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

GMOs and Bioengineered Food – Pesticide Proliferation

What we do to the environment we do to ourselves.

Biotech crops continue to spread across the world but that does not necessarily mean GMOs and bioengineered food are good for people and the environment.

When I began my quest, at the beginning of July, to learn more about GMOs and bioengineered food, I did not have a preconceived destination. I did know that I wanted to attempt to filter out the noise surrounding this highly controversial subject to find some useful information for you and me so we could each form our own opinion and decide if we wanted to take further action or not.

It was while I was writing GMOs and Bioengineered Food – What is It? that I decided to write a 4-part series hoping to find a balance between too little and too much material. The second and third posts, GMOs and Bioengineered Food – Historical Milestones and GMOs and Bioengineered Food – Laws and Regulations, illustrated how we got to where we are today and gave an overview of how the EPA, FDA, and USDA handle their regulatory authority and responsibilities in the United States.

Originally, I thought this fourth and final post in the series would cover general environmental issues, but when I had it mostly written, I realized that I wanted to focus on one specific issue—the proliferation of pesticide use on a massive scale, not just in the U.S. but across the entire world, driven by increasing adoption of genetically engineered (GE) crops and spurred on by agrochemical companies.

Pesticides are Everywhere and in Everyone

One of the creepiest commercials I can ever remember seeing is the one that portrays an attractive 30-something family man as a hero because he wipes out a single dandelion growing in a crack in his driveway using the handily attached spray wand on his gallon-size jug of Roundup.

Pests and weeds (bugs and plants people do not like) have been around forever, are ubiquitous, and contribute to healthy ecosystems. Of course, there needs to be some kind of balance between us and them. Yet, humans seem to have developed a zero-tolerance for these constituents of nature and are on a mission to try to eradicate them by spraying pesticides everywhere.

Farmer Spraying Pesticide on Lettuce and Cabbage Crops
Farmer Spraying Pesticide on Lettuce and Cabbage Crops – Photo Credit iStock/aluxum

So what is a pesticide?

The word pesticide is derived from the Latin pestis (deadly contagious disease; a curse, bane) and cide (killer or act of killing). It is an umbrella term that covers a wide variety of substances that humans use to kill living plants, animals, and other organisms that we do not want living in our buildings, yards, playgrounds, parks, or agricultural fields and orchards. Insecticides kill insects, herbicides kill plants, rodenticides kill rodents, fungicides kill fungi, and so on.

Non-GE crops may be sprayed with pesticides, too, but GE crops with built-in pesticide tolerance (especially to herbicides) actually promote pesticide use because they can withstand heavy and repeated spraying with pesticides.

65% of the GE crops approved in 2017 were genetically engineered with herbicide tolerance contributing to the global pesticide market that is valued at about $65 billion per year and growing.1, 2

Pesticides and People

The widespread acceptance of pesticides results in billions of pounds of pesticides being sprayed on agricultural fields and orchards all over the world, as well as in our homes and yards.3 Just in the U.S., there are over 16,000 registered pesticides and not that long ago, the EPA approved huge increases in what is called “tolerable” pesticide residues on crops and food.4, 5

In the real world, which is where everyone lives, we are exposed to pesticides in our air, water, and food every day.

High School in Waialua, Hawaii Next to Pesticide Test Field
A High School in Waialua, Hawaii Next to a Pesticide Test Field – Photo Credit Jon Woodhouse/The Maui Independent

In 2015, the World Health Organization designated glyphosate (the herbicide in Roundup) as a probable human carcinogen (meaning it probably causes cancer in people).6 Monsanto, the company that created Roundup during the 1970s, is facing more than 5,000 lawsuits in the U.S. alone.7

This is just one example.

Pesticides and the Environment

Pesticide makers want you to believe the pesticides only kill the targeted pest or weed but that is a gross oversimplification.

You have likely read about how neonicotinoid pesticides are endangering the bees and butterflies that pollinate our food crops and orchard trees as they go about their business. If we kill off nature’s pollinators, a lot of the food you currently buy at the grocery market will disappear, but even more worrying is that no one really knows what kind of a chain reaction could occur in the wild.

Dead Zone along Louisiana Coastline in Gulf of Mexico
A Dead Zone along the Louisiana Coastline in the Gulf of Mexico – Photo Credit NASA

Another less publicized issue is dead zones in waterways and estuaries where no aquatic life can survive in the water or on the adjacent land. This, in turn, leads to erosion and flooding. Dead zones are created by fertilizers and pesticides running off fields and orchards into streams, rivers, and lakes. Pesticides kill organisms in the soil and you cannot grow plants or trees in the dead soil, therefore, fertilizers are applied to rejuvenate the soil and then pesticides are sprayed to kill bugs and weeds, which kills the soil.

Superbugs and superweeds are already evolving that can withstand the pesticides we try to kill them with, which causes a twofold problem. First, fields are sprayed more often and with a greater array of more toxic pesticides. Second, agrochemical companies race to invent poisons that are even more powerful. Then the pests and weeds evolve and the cycle continues.

Palmer Amaranth (Pigweed) Superweed Growing in Agricultural Field
Palmer Amaranth Superweed Growing in an Agricultural Field – Photo Credit Lisa Behnken/University of Minnesota Extension

Palmer amaranth (pigweed) is one weed that has evolved to resist herbicides and is now considered a superweed.

This led to the development of GE crops that can tolerate a more powerful herbicide called dicamba. This herbicide endangers people and as it drifts from fields where it is being sprayed dicamba settles on other crops and plants and kills them, too. This is just one superweed problem that has spurred state and federal investigations and lawsuits.8, 9

What Can You Do?

After wading through and digesting five weeks of research and discussing it with my family, I came to the conclusion that genetic engineering technology could probably be used to benefit society and even the environment, but I believe that our current approach to feeding the world is endangering people and the environment, while lining the pockets of a handful of multi-national corporations focused on quarterly profits.

We need to change.

It is up to each one of us to care enough about ourselves, our children, and the people of the future to take action to change the world. Governments and corporations only change when people say, “we are not going to take it anymore,” and demand change through their actions.

Farmers are on the front lines. Just like everyone else, they are trying to make a living, and they may feel they have no choice but to accept GE crops and the harmful agrochemicals they require. Farmers should not have to go to work wearing hazmat suits.

Young Female Farmer Standing in an Agricultural Field
A Young Female Farmer Standing in an Agricultural Field – Photo Credit NRDC

Let’s help farmers make a living providing healthful food to eat while protecting themselves, their families, us, and the environment. Here are a few ideas to get you started. Even if you can only do something occasionally, it all adds up.

  • Buy certified organic food. It is GMO-free and good for the soil.
  • Shop at the farmers market where you can actually talk to the people growing your food.
  • Make more meals with whole ingredients (packaged foods contain many GMO corn and soy products).
  • Shop at grocery stores that sell local and regionally grown food. Co-ops are a great source.
  • Donate your time and/or money to an organization, like Agrarian Trust, that helps young farmers who want to practice sustainable agriculture get access to farmland.
  • Eat vegetarian meals more often (a lot of GMO corn and soy crops are used to feed livestock animals).
  • Pass up fast food and make your own lunch sometimes (fast food contains a lot of GMO corn and soy).
  • Sign up for a CSA (community supported agriculture) share and get fresh seasonal food every week during the growing season.
  • Tell your elected officials that you want to eat pesticide-free food.
  • Let food companies know why you stopped buying their products and what they need to do to win you back as a customer.

“If, having endured much, we have at last asserted our “right to know,” and if by knowing, we have concluded that we are being asked to take senseless and frightening risks, then we should no longer accept the counsel of those who tell us that we must fill our world with poisonous chemicals; we should look about and see what other course is open to us.” —Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (1962)

Reader Note: At the end of this post, in the resource sections, I listed the books, films, and websites I used throughout this series as well as articles specific to this post. You can find other resources in the previous posts.

Featured Image at Top: Farmer Spraying Pesticide on His Crops Using a Drone – Photo Credit iStock/baranozdemir

Related Posts

References

  1. Brief 53: Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2017 – International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), 06/26/18 (p. 107)
  2. Whitewash – by Carey Gillam, published by Island Press, 2017 (p. 236)
  3. Pesticides Use and Exposure Extensive Worldwide – by Michael C.R. Alavanja, Ph.D., National Center for Biotechnology Information, 2009
  4.  Whitewash – by Carey Gillam, published by Island Press, 2017 (p. 229)
  5. Food Fight – by McKay Jenkins, published by Avery, 2017 (p. 280)
  6. IARC Monograph on Glyphosate – World Health Organization, International Agency for Research on Cancer
  7. Monsanto Ordered to Pay $289 Million in Roundup Cancer Trial – by Tina Bellon (Reuters), The New York Times, 08/10/18
  8. This miracle weed killer was supposed to save farms. Instead, it’s devastating them – by Caitlin Dewey, The Washington Post, 08/29/17
  9. Challenging EPA, Monsanto Over the Crop-Damaging Pesticide “Xtendimax” – press release, Earthjustice, 2018

Resources – Books

Resources – Films

  • Consumed (This is a fictional anti-GMO movie that may help some viewers get a grip on the situation.)
  • Food Evolution (This pro-GMO documentary contains some useful information.)
  • GMO OMG (This film covers the issues associated with GMOs like corporate ownership of the food system)
  • Genetic Roulette: The Gamble of Our Lives (This anti-GMO documentary contains some useful information.)

Resources – Websites and Articles