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.

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Resources – Everglades

The Landscaping Ideas of Jays – Book Review

Meet Mother Nature’s gardening experts.

If you do not usually seek gardening advice from the native flora and fauna in your community, you will after reading The Landscaping Ideas of Jays.

Yes, you read that correctly. I do mean the plants, insects, trees, birds, bees, animals, and grasses that are native to where you live. “How so?” you ask.  Read the book and you will understand.

There were two reasons that I felt certain I would enjoy reading Judith Larner Lowry’s book The Landscaping Ideas of Jays: a Natural History of the Backyard Restoration Garden.

The first is that I too am a backyard restorationist, although unlike Lowry, I am an amateur.

The second reason is that I had previously read and loved her book Gardening with a Wild Heart. As she waxed poetic about coyote bush (the first native plant I learned to identify) and talked about coveting her neighbor’s wood chip pile, I felt we were kindred spirits.

The copy of The Landscaping Ideas of Jays I just read was loaned to me by a native plant enthusiast named Linda whom I met through the San Luis Obispo chapter of the California Native Plant Society.

I must have mentioned to Linda that Gardening with a Wild Heart is one of my favorite books during a stint working with her behind the book table at a chapter meeting because she told me she owned another book by Judith Larner Lowry and offered to loan it to me.

I accepted and she brought the book to the next meeting.

Book Review

Before you begin reading The Landscaping Ideas of Jays, I suggest that you lather on the sunscreen, fill up your reusable water bottle, and grab some seed collecting envelopes because you will be wandering about with Judith Larner Lowry in her garden and the wild. You might want to bring along some snacks, too, as there will be many side trips and times to dawdle and reflect.

The chapters in the book are loosely grouped into seasons beginning with fall and ending with what Lowry calls the fifth season.

The Landscaping Ideas of Jays Book Cover

The setting for the book is California and the characters are mostly native California plants and animals with cameo appearances by California indigenous people both past and present. However, the book’s ideas and messages are universal.

Fall

Perhaps you are familiar with the term keynote speaker, meaning the speaker who sets the tone or theme for an event. In this part of the book, you will learn about designing a garden around keynote birds and plants and how California quail and coyote bush fill the keynote roles in Lowry’s restoration garden. The following excerpt is about quail.

“In exchange for room in our gardens, they give the graceful gift of thriving among us. As they skim fences, ignoring property rights and heading for what they need regardless of who owns it, they stitch neighborhoods together, providing a local totem and a topic of much conversation.”

Wherever you live, there is sure to be a keynote bird and/or plant that would love to visit or find a home in your yard or garden.

Winter

This segment begins with a chapter intriguingly called “Eating the Rain” and quickly moves to wintertime storytelling as Lowery acquaints you with the histories of three botanical women and their contributions to California native plant knowledge.

“In the winter I read long hours, dipping into the California native plant literary canon. It seems that the three women whose lives and contributions I describe in this part, Lester Rowntree, Edith Van Allen Murphey, and Gerda Isenberg, have been with me for a long time, inspiring and supporting my endeavors, and those of many of my fellow native plant lovers, though of the three I knew only Gerda.”

Reading the winter section you will also receive lessons from the forest and learn how salmon nourish the woods.

Spring

You will be introduced to spring through flowers and the expansive fields of California wildflowers that draw people from all over the world, most holding a camera or smartphone.

“Visitors from other galaxies might understandably conclude that placing small rectangular objects between our eyes and the world is the way we humans worship natural phenomenon.”

Other tales include the “you’ll be sorry” plant, weed-free neighbor zones, and what a rock knows.

Summer and the Fifth Season

The summer and fifth season sections contain advice about designing and caring for restoration gardens. This includes discourse about plants, trees, ponds, pollinators, paths, animals, and praise for bare dirt (in moderation).

The fifth season will remain a mystery until you read the book however; many Californians may be able to guess what it is.

Near the end of the book, Lowry will caution you about embarking on gardening endeavors that exceed your financial, physical, or time-related limitations and suggests taking on significantly less than you think you can handle.

The above advice is followed by Lowry’s First Law of Gardening.

“The law is this: The land requires our attention. Either you pay attention, or you hire somebody to pay attention, but attention, one way or another, must be paid.”

The Bottom Line

Judith Larner Lowry is the longtime owner of Larner Seeds in Bolinas, CA, which carries over 200 species of California native wildflowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees. In addition to caring for her own garden, she designs gardens using California native plants, conducts workshops, gives talks, writes articles, and is the author of several books.

Often when I am reading a book, I think how interesting it would be to meet and talk with its author. Lowry strikes me as not only a person I would enjoy meeting and discussing native plants with but also someone who would be a wonderful neighbor.

Although not a step-by-step guide for designing a restoration garden or growing native plants, The Landscaping Ideas of Jays contains a lot of useful information and practical advice. It is a beautifully written book filled with inspiration, stories, humor, ideas, and Lowry’s musings about how our yards or gardens can connect us to the places where we live.

I recommend The Landscaping Ideas of Jays to anyone who wants to pay attention to their yard or garden and to make it place where native plants, flowers, trees, grasses, bees, birds, and animals can thrive.

Featured Image at Top: This is a California scrub-jay (Aphelocoma californica) grasping an acorn in its beak – photo credit iStock/pchoui.

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