Green Tau: issue 28 

22nd December 2021

Sugar sweet?

Sugar cane is the source of about 80% of the sugar consumed across the world. It is a plantation crop that goes back centuries and has a history linked with exploitation and slavery. As a plantation crop it has been responsible for the deforestation of tropical landscapes and as demand for sugar continues to increase this is still on going – especially in Brazil where sugar cane is also grown to produce the fuel ethanol: ‘The Atlantic Forest, or Mata Atlântica in Portuguese, is found on the Atlantic coast of Brazil. It should be full of life, supporting thousands of species of plants and animals, many of which are found nowhere else. It’s different from the Amazon rainforest but equally important. Around 500 years ago it would have covered an area of more than 1.5 million square kilometres. Now, more than 90% of it is gone, cleared mostly for timber, pasture and sugar.’ (https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/sugar-a-killer-crop.html)

 Sugar cane occupies approximately 2.4 million hectare world wide. 70% of production is for domestic use (which for example would include the production of ethanol in Brazil) but for some countries the production of sugar for export constitutes a significant part of their national income eg Cuba and Belize. Volatile global prices makes for great uncertainty for local growers/ plantation workers who can do little to control their incomes. Whilst the premium paid through the Fair Trade scheme undoubtedly helps, the production of fair trade sugar – 528,000 tonnes – is a fraction of the 200 million tonnes of sugar  produced globally (2019). 

Sugar cane as a crop, aside from the issue of deforestation, has unwanted adverse affects on people and the environment.

  • it requires large amounts of water, often taking the water away from other crops and  natural vegetation 
  • It requires large amounts of pesticides and fertilisers which flow into the water system damaging other ecosystems 
  • Before harvesting, old leaves are burnt off to assist the harvesting process. This kills wildlife, important natural organisms and pollutes the air. As nutrients in the leaves are burnt rather than being returned to the soil, the fertility of the soil is reduced requiring additional fertilisers to be used
  • It is an annual crop requiring the land to be cleared each year and the exposed soil is then susceptible to loss during the rainy season and with not roots to absorb moister, flooding too increases.
  • It is a labour intensive crop where child labour still happens.

Alternative sugar crops are grown, of which the main one is sugar beet – accounting for about 20% of world production – which is grown mainly in Europe. It too can be reliant on pesticides and fertilisers: organic sugar beet is grown in Europe but not as yet in Britain. Other sugar crops include coconut palms and oil palms where the sap is harvested. 

There is a further downside to all sugars: sugar damages our health, causing major problems such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and tooth decay. The WHO urges that sugar consumer should be reduced to between 5 and 10% of a person’s daily calorie intake. The NHS advises sugar consumption be limited to less than 30g per day: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/how-does-sugar-in-our-diet-affect-our-health/ Yet sugar consumption globally is still rising. The USA tops the charts with an average consumption of 126.4g per person per day. Britain comes in at number 7 with 93.2g per day (2019).

As well as being concerned about the damage sugar growing causes to the environment and it’s work force, should we be acting to reduce the demand for this commodity?

“Too often, divisions in civil society can be exploited by powerful commercial interests. ‘Don’t go too hard on health, as it will threaten jobs’ or ‘Don’t raise pollution standards, as they’ll be undercut by another country somewhere’ or ‘Don’t mention labour pay rates, or we’ll drop the preferred status.’ Or ‘Don’t stop sugar beet as it’ll affect tourism brought by geese feeding on sugar beet tops in winter’. Such horse-trading happens in realpolitik, of course, but we think now is the time to take the sugar debate back to ecological public health basics: land, labour, capital, health and culture…We see this future food world as one where less not more sugar is produced and consumed, and land use and labour are liberated from the folly of sugar production. This is hardly a vital product. It has been injected into culinary culture on a scale it does not deserve. Nor should a sugar reduction strategy be compensated for by a growth in use of artificial sweeteners which industry constantly seeks. Artificials, whether relatively ‘old’ such as aspartame or ‘new’ such as stevia, merely normalise the sweetening of diet as well as maintain the processing industries’ option to sweeten a product to sell it.”  https://foodresearch.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/8/2015/06/Does-Sugar-Pass-the-Environmental-and-Social-Test-23-june.pdf

Author: Judith Russenberger

Environmentalist and theologian, with husband and three grown up children plus one cat, living in London SW14. I enjoy running and drinking coffee - ideally with a friend or a book.

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