Environmental Impact of Sugar

What is our sweet tooth costing the planet?

The environmental impact of growing and refining sugar cane and sugar beets entwines with the health and social consequences of our desire to eat it.

As an environmentalist with a major sweet tooth, I have successfully avoided researching and writing about sugar for many years. It is not that I do not think about sugar or worry about it. I do. Sugar’s environmental footprint does concern me and I am increasingly alarmed about its role in the rise of obesity and other life-threatening diseases in the U.S. and around the world.

What was holding me back? Perhaps it was the hefty time commitment needed for the research phase. More likely it was the fear that I might learn things that would (gulp) require me to change what I eat.

In January, while I was writing 10 Easy and Green Exercise New Year’s Resolutions, I decided to bite the bullet and take on sugar. Publishing a blog post about the environmental impact of sugar became my 2019 New Year’s resolution. I did not quite make my original target publication deadline of June 30, but as you can see I came close.

Along the way, I learned way more than I bargained for so I decided to write two posts. This first post will provide a primer on sugar and an overview of its environmental impact. The second post will discuss health and social implications.

Let’s start with some basic information about sugar.

Sugar 101

Plants Produce Sucrose through Photosynthesis Infographic

Sugar is a generic name for the sweet, colorless, water-soluble compounds that occur naturally in plants and the milk of mammals, including humans.

Green plants produce a type of sugar called sucrose during photosynthesis. (Image credit The Sugar Association.)

You probably know that carbohydrates provide your body with its main source of energy and help keep your brain and internal systems functioning. Sucrose is one type of carbohydrate consisting of glucose and fructose molecules. Food sources of sucrose include fruits, vegetables, and nuts as well as foods with refined sugar added during processing.

Sugar Cane and Sugar Beets

The two major sources of refined (table sugar) are sugar cane and sugar beets because they contain the highest concentration of sucrose (about 16%). Another use for sugar cane and sugar beets is making biofuels and bioplastics (a topic deserving of its own post).

Sugar cane is a tropical grass that reaches 10-20 feet tall. It likes warm humid conditions with lots of rainfall so much of the cultivation takes place in countries near the equator. Sugar cane is a perennial plant meaning that it will grow back from its roots.

Sugar beet is a root crop that produces large off-white beets that can weigh 3-5 pounds each. Temperate climates with warm days and cool nights suit sugar beets but they may be picky about soil and moisture levels. Today, almost all sugar beets in the U.S. are grown from GMO seeds with built-in resistance to the herbicide glyphosate.

Sugar Refining

Sugar cane begins to deteriorate as soon as it is harvested so it must be transported quickly to a processing facility. On the other hand, sugar beets can be stored for several months.

Once the sugar cane or sugar beets arrive at a processing facility the refining process is fairly similar involving a lot of washing, crushing, heating, filtering, clarifying, crystallizing, and drying. This is a water and energy-intensive process.

The end product of the refining process is crystallized sugar.

Byproducts are produced along the way including fiber, press mud, and molasses. After the sugar has been extracted from the crushed cane or beets, the remaining fiber is used to generate electricity, manufactured into paper goods, or pelletized for animal feed. Press mud from the clarifying process is spread on fields as fertilizer. The molasses that is separated from the sugar crystals during centrifuging finds a ready market with the alcoholic beverage industry.

This short video will give you a quick overview of how sugar is made from sugar cane and sugar beets. There are more videos in the resources section at the end of the post.

Now, let’s talk about the environmental impact of sugar.

Environmental Issues

Both sugar cane and sugar beets are grown as monoculture crops meaning that a single type of plant covers large swaths of land uninterrupted by other crops or plants. This industrial agriculture practice is not unique to sugar and results in a host of problems.

Land

Monoculture crops crave land…well…their farmers do.

Aerial View of Sugar Cane Plantations in Northeast Brazil
This aerial view shows sugar cane plantations as far as the eye can see in Northeastern Brazil –photo credit iStock/VelhoJunio.

Nowadays, massive machines and agrochemicals make it possible for farmers to cultivate huge areas of a single crop. This encourages clearing more land for farming. Rainforests, grasslands, and wetlands are being destroyed at an alarming rate to make way for crops such as sugar cane and sugar beets.

Besides storing carbon these critical ecosystems provide habitat for a wide array of flora and fauna, nourish the soil, provide food and medicine for people, filter water, and prevent erosion and flooding.

Pesticides

Lack of biodiversity makes monocrops like sugar cane and sugar beets especially vulnerable to insects, weeds, and diseases which can wipe out an entire crop.

To combat this problem farmers rely on pesticides (poisons) to kill insects, weeds, fungi, nematodes, and rodents. Pesticides are applied to fields by low flying airplanes (crop dusters) and sprayed from tanks pulled by tractors or that are strapped onto the backs of farmworkers.

Pesticides endanger the health of farmworkers, their families, and people living, working, or going to school near fields where pesticides are applied. They kill beneficial insects, non-targeted plants, and wildlife. Toxic runoff from fields pollutes streams, lakes, and oceans as well as groundwater and drinking water supplies.

Many, if not most pests are able to quickly evolve resistance to the pesticides made to kill them. This results in agrochemical companies developing increasingly more powerful pesticides in an unending vicious cycle.

Fertilizers

Growing sugar cane and sugar beets deplete the soil of essential microorganisms and nutrients.

Farmers turn to fertilizers (usually made from fossil fuels) to provide nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, but it does not last so fertilizer has to be applied for each new crop.

Wet Season Runoff from Sugar Cane Fields in Queensland, Australia
Wet season runoff from a sugar cane plantation in Queensland, Australia flows toward the Coral Sea and the Great Barrier Reef – photo credit CSIRO. Click here to read the article.

Fertilizers runoff fields into waterways and water bodies. Because the runoff is rich in nutrients it depletes the water of oxygen creating dead zones in streams, estuaries, and lakes where nothing can live. It also contributes to problems like toxic algae blooms in the ocean.

Water

Sugar cane is a thirsty crop with water requirements similar to rice and cotton, sugar beets less so. Producing 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of sugar from sugar cane requires 390 gallons of water; sugar beets require 243 gallons of water.

To put this into perspective, one person’s drinking water requirements for slightly more than two years would be fulfilled by the water required to make just 1 kilogram of sugar.

Damming rivers and diverting streams to irrigate sugar cane and sugar beet crops jeopardize the water supply for people who live downstream. Changes in hydrology significantly impact ecosystems and the wildlife whose habitats are altered or destroyed.

Everglades Example

You have probably heard the real estate phrase, “Location, location” meaning that where a property is located is a top priority for buyers. This concept translates to farmland, too. Some locations provide better conditions for crops than others and some result in substantially more environmental damage than others.

Let’s talk about the Florida Everglades.

Sawgrass Prairie at Everglades National Park
Sawgrass prairie at the Everglades National Park – photo credit G. Gardner/Everglades National Park Service.

The Everglades watershed is a one-of-a-kind subtropical wetland ecosystem that has been known as the river of grass ever since Marjory Stoneman Douglas published her book The Everglades: River of Grass in 1947.

The amazing biodiversity of the Everglades draws tourists from all over the world. It teems with wildlife including more than 360 species of birds and an extensive variety of plants from sawgrass to pine trees to orchids.

Florida Panther in Everglades National Park

The Everglades is home to dozens of threatened or endangered species such as the Florida panther (shown here), American crocodile, snail kite, wood stork, and West Indian manatee. (Photo credit Rodney Cammauf/NPS.)

Wetlands filter out pollutants, replenish aquifers and reduce flooding. About a third of Floridians rely on the Everglades watershed for drinking water as do the farmers of hundreds of thousands of acres of agricultural fields.

Growing sugar cane is a major contributor to the destruction of the irreplaceable Everglades.

Converting the northern sections of the Everglades watershed into agricultural land, mostly to grow sugar cane, has resulted in a major loss of habitat. Phosphorus runoff from the sugar cane fields and water flow disruptions from Lake Okeechobee represent some of the gravest dangers to the health of the Everglades.

If you are interested in learning more about Florida sugar cane and the multi-billion dollar state and federal project to restore the Everglades, there are links in the resources section.

This is a prime example of how taxpayers end up footing the bill for the damage caused by businesses and industries that externalize health and environmental costs.

Sustainability Efforts

There are some farmers growing sugar cane and sugar beets in a more environmentally and people-friendly manner, but this represents only a small segment of the enormous sugar industry. Organizations supporting these efforts include Bonsucro, Fairtrade, and Rainforest Alliance.

In addition, people concerned about GMOs in their food are pushing for more organic sugar, which precludes the use of GMOs and synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.

These are steps in the right direction that you can support with your wallet whenever you buy sugar and foods that contain sugar.

Featured Image at Top: Sugar beets growing in a field – photo credit iStock/stevanovicigor.

Related Posts

Resources

Resources – Everglades

Are High-Efficiency Toilets Worth It?

You can choose to conserve water.

What if conserving water was as easy as flushing a toilet? It is if you replace your old water hogging probably leaky toilet with a high-efficiency model.

A toilet replacement project may not be high on your list of priorities, but perhaps it should be.

The first day of spring is just behind us and here on the California Central Coast, a green blanket of grass covers the hillsides and the wildflowers are just beginning to show their colorful faces. It was a good rainy season for us meaning we received about the historical average rainfall for our area.

Yet, I am aware that another drought will occur in the future and that global warming will continue to make many regions like ours hotter and drier putting even more stress on already depleted water supplies.

This may sound weird but I usually have water on my mind more during the rainy season than the dry summer. Last March I wrote a series of posts about water conservation entitled Why is Now a Good Time to Implement Water Saving Ideas?, Making Water Conservation a Way of Life – Indoors, and Making Water Conservation a Way of Life – Outdoors.

This March I decided to tackle the unglamorous topic of high-efficiency toilets because toilets are notorious water wasters. Old toilet models use a whopping 3-8 gallons per flush (GPF) and they are prone to leaking. Also, in the United States, we mostly use potable water, which is water that has been treated to drinking water quality, for flushing toilets.

Toilet efficiency did get a boost when Congress passed the Energy Policy Act of 1992. Most of the law relates to energy but there is a provision to establish the first-ever federal water efficiency standards for plumbing fixtures like toilets, urinals, showerheads, and faucets. Toilets manufactured after 1994 are required to use 1.6 GPF or less.

Some of the early low flow toilets had performance problems that resulted in people flushing toilets twice defeating the purpose of using a water-efficient toilet. Fortunately, toilet designers unleashed their creativity and now 25 years later, high-efficiency toilets get the job done consistently with even less water.

Residential Indoor Water End Uses Pie Chart (Percentages and Gallons)

A 2016 Water Resource Foundation study found that each person flushes the toilet on average 5 times a day at home, which represents about 24% of residential indoor water use. (Image showing percentages and gallons – DziegielewskiBA – Wikipedia.)

By replacing your old leaky toilets with high-efficiency models you can reduce the amount of drinking water your household flushes down the toilet, conserve water, and save money on your water/sewer bill.

The balance of this post covers my family’s experience with high-efficiency toilets and provides a list of things to think about before you start your own toilet replacement project.

Deciding to Invest in High-Efficiency Toilets

Our mission to conserve water in our household began shortly after we moved here from Southern California in 2007. Originally, we focused on creating a drought-resistant yard and as our aging appliances needed replacing, we purchased water and energy-efficient models.

In 2013, when our water district banned outdoor watering with potable water, my spouse and I realized we needed to ramp up our water conservation measures.

One of the things we did was to implement an “if it is yellow, let it mellow” toilet flushing policy. This saved water but it did not seem like a good long-term strategy. Putting bricks in our toilet tanks or installing retrofit kits did not seem like ideal solutions. We also discovered that our toilets were leaking (see below for instructions on how to check for leaks).

My family strongly objected to my suggestion that we consider switching to composting toilets and to be honest I was not ready to make that leap either.

After I had thoroughly researched high-efficiency toilets, we decided to replace our three old leaky toilets. It was a considerable financial investment but the water savings over the past 4 years and 4 months have been and will continue to be significant for years to come.

Our High-Efficiency Toilet Replacement Project

We opted for a Toto Connelly dual flush model with a lever versus a button. The toilet user pushes the lever one way to flush with 0.9 gallons of water and the other way to flush with 1.28 gallons of water (there is a label on top of the toilet tank). The lever design prevents over flushing.

Our cost per toilet in 2014 was $808 less a $25 rebate from our water company for a net cost of $783. This included the toilet, a toilet seat, small parts needed for installation, sales tax, installation, and disposing of the old toilet.

Performance

High-efficiency toilets use gravity-assisted technology to flush the contents down the toilet with substantially less water than older models. Our toilets perform adequately and consistently. It does help to toss toilet paper in the deepest part of the bowl but this is an easy habit to learn.

The extremely hard water our household receives is tough on plumbing fixtures including faucets and toilet guts. One of our toilets required a replacement part a few months ago. Even without hard water, you should expect that any kind of toilet might need maintenance from time to time.

Cleaning

A special material coats the toilet bowls to keep them clean with less water but skid marks do occur occasionally. Toilet cleaner manufacturers have programmed us to believe that our toilets should always be sparkling clean so if you feel uncomfortable with skid marks you can easily clean them off with toilet paper, a water spray bottle, or a sponge.

To protect the special finish in the toilet bowl manufacturers recommend that you do not use abrasive cleaners or toilet brushes (plastic is okay) and do not put automatic toilet bowl cleaning disks inside the bowl.

For cleaning the toilets, I don rubber gloves, squirt toilet bowl cleaner in the bowl, and use our designated toilet cleaning sponge to clean it. I find this is easier and quicker than using a toilet brush.

Payback Period

A payback period is the length of time it takes an investment to recover its initial cost either in profits or savings.

For reasons, I do not fully understand there seems to be an expectation of a payback period for some home improvement projects like installing solar panels or high-efficiency toilets but not for others such as remodeling a kitchen or bathroom.

I am willing to play along if it helps you with making a decision to replace your old toilets. My family of four refused to participate in a toilet flushing study so I used five flushes per day in my analysis. Here are our results for replacing three old leaky toilets with high-efficiency toilets.

The total cost of the toilet installation was $2,349 divided by an estimated annual water savings of 502 gallons = a payback period of 4.7 years.

Our toilets are dual flush models that use less water overall so we have probably already passed the payback threshold.

You can do your own analysis using the Excel spreadsheet I created for our project.

Tips for High-Efficiency Toilet Replacement Projects

Whether you have one toilet to replace or several, buying and installing a high-efficiency toilet is not an inexpensive project so you will want a toilet that works and will last for many years. Here are a few things to consider for your own project.

  • Do your homework so you can select a model that is suitable for your household. Read reviews and watch videos made by manufacturers and high-efficiency toilet fans.
  • Beware of unnecessary bells and whistles. Do you really need a toilet with a sensor that flushes the toilet when you pass your hand over it?
  • Do not buy a cheap model. In the world of toilets, you get what you pay for. There is a wide range of high-quality toilets on the market so chances are you can find one that fits in your budget.
  • Do not buy a toilet online. Toilets are made of vitreous china and are prone to getting hairline cracks during shipping. Imagine the hassle of shipping a toilet back to the manufacturer or even worse not realizing that it will leak.
  • Unless you are a plumber, hire a professional with experience installing high-efficiency toilets.
  • Contact your water company to find out if they are offering rebates (every little bit helps).

Pay It Forward

When you sell your home, include your high-efficiency toilets as a selling point.

If you live in a municipality (I do) that requires new homeowners to certify that their home is retrofitted with high-efficiency plumbing fixtures you will have saved potential buyers the inconvenience of doing it themselves while they are trying to move into their new home.

High Efficiency Dual Flush Toilet Top Flush Label
The handy label on the left side shows toilet users which way to push the vertical lever mounted on the left side of the toilet (backward for 0.9 GPF and forward for 1.28 GPF).

After reading this post, I hope you feel more informed about high-efficiency toilets and are at least considering replacing your old water guzzling and possibly leaky toilets. Once you do, you will be conserving water every time you flush your toilet.

I realize that this may not be a good time for you to embark on a high-efficiency toilet replacement project for a variety of reasons. If that is the case, there are plenty of other actions you can take to conserve water at home. The posts below in the resources section provide a variety of ideas including actions that are easy and low or no cost.

Featured Image at Top: Low water levels at Lake Mead, which is a man-made lake on the Colorado River – photo credit John Locher/Associated Press. When full, Lake Mead is the largest water reservoir in the United States. Click here to read the article that accompanies the photo.

How to Check Your Toilet for Leaks

Leaking toilets waste water and money. Here are two easy methods for determining if a toilet is leaking.

  1. Turn off the water valve behind the toilet. After an hour or so, check the level of the water in the toilet bowl. If it is lower or the bowl is empty your toilet leaks.
  2. Put 10-15 drops of food coloring in the toilet tank. After 20 or 30 minutes, if you see color in the toilet bowl your toilet leaks.

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Resources