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 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 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.
Now, let’s talk about the environmental impact of sugar.
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.
Monoculture crops crave land…well…their farmers do.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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- The Sheer Ecstasy of being a Lunatic Farmer – Book Review
- The Voice of the River – Book Review
- Vat Meat, Cultured Meat, In Vitro Meat – Would You Eat It?
- American Sugar Alliance
- American Sugarbeet Growers Association
- Assessment of sugarcane industry: Suitability for production, consumption, and utilization – by Omprakash Sahu, Annals of Agrarian Science, Volume 16, Issue 4, December 2018
- As Big Candy Ditches GMOs, Sugar Beet Farmers Hit A Sour Patch – by Dan Charles, NPR The Salt, 05/12/16
- Does Sugar Pass the Environmental and Social Test? – by Hashem, K., McDonald, L., Parker, J., Savelyeva, A., Schoen, V., Lang, T., Food Research Collaboration Policy Brief, 2015
- Eating with a Conscience: Sugar Cane – Beyond Pesticides
- How is Sugar Made White? – by BBC Earth Lab, 08/10/18 (3:54-minute video)
- Making Beets into Sugar – by CKritNinja, 01/21/15 (4:03-minute video)
- Spatial distribution of pesticide use in Brazil: a strategy for Health Surveillance – by Wanderlei Antonio Pignati, Franco Antonio Neri de Souza e Lima, Stephanie Sommerfeld de Lara, Marcia Leopoldina Montanari Correa, Jackson Rogério Barbosa, Luís Henrique da Costa Leão, Marta Gislene Pignatti, Ciência & Saúde Coletiva, Volume 22, Number 10 Rio de Janeiro, 10/2017.
- Sugar – Wikipedia
- Sugar and the Environment: Encouraging Better Management Practices in Sugar Production – WWF, 06/2005
- Sugar Beet – Wikipedia
- Sugar Cane – Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
- Sugar Cane – Wikipedia
- Sugar: How It’s Made – by Discovery UK, 07/21/18 (7:54-minute video)
- The Sugar Association
- The State of Sustainability Initiatives Review 2014: Standards and the Green Economy – International Institute for Sustainable Development (see sugar chapter)
- U.S. Beet Sugar Association
- Water Footprint Network Product Gallery
- Why sugar beet farmers are all in on GMOs – by Annie Baxter, Marketplace, 08/09/16
Resources – Everglades
- Environmental Group Blames Big Sugar for Dangerous Everglades Flooding – by Jerry Iannelli, Miami New Times, 07/10/17
- Environmentalists’ Unlikely Republican Ally in Florida – by Gabby Deutch, The Atlantic, 08/23/18
- Everglades – Wikipedia
- Everglades National Park – U.S. National Park Service
- Florida sugar companies hit with lawsuit to halt the controversial practice of burning sugarcane – by Sam Bloch, The New Food Economy, 06/06/19
- Funding for central Everglades restoration bodes well for Fla. water health – Vero News, 06/21/19
- SFWMD should redesign EAA reservoir, Sierra Club says; other environmentalists disagree – by Tyler Treadway, Treasure Coast Newspapers, 01/11/19
- The Environmental Cost Of Growing Food – by Dan Charles, NPR The Salt, 05/05/16
- The Everglades – National Wildlife Federation