Your aim is for Brazil to produce sustainable biofuel while preserving its rainforests. Isn't that close to having your cake and eating it?
It's true that those of us who think like this are in a minority, caught between those who don't worry about the environmental costs of bioethanol and those who claim it is impossible to produce biofuels sustainably. The answer to those who condemn all biofuels has to be to differentiate where these fuels are being produced: we must ensure that Brazil's biofuel is green and sustainable.
How do you do make it sustainable?
A few years ago, when the search for fossil fuel replacements became more urgent, Brazil rediscovered the sugar cane ethanol programme it put into place in the 1970s because of the oil crisis. Back then, nobody worried about sustainability. Now we have to show why Brazil's sugar cane ethanol is different from America's maize ethanol. It is unfair to lump the two together. Our bioethanol is produced by using less than 1 per cent of Brazil's total agricultural area. It does not destroy preserved areas or compete for land with food crops. In fact, Brazilian food production should increase in the next five years. People fear sugar cane will be planted in the Amazon rainforest, but it is too humid for sugar cane there. We want to supply the world with green ethanol without cutting down a single tree. That's the challenge.
How much progress have you made?
At the moment only about one-third of the sugar cane biomass can be transformed into energy. It is an inefficient process. If we can make ethanol from the non-edible parts of the plant as well, we can double productivity. To achieve this, we need to know more about the plant's structure. That's where I come in. I've spent 20 years as a plant cell-wall biologist. We've set up a virtual research institute, and expect that, within five years, this will lead to new technologies to produce fermentable sugars from the non-edible parts of the plant. It's an exciting time to be a plant biologist in Brazil. You could say it's our Manhattan Project. We're preparing the ethanol bomb!
Are you concerned about the ecology of where sugar cane is grown?
I am determined to push for sugar cane to be grown in a sustainable way, conserving or regenerating forest areas in sugar cane fields. So instead of a sea of cane stretching as far as the eye can see, there would be areas of forest too. Things are changing. The government of São Paulo - where half of Brazil's bioethanol is produced - has just introduced more drastic laws requiring that 20 per cent of fields must be set aside as ecological corridors.
How did you become so interested in plants?
It began when I was growing up in São Paulo, next to a community of Japanese immigrants. I walked to school through their market gardens with their rows of lettuces, tomatoes, peppers... I used to read a lot of science fiction, too, and my grandfather was an inventor, so that got me interested in science.
I've heard that you think plants are intelligent. In what sense?
I don't mean they are more intelligent than us, but they do have intelligence. We put our brains to work for them, to look after them and water them. So who dominates who? Man or plant?
Marcos Buckeridge has a doctorate in biology and molecular sciences from the University of Stirling, UK. After 20 years at São Paulo's Institute of Biology in his native Brazil, he moved to the University of São Paulo's botany department. He is coordinator of Bioen, the bioenergy programme of FAPESP, São Paulo state's research centre.