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

Endangered Species Act and Biodiversity

All life is connected and worthy of protection.

Endangered Species Day on May 17 provides you and me with an ideal opportunity to appreciate Earth’s biodiversity and to do something to protect it.

A notice in my social media feed led me to finally attempt this post about endangered species and the importance of biodiversity. Until now, I had briefly mentioned the Endangered Species Act in a post entitled Green Legislation – Nixon Administration and touched on biodiversity in Deep Ecology Collaboratory – Join the Movement.

Biodiversity is a huge topic that cannot be adequately covered in a blog post so I will only endeavor to spark your interest to learn more and take action.

In short, biodiversity is the wondrous array of different plants, animals, and other organisms (species) that make life on Earth possible.

Humans are not separate from nature we are part of it. What we do to nature, ill or good, we do to ourselves. Regardless of whether we have named it or not or even know of its existence, each species has a part to play in the overall health of the ecosystems in which they and we live. These ecosystems interconnect across the sphere we all call home.

Why Are Species at Risk Infographic

Why Are Species at Risk? infographic courtesy of Endangered Species Coalition.

When I asked Ted, a deep ecologist and a friend, who he thought did a good job explaining biodiversity, he suggested Edward O. Wilson (see the resources section for books).

It is critically important that we protect endangered species and thus Earth’s biodiversity.

Let’s talk about endangered species.

Endangered Species

During the 1960s and 1970s, Americans took to the streets demanding that Congress address smog, water pollution, pesticides, noise, waste, land use, and wildlife preservation.

President Richard Nixon, not necessarily a fan of regulation, got on board. His Special Message to the Congress Outlining the 1972 Environmental Program makes for interesting reading.

Congress did act passing sweeping environmental legislation including laws like the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and Toxic Substances Control Act.

Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973

When Congress passes a law, they state their findings, purpose, and policy at the beginning and then move on to specific provisions of the law. Below are some excerpts from the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (Public Law 93-205).

“The Congress finds and declares that—various species of fish, wildlife, and plants in the United States have been rendered extinct as a consequence of economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation…”

“The purposes of this Act are to provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved…to provide a program…and to take steps…”

“It is further declared to be the policy of Congress that all Federal departments and agencies shall seek to conserve endangered species and threatened species and shall utilize their authorities in furtherance of the purposes of this Act.

Provisions of the Law

The ESA is jointly administered by two federal agencies based on where the endangered or threatened plant or animal lives, in other words, its habitat or range. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) is responsible for land and freshwater species and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), also known as NOAA Fisheries, is responsible for marine (ocean) species and those that migrate up freshwater streams like salmon.

Through a process called listing, a species must be classified as either endangered or threatened to receive protection under the law. The USFWS or NMFS, an organization, or a person can initiate a listing request.

Endangered – means a species in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. Insect pests that present a risk to people are excluded.

Threatened – means a species likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.

Once a species makes it to the endangered or threatened list, the USFWS or NMFS are required to develop and implement a plan to help the species recover, which includes conserving its habit.

Repairing the Reef - West Hawaii
Click here for a 5-minute video about coral reefs in Hawaii that shows the importance of restoring habitat.

Increased population over its range is an important measure of whether a species has recovered and can be removed from the list. This process is called delisting. The USFWS and NMFS are required to monitor delisted species for five years to ensure they do not become an endangered or threatened species again.

The ESA mandates cooperation with states and allows states to enact their own laws as long as they are not less restrictive than the federal law. It also supports U.S. involvement in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) that aims to ensure international trade does not threaten the survival of wild animals and plants.

The Environmental Conservation Online System (ECOS) is a tool that enables you to create informational tables by selecting parameters and then clicking on the submit button.

I screened for endangered and threatened species in the U.S. and received a table of 1644 species. It included the western snowy plover, which is endangered where I live in San Luis Obispo County, CA (photo Michael L. Baird).


A search for delisted species in the U.S. gave me a table with 64 species. In a few cases, species were removed because of previous errors. Sadly, some species were delisted because they are extinct like the blue pike, dusky seaside sparrow, and eastern puma.

Robbins Cinquefoil (Potentilla robbinsiana)

Fortunately, most of the species were shown as delisted because they have recovered like the gray whale, Robbins’ cinquefoil (photo USFWS Service), Oregon chub (fish), Lake Erie water snake, and the bald eagle.

Let’s take a look at the gray wolf, which is a species currently undergoing the delisting process.

Gray Wolf– Proposed Endangered Species Delisting

To learn more about gray wolves and their plight, I reached out to Holly. She and I first met while pulling invasive ice plant on the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve near my home. I know she is a committed wildlife advocate and she had recently asked me to a sign a petition demanding protection for gray wolves (I did sign it).

Gray wolves are magnificent intelligent and highly social animals. As top-level predators, they play an important part in keeping wild ecosystems healthy.

Gray Wolf (Canis lupus)

Wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in 1995 producing a ripple of positive impacts. For instance, the wolves keep elk herds on the move and in check allowing willow trees to grow. Beavers build dams with some of the trees creating pools in streams for fish and storing water to recharge the water table. Photo Gary Kramer USFWS.

Even before Holly asked me to sign the petition, I had seen the gray wolf delisting notice in the Federal Register. One thing that I read remains fixed in my memory. The greatest threat to wolves is predation by humans, meaning people killing them out of fear, ignorance, or for sport.

I fear that as soon as ESA protections are completely removed from gray wolves human predation will dramatically increase, which will not only harm the wolves but the ecosystems which they help to maintain.

What can you do to help protect gray wolves?

  • Make a public comment on Regulations.gov regarding the USFWS delisting effort. The USFWS just announced they have extended the deadline for public comments to July 15, 2019.
  • Contact your state’s elected officials to let them know you support state-level protection for gray wolves.
  • Join an organization advocating for gray wolves.
  • Learn about gray wolves and share what you learn with your family and friends (see resources section for links).
  • Provide financial support for organizations focused on protecting gray wolves.

Of course, the gray wolf is just one species that we need to protect.

Endangered Species Day Action

I propose an action for Endangered Species Day.

Imagine what we could accomplish if each one of us made a point of learning about one endangered animal or plant species and then did something to protect it. You could share information on social media, write a letter to the editor, call your state senator, make a public comment, or write a check to an advocacy nonprofit. You get the idea.

Here is the comment I submitted about the USFWS plan to remove the gray wolf from the endangered species list.

Gray Wolf Delisting Public Comment - L Poppenheimer

Apparently, the United Nations has endangered species and biodiversity on their minds, too, because, on May 6, 2019, they issued a summary of an alarming report about how humans are accelerating the loss of biodiversity and species extinction thereby endangering our own wellbeing and survival. It is worth reading.

Featured Image at Top: Bald eagle in flight at Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge – photo credit Tom Koemer, USFWS.

Related Posts

Books about Biodiversity – by Edward O. Wilson

  • Biophilia – published by Harvard University Press, January 13, 1984
  • Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life – published by Liveright, April 4, 2017
  • The Biophilia Hypothesis – published by Shearwater, April 10, 2013
  • The Future of Life – published by Knopf, January 8, 2002
  • Also, see the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation website.

Resources – Gray Wolves