The chief agronomist of the Agrovale Sugar Company near Petrolina in the state of Bahia is Adermario Araujo.

He told us that sugar cane was now the most important crop in Brazil.

What he was referring to, though, was the role of sugar in the production of alcohol (we call it ethanol) rather than as a sweetener.

Lack of known oil reserves led the Brazilian government to initiate sugar-based fuel production in 1973, when the price of crude oil was $11/barrel.

“Now we can not only supply our own motorists, but earn money from exports,” he said.

In fact, most modern Brazilian cars run on petrol or alcohol or any mixture of the two.

Ironically, Brazil has now discovered oil within its territory and, together with its alcohol production, is almost self-sufficient in fuel.

Agrovale, claims Senor Araujo, is the only sugar company operating in a semi-arid area.

Despite that, it was named last year as the most efficient producer of sugar and alcohol in Brazil.

To supplement the 400mm (16in) of rain each year, he does have irrigation and an almost unlimited supply of water from the massive San Francisco river nearby.

The factory processes the cane from 16,000ha (40,000 acres) of land each year, all of which is owned by the same consortium of private investors that own the factory and the alcohol plant alongside it.

With an average 14.5% sugar content, the crop produces 16,000 50kg sacks of crystal sugar a day throughout the seven-month harvesting campaign plus 350,000 litres (77,000gal) of alcohol a day.

Sugar costs about £100/t to produce and ethanol 15p/litre.

We were amazed to learn that his entire crop was harvested by hand immediately after burning off the foliage.

More than 70% of the sugar cane in Brazil is still harvested in that way “because it is more efficient”.

What he meant was, “because it is cheaper”.

When asked about health and safety, Senor Araujo retorted that the labourers were provided with protective clothing and that the company looked after their welfare and education.

But labour is so cheap it does not pay to mechanise.

Sugar beet growers among the FW party were even more taken aback to be told there were 350 sugar processing factories in Brazil, 20 new ones due to come into use this year, a further 30 in the early stages of construction and 75 likely to be built within 10 years.

Will there be enough worldwide demand for ethanol?

Or will any excess spill over into the market for human consumption and put paid even to the possibility of a European sugar beet industry, we wondered?