To the untrained eye, Brazil’s sugarcane plantations have never looked better. Rare, feather-like violet flowers have shot up from the top of the plants, filling the shimmering skyline of São Paulo’s countryside.
However, local farmers know it is an ominous sign. The flowers, which are induced when the sugarcane plant comes under acute physiological stress, are a testament to the terrible climatic conditions the crop endured last year and a warning of the poor harvest to come.
“I can’t even remember the last time I saw those flowers,” says Cristiano Santos Waldisser, a manager at Guarani, a sugar and ethanol company about six hours’ drive north-west of São Paulo in Ribeirão Preto.
The violet flowers – and their message of a poor harvest – have sent ripples through the sugar market, which relies on Brazil for about half of global exports. Unica, the country’s cane industry association, this week slashed its forecast for sugar output from the key centre-south region from an original estimate of 34.6m tonnes to just 32.4m tonnes now – down 3.3 per cent from last year and the first drop in Brazilian production in more than five years.