In Part I of our series Sweetness & Power, we looked at the historical rise of sugar, a once-time spice that somehow entranced humans to turn it into an outright food.

In this Part II, we take a brief look at the global picture of the environmental effects sugarcane cultivation and sugar processing has had on the earth. Are the environmental costs worth suffering for a substance that contributes nutrition-less empty calories to the human diet?

Photo by srv007 under CC BY-NC 2.0

PART II: Sugarcane’s bitter effects on the environment and us

The recent forest fires in Brazil brought worldwide attention to the importance of the Amazon rainforest to reduce global warming. Deforestation had slowed in recent years, but some have accused Brazil’s leader of using rhetoric that has emboldened loggers, ranchers, and farmers of intentionally setting fires to clear more land, for among other things, sugarcane cultivation.

Brazil is the world’s second largest producer of sugarcane and by far the world’s biggest exporter of it.

The traditional practice of sugarcane growers around in Brazil (and the world) burning their fields prior to harvest caused concern in the mid-2000s when smoke posed a major threat to both the environment but also to human health.

The rapid expansion of the world’s land area under sugarcane cultivation has drawn attention to its environmental and social impacts. In 2008, with support from the World Wildlife Fund, Bonsucro was established to promote more sustainable practices in sugarcane growing among the variety of shareholders connected to it.

Bonsucro is a nonprofit organization that brings together sugar producers, millers, traders, “end users,” civil society organizations, farmer associations, and even individual farmers. US members include huge end users like Coca Cola, PepsiCo, Hersheys, and General Mills.

Currently, Bonsucro has as its members eleven farmer associations from Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Mauritius, South Africa, and Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), 15 “civil society” organizations such as the Thailand Society of Sugarcane Technologists (TSSCT), and hundreds of sugar companies, including Khon Kaen Sugar Industry (KSL) Group and the sugar giant Mitr Phol Group.

Bonsucro’s mission is “to ensure that responsible sugarcane production creates lasting value for the people, communities, businesses, economies and eco-systems in all cane-growing origins.” One of its mechanisms for meeting his mission is it certification program.

In its 2019 report, Bonsucro claims that 27 percent of the world’s sugarcane-grown land “is engaged” with the organization, that it has certified 66 million tons of sugarcane produced, and that four percent of the world’s sugarcane land “is certified to Bonsucro.”

This is a promising trend for an agricultural industry that has struggled with addressing the environmental impacts of its activities.

One of the few more comprehensive studies done on the environmental effects of sugarcane cultivation was carried about by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in 2005. The report examines the environmental impact of sugar production, but devotes the last half to finding ways to make it more sustainable (Most of the following discussion comes from the report).

WATER USE: Sugarcane needs a lot of water to grow. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), among 36 leading “field crops,” sugarcane is at the top of the for the longest growing period at 270-365 days, comparable to only alfalfa and bananas. Among the 21 “seasonal crops” that the FAO provides “approximate” water needs for, sugarcane averages 2,000 milimeters/hectare/growing period, considerable only to its next water-needy competitor of bananas at 1,700. Sugarcane is about twice more water-needy than citrus fruits and three times more than paddy rice, tomatoes, or sugar beets.

It takes 1,775 liters of water to produce one kilo of white sugar. For the average yearly consumption per capita globally of 23 kilograms of sugar, that take 40,848 liters of water, or 7.1 liters of water for every teaspoon of sugar you eat (adapted from the WWF).

As a deep-rooted crop remaining in the soil year round, sugarcane deprives water from other crops near it, extracts water from the ground water, and snatches up rainfall which can lead to reduced river flows.

IRRIGATION INEFFICIENCY: As the vast majority of poor sugarcane growers cannot afford precision irrigation, they are only able to use an estimated 30-35 percent of irrigated water, the rest is lost to evaporation or runoff.

SOIL QUALITY: The soil quality of areas under sugarcane cultivation declined by about 40 percent between 1979 and 1996 in Papua New Guinea,

INCREASED SOIL SALINITY: Because of its prodigious use of water, sugarcane production in Pakistan have led to increased salinity which affects 40 percent of the country’s cane growing areas where yields are 50 percent than in areas where soil salinity is not a problem.

SOIL EROSION: Poor quality soil conservation management of cane growing areas in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa have increased erosion and runoff, degrading the area’s rivers and estuaries.

EFFECTS ON THE OCEAN: In Australia, water management decisions to secure adequate water supplies for cane growing have inadvertently increased the amount of sentiment in freshwater flows into the ocean, adversely affecting the Great Barrier Reef.

DESTRUCTION OF THE FLORIDA EVERGLADES: Excessive use of phosphorus fertilizer on sugar cane fields in Florida has led to an expansion of cattails, a wetland plant, which have spread throughout an area of more than 50,000 hectare and crowded out other plant species and fish habitats.

DESTRUCTION OF DELTA ENVIRONMENTS AND ECONOMY: Sugarcane cultivation, benefitting the most from the damming and irrigation of water from the Indus river basin in Central Asia, have reduced the flow of the river into the Indus Delta by 90 percent, reducing the mangrove forests there by 35 percent and adversely affected seawater life there and destroying the livelihoods of four out of the five million once living there.

DEFORESTATION: Brazil’s push to use sugarcane in fuel alcohol production led deforestation of 97 percent of the forests in the state of Alagoas. The same trend is apparent in the regions of Franca, Araraquara, Ribeirao Preto and Sao Carlos. The government plans to clear forest areas to increase sugarcane cultivation in Punjab by 70 percent. Meanwhile Thailand’s government has plans to increase sugarcane cultivation by 80 percent by 2026.

PESTICIDE & HERBICIDE USE: Intensive monocropping agriculture in general are accompanied with high levels of pesticides and herbicides. Sugar cultivation is “among the highest compared to other crops.” Experiments have shown long-term, maximum use of pesticides and herbicides result “in retardation of growth and a decrease in sugar content” in sugar beets. In cane sugar, some herbicides use has been shown to decrease the sugar content of the cane by as much as 5 percent.

OVERUSE OF FERTILIZERS: As with other crops, many of the nutrients in fertilizers in sugarcane production “are not entirely taken up by the crop” but instead end up spreading throughout the environment and often get washed off and into waterways.

MILL EFFLUENTS & WASTE WATER: WWF states that it may be that “the most significant impact from cane and beet processing is related to polluted effluent.” Sugar mills release “a tremendous amount of matter” that due to its “relatively rich” organic nature results in decreasing “the oxygen levels” into the waterways it is released, “affecting natural biochemical processes and the species inhabiting those freshwater systems.” Depending on the laxity of laws in the country, other pollutants may include “heavy metals, oil, grease and cleaning agents.” When waster water retention measures fail, the results can be disastrous. In the 1990s, an alcohol factory accidentally released a huge amount of molasses into the Pong River in Khon Kaen, and the dark cloud of brown sugar killed countless fish on its journey to the Chi and Mun Rivers before entering the Mekong.

AIR POLLUTION: Sometimes extremely high levels of carbon monoxide and ozone are in the atmosphere in areas where sugarcane planters burn their fields pre-harvest. Not only does it put the public at large at risk of respiratory ailments, it degrades the soil by “causing a decline in soil microbial activity and the physical and chemical properties of the soil.”

Is sugar even a food?

Sugar is a “macronutrient” that is necessary for humans and is naturally present in most plants.

Sugarcane has a rather unique relationship with humans. It is edible while in its most refined forms it provides nothing nutritionally. But it is listed in reports by, for example, the FAO, with other plants that are edible and have some value to the human body in terms of minerals, vitamins, dietary fiber, or something. But the table sugar we most often, visibly eat has no other contribution other than pure energy.

All industrial-level agriculture can have serious effects on the environment. It is a lot easier, though, to argue for allowable environmental impacts when balanced with a nutritional net gain for humans; certain types of agricultural production can be debated when what is being grown is a food that can feed someone.

So the cane and beet sugar industry has an uphill battle in this respect because its main output for human consumption–white sugar–is nutritionally empty, what is called “empty calories.” Processed white sugar has no nutritional value: no protein, no fats, no dietary fiber, no minerals, no vitamins. Molasses and brown sugar are less processed and contain at least some meaningful minerals. Even what superficial nutritional value brown sugar has might be stripped out as manufacturers have in some cases merely put small amounts of molasses back into refined sugar to make it more marketable as a “healthier” option.

The more processed and “pure,” the sugar, the less nutritional value it has. Like white bread uses white where most of the nutritional value has been removed; white sugar is the ultimate substance of empty calories.

Comparing sugarcane sugars and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS, a common sweetener added to processed foods) to more common, traditional ones, molasses, honey, and maple syrup differ from the other two as they contain a small amount of fat. Molasses does have some significant amounts of calcium, iron, and potassium. Brown sugar is stripped of two-thirds of those minerals. And unlike all the other sugars compared here, honey does have a little protein, dietary fiber, and Vitamin C. It is also claimed by some to carry “anti-microbial and anti-bacterial properties.”

Source: Based on 100 gram portions on fatsecrete website. Based on the US Institute of Medicine’s Recommended Daily Intake (RDI).

It is questionable that white sugar (or HFCS) should even be considered a food, a point made apparent when comparing it to real foods whose production, despite the environmental impact their production might cause, can at least claim to be food.

Like all human cultivation of agriculture, there are inevitable environmental effects. Human societies and governments debate about whether the drawbacks of growing something are outweighed by its benefits to growers and consumers.

Source: Based on 100 gram portions and adapted from Wikipedia/Rice and USDA.

When sugar is grown as a “food,” it compares poorly to actual foods that have some nutritional value and makes a poorer case for the environmental impacts its production creates.

And yet, the consumer plays a larger-than-usual role when it comes to sugar. Sugar meets both a need for carbohydrates and an addiction-like craving for sweetness.

In Part III of our series, The Isaan Record examines processed sugar’s dominance in the modern global diet has affected human health, and whether a new generation of artificial sweeteners can meet the human craving for sweetness.

We also answer the question: If all the sugar you consumed in one year were thought of in footballs of solid sugar, how many footballs of sugar do you eat?

Additional material by Teresa Montanero who majors in Anthropology at Georgetown University and Sam Rickman who studies Environmental Science at the University of Colorado Boulder. Both studied about development and human rights issues in the Northeast in spring 2019.