechanized instead of manual planting and harvesting and the production of second-generation (2G) ethanol from sugarcane bagasse and straw, have modified the profile of ethanol refinery workers.

Although new agricultural and manufacturing technologies have contributed to a reduction in the number of workers employed by the industry, the technologies have also given rise to a new category of worker with more schooling, better pay, and less susceptibility to occupational accidents.

These are the findings of a study conducted by researchers at the National Bioethanol Science & Technology Laboratory (CTBE), which belongs to the National Energy & Materials Research Center (CNPEM) in Campinas, São Paulo State, Brazil.

A description of the study was published in the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment and presented to the 2017 Brazilian BioEnergy Science & Technology Conference (BBEST), held in the São Paulo State city of Campos do Jordão.

Hosted by the FAPESP Bioenergy Research Program (BIOEN), the event took place on October 17-19. Researchers from Brazil and abroad attended the conference to discuss the latest advances of research in bioenergy.

“We found that there was a decrease in the number of workers needed to produce ethanol and, at the same time, there was an increase in pay and in the proportion of the workforce with higher levels of schooling,” Alexandre Souza, a research at CTBE, told Agência FAPESP.

Souza and colleagues evaluated the social impacts of technological changes in the sugar and ethanol industries using the Virtual Sugarcane Biorefinery (BVC is the Portuguese-language acronym), a computer simulation tool developed by CTBE to predict the integration of new technologies into the agricultural, industrial and commercial steps of the production chain for sugarcane and other types of biomass. 

This tool includes a program called CanaSoft, which simulates agricultural activities based on parameters for planting, harvesting, transportation, agricultural operations, machinery, implements, agrochemicals, fertilizer, and the hours required to produce ethanol.

Using this tool and employment statistics supplied by sugar mills to the Labor Ministry as well as data from Social Security, the researchers evaluated the effects of technological changes in the agricultural and industrial segments on job creation, work accidents, pay levels and educational levels under three ethanol production scenarios.

The first scenario assumes 1G ethanol production with less advanced technology, consisting of semi-mechanized planting and manual harvesting, which has been abolished in almost 90% of São Paulo State’s sugarcane fields but is still the rule in the Northeast and areas where mechanical harvesting is limited by sloping terrains.

The second scenario assumes 1G ethanol production with optimized technologies consisting of mechanized planting and harvesting methods as well as the co-generation of electricity by burning biomass. The third scenario assumes integrated 1G+2G ethanol production.

The results showed that mechanized harvesting combined with 2G ethanol production caused a decrease in the workforce due to the reduction in the need for people to perform manual operations such as planting and harvesting and to the reduction of sugarcane needed to produce 2G ethanol, which boosts yield per hectare. In addition, the frequency of work accidents decreased, thanks especially to mechanization.

“We infer that the decrease in occupational accidents is due to the fact that fewer workers are involved in these activities, their protection is more effective, and they don’t have to work under the harsh conditions that manual cane cutters are subject to,” Souza said.

Educational and pay profiles

The study also pointed to changes in pay levels being driven by the technological transition. While most workers involved in 1G ethanol production were paid between one and one-and-a-half times the minimum wage, mechanization led to a rise in the amount paid to between two and three times the minimum wage.

“Mechanization increases the share of these wage brackets because workers need more technical skills, such as machine operation,” Souza explained. The increased requirements for technical skills were also reflected in the new educational profile for workers in the industry.

Most workers in the 1G ethanol scenario had not completed their elementary schooling. Under the optimized 1G ethanol and integrated 1G+2G scenarios, the proportion that had completed secondary school increased.

“This increased schooling effect could be even more positive if the industry invested in training to transform manual cane cutters into machine operators, for example, instead of simply replacing them,” Souza said.

The article “Social life cycle assessment of first and second-generation ethanol production technologies in Brazil” (doi: 10.1007/s11367-016-1112-y) by Souza et al., published in the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, can be retrieved at




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