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

Resources – Everglades

The Legacy of Luna – Book Review

Life in a tree can be surprisingly busy.

The Legacy of Luna tells the story of an ancient redwood tree and a woman who interpreted the words “We don’t need you.” as a call to action.

Before reading The Legacy of Luna, I had heard of Julia Butterfly Hill and I knew that she had lived in a tree. I did not know that she is a woman of courage, faith, and ingenuity with an apparently strong streak of stubbornness.

Several years ago, in honor of Women’s History Month, I began a tradition of reading at least one book by or about a woman environmentalist and writing a post about it in March. This year, I selected The Legacy of Luna: The Story of a Tree, a Woman and the Struggle to Save the Redwoods by Julia Butterfly Hill.

“I’ve always felt that as long as I was able, I was supposed to give all I’ve got to ensure a healthy and loving legacy for those still to come, and especially for those with no voice. That is what I’ve done in this tree.” —Julia Butterfly Hill

Book Review

Before you embark upon reading The Legacy of Luna, I suggest donning warm clothes and a windbreaker because you are going to be sitting way up in a huge windswept tree with Julia Butterfly Hill as she tells her story. I am only partially kidding. Reading the book it a bit like being miniaturized, strapped firmly to Hill’s shoulder, and then following her about. You are there.

The prologue recounts the story of Stafford, a small town in Northern California that was devastated by a mudslide during a deluge of rain. A lumber corporation that put profits above everything else had left a steep mountainside exposed by clearcutting all the forest trees. With nothing to hold the soil in place, it slid down the mountain destroying homes in its wake.

Stafford is near where a majestic redwood tree called Luna has resided for over a thousand years.

The rest of the book chronicles the 738 days between December 10, 1997, and December 18, 1999, that Hill spent living in Luna. Her initial goal was to save Luna from the chainsaws of Pacific Lumber Company. Along the way, she became rather famous for living in a tree, which gave her an unusual platform (pun intended) from which to conduct public outreach about saving forests not only in California but also across the United States and around the world.

I still do not understand the title of the first chapter called “Fighting Fear with a Fork.” Here Hill recounts a bit of her history and the back-story of how she came to live in Luna. Her faith-based upbringing, a terrible car accident, and an impromptu trip to the West Coast led her, at age twenty-three, to be in the right place at the right time when someone asked, “Can anybody sit in Luna?” Hill immediately volunteered.

The Legacy of Luna Book CoverAs you continue reading, you will learn how Luna got her name, what it is like to climb 180 feet up a giant redwood tree, the horror of seeing forest clearcutting from a bird’s eye view, the practicalities involved in living in a tree, and why Hill got a cell phone.

You will have an opportunity to listen in while Hill perches on a tree branch conversing with loggers who want to cut down Luna and security personnel hell-bent on preventing her from receiving food and supplies. As you follow Hill’s story you will learn about clearcutting, logging company tactics, government agency inaction, dealing with the media, and what it feels like to become the spokesperson for a movement, unintentionally.

The book ends rather abruptly. Hill reaches an agreement with Pacific Lumber Company to preserve Luna and a 20-foot buffer zone in perpetuity and then climbs down out of the tree.

The Bottom Line

Julia Lorraine Hill became Julia Butterfly Hill in 1998. When someone asked her for her forest name (used to protect an activist’s identity), she chose Butterfly because a butterfly had landed and lingered on her finger when she was seven.

Growing up Hill’s family had a lot of faith and not much money. She and her brothers learned about being responsible at a young age and her parents imparted the importance of helping others. Her upbringing and faith likely influenced her decision to help a defenseless tree and then sustained her during the most difficult days of her tree-sit (the longest in history).

Of course, I do not know what it was like for Hill after more than two years of living in a tree, mostly by herself. But, I can imagine that it might have been overwhelming for her to re-enter society and try to resume her life on the ground while being surrounded by what must have been a media circus.

The Legacy of Luna was published in 2000 just a few short months after Hill came down out of Luna. Reading it made me feel like Julia Butterfly Hill was sitting in my living room pouring out her story as fast she could so she would not forget any of the important parts.

This book illustrates what can be accomplished by a community of people working for something they believe in, something they love. Hill could not have survived in Luna without the dedicated volunteers she talks about in the book and the people around that world that supported her. She became the voice of Luna because she was the one living in the tree.

I recommend The Legacy of Luna to everyone, especially logging company CEOs and government representatives responsible for safeguarding public lands.

Featured Image at Top: Coast Redwood Trees in Del Norte Coast Redwood State Park, California – Photo California State Parks (this is not the forest where Luna lives but it is beautiful, too)

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