What would plastic containers, cosmetic fragrances, and paint thinners be made of if we stopped using petrochemicals? Some plant biologists and biotech companies are suggesting an answer: sugar. Amid calls for people to change the fossil-fuel consumption habits that drive climate change, replacing petroleum-based fuels with renewable ones frequently takes center-stage. However, we often overlook how petrochemicals—chemicals derived from petroleum, the mixture of hydrocarbons extracted from the ground as crude oil—pervade our everyday lives as an invisible ingredient in a vast array of ordinary materials and items, such as plastics, food preservatives, synthetic clothing, tires, and even toothpaste.
In the same way that renewable fuels can be made from plants, some scientists and companies primarily in the United States, Europe, and Brazil have started utilizing plants—specifically, the sugar that plants contain—to make renewable chemicals as well. With this potential to make a wide variety of materials from sugar, biotechnofix dreams envision plants transforming entire industries. If the twentieth century was an era of petrochemicals and petro-, the twenty-first century could become one of sucrochemicals and sucro-.
What’s at stake with these sucro futures, both for the scientists wrapped up in them and for our petro-based consumption habits? I first briefly contextualize some of the plants and places relevant for sucrochemical futures. I then recall a moment early in my fieldwork that centered on a related sucro future about biofuels. Placing these two futures side by side—broader sucrochemical imaginings and this particular biofuel future from my fieldwork—I ask how much these biotechnofix dreams centered around sugar actually transform the petrochemical world we live in. What if these sucro futures are not futures of substance, but simply placeholders for what might be?
Sugarcane chemicals and Brazil
Plants are a good feedstock for making chemicals (and fuels) precisely because of their sugar. Sucrose molecules in sugarcane molasses or starchy grains can be easily broken down and fed to tiny microbes such as yeast, which metabolize the sugar and excrete ethanol in turn. (This is a common source of biofuels, and also beer and wine.) This ethanol can then be chemically converted into other useful chemicals. Or, scientists can metabolically engineer the microbe to do such chemical conversions itself within the cell and excrete useful chemicals directly.
However, not all plants are equal when it comes to sucro futures. When speaking of plants and sugar, sugarcane is unmatched. Sugarcane is the most photosynthetically efficient plant, converting energy from sunlight into the carbon structures of sugar molecules at a higher rate than any other species. Its exceptionality was understood far before molecular knowledge of its photosynthesis; in the sixteenth century it became the core of a colonial production system and slave economy in Brazil and the Caribbean, and since then has remained a highly valued crop around which continuing violent social and economic relations have been organized (Freyre 1937; Scheper-Hughes 1992; Mintz 1985).
The largest producer of sugarcane in the world today is Brazil, which grows more sugarcane than the next six top producers. Brazil has led breeding programs for decades, which have yielded the planet’s most efficient sugarcane varieties. An intensified focus on sugarcane cultivation began during the 1970s when heavy government subsidies funded a revolution in domestic industry by promoting sugarcane biofuels. The popularity of biofuels in Brazil waxed and waned over the years, even as they remained a ubiquitous and mundane fact for Brazilian consumers. Still today, almost all cars on the road are flex vehicles that can take either gasoline, biofuels, or any blend of the two; fuel stations display the daily prices for both, so drivers can choose at the pump. In the mid-2000s, the renewed economic and technical promise of sugar-based products led the country to once again allocate an extraordinary amount of state funding for sugarcane research. Most of this funding was directed toward biofuels, piggybacking on Brazil’s historical precedent in the sector.
I first visited Brazil near the end of this funding spree, in 2013. At that point, talking with Brazilian sugarcane scientists, I found that many were already envisioning different futures for the country and for their research.
During my visit I worked in a basic science lab at a university in São Paulo researching the architecture of different sugar compounds in biomass cells. In contrast to the lush green vegetation outside, this lab was a bright, sterile white, impeccably clean and organized. Bottles and jars were meticulously labeled and obediently lined the shelves. Larger pieces of standard equipment, like centrifuges and water baths, sat around the edges of the room, while in a loft area above a slightly more clunky HPLC machine was hidden from immediate view. This aura did not fully extend to the lab’s second space, the greenhouse annex in the back of the building. Here, the benches were still clean and tidy, but instead of smelling bleach, you smelled dirt. As if signaling a transition, you brushed past grassy stalks spilling into the aisle on your way in.
The Principle Investigator of this lab—I’ll call him Gustavo—was very much intertwined with the recent sugarcane biofuels funding spree, having received new grants himself for next-generation biofuels research as well as having served as the inaugural director of a new, national biomass research center. When I started working for him, his research on the basic biology of sugarcane was carried out in the name of biofuels, even if it wasn’t necessarily directly tied to biofuel technologies.
One day in the middle of a conversation over coffee (sweetened with sugar, of course), I was taken aback by a casual dismissal of such biofuel futures. Gustavo was explaining to me that, without doubt, plant research and plant engineering to improve biofuels was very important. “Yet,” he said, “I don’t regard biofuels as so important in terms of energy.” Seeing my confusion, he continued, “What I see in biofuels is that they’re a very good excuse to develop biotechnology.”
What Gustavo meant is that he envisioned his basic research actually being used down the line for other applications besides biofuels. Perhaps his research on the molecular structure of sugar compounds in sugarcane stalks could be used to engineer other food crops to be easier to harvest, or used to make sugarcane strains with the higher sugar contents needed for other sugar-based products, such as sucrochemicals. Gustavo believed such alternative applications would have a greater societal impact than biofuels, as the latter would soon be rendered obsolete by, for example, electric transport.
For Gustavo, a future of biofuels was merely an excuse to do important and productive science, even if, or indeed because, the “real” future of that science was uncertain at the moment. What mattered to him was that his research would be useful for something in the future—crops, non-fuel sugar-based products, or another thing entirely unknowable right now—and he was confident this would be the case.
Futures that aren’t
Gustavo’s biofuels future suggests a future that is not really a future in substance, but rather a placeholder, a working assumption. Placeholders are meaningless, content-wise, but do the work of making the meantime inhabitable and workable (Riles 2011). An excuse—for doing something before uncertain futures unfold—here seems to do similar work. In other words, Gustavo’s future-as-excuse does not represent a prognosis of what’s to come; in its utterance it’s more of a working assumption that allows him to do his research in the meantime, before it can be legitimated by future applications that for him are too uncertain now.
Sucrochemical futures likewise seem in ways to be excuses for the biotech companies who mobilize them: excuses for advertising change, even revolution. A sucrochemical looks the same and acts the same and tastes the same as its petrochemical counterpart. The difference is in their production, the origin of their carbon molecules—a difference that obviously makes a difference, but is absent on the consumer end. I buy water in a sugarcane-derived plastic bottle the same way I bought water in a petroleum-derived plastic bottle. In this way sucro futures owe much more to petroworlds than anything else; they are as much about petroworlds as dreams for renewability. Sucro futures are in part a claim on continuity, of the same consumer habits and worlds centered around petroleum.
What kind of a change is this, and what kinds of changes will be needed to make more broadly livable worlds? Are such renewable futures truly “better” than current practices, and what is the importance of changing a more fundamental ethos and way of moving through the world? This has been a critique of technofixes—that they don’t force us to change enough—that unsurprisingly extends to biotech-based fixes as well. Excuses and futures that aren’t, taking different forms among scientists and state narratives and biotech companies, together start to tell a larger story about the entanglements between science, industry, and governance. What will the future hold, or not?
Freyre, Gilberto. 1937. Nordeste: Aspectos da Influencia da Cana Sobre a Vida. Rio de Janeiro: José Olympio.
Mintz, Sidney. 1985. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books.
Riles, Annelise. 2011. Collateral Knowledge: Legal Reasoning in the Global Financial Markets. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. 1992. Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil. Berkeley: University of California Press.