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Hidden Truth of Sugar's Unsustainable Environmental Toll

 

Our dependence on sugar has increased drastically over the centuries. Our ancestors only came across sugar in honey or fruits; for our generation, it is a challenge to avoid sugar! The sugar industry is one of the biggest industries we have today, with Brazil alone exporting over 28 million tonnes of sugar a year. However, not much awareness is raised regarding sugarcane’s bitter history, environmental impact or how its addictive consumption is destroying our planet and health! Here’s a combined analysis of some of the impact of the Sugar industry/ sugarcane plantations and what we can do to become more sustainable and less destructive.

 

The Bitter History

Sugar probably originated around New Guinea; although not native to South America, it now covers a majority of the agricultural land.

Dr Neil Brummitt, a Natural History Museum researcher, said: “Sugar was the eighteenth-century version of palm oil…Around 200 years ago, sugarcane was being produced in the way that palm oil is now; large parts of the tropics were cleared to produce it.”

While “white Gold” became a source of great wealth for the Europeans who owned the businesses and farms in the Americas; this wealth and industry was built on the tremendous suffering of the indigenous people who were killed and the enslaved Africans who cultivated it. Sugar alone was responsible for a major portion of the slave trade.

Sugarcane Plantation

Environmental Toll of Sugarcane Farming

We heard how the meat industry and cattle farming are a big cause of deforestation in Brazil, but what we do not hear as loudly is how sugar has an equally big impact.

500 years ago, the Atlantic Forest (in the Atlantic coast of Brazil) covered an area of over 1.5 million square kilometres. It was supporting thousands of species of plants and animals, many of which are found nowhere else. Over 92% of The Atlantic forest has been cleared since then for timber, pasture and sugar. 50% more land will need to be cultivated by 2050 to meet the current projected global sugarcane demand.

Even if the industry is reduced or stopped now, it will take a long time for the fort to recover. Dr Ana Claudia (Natural History Museum) explained:

Sugarcane farms are the biggest driver of deforestation in Brazil, they are particularly damaging to rain forest for a few reasons:

  • Sugarcane takes too much water (from the soil). Over 200 Gallons of water are needed to produce a pound of refined cane sugar; that’s about nine gallons used to make a teaspoon of sugar!
  • Farmers burn the old leaves when they cut the canes; this harms the organisms, nutrients and balance of the soil, damaging the land for any other plants and emitting more polluting gases
  • Sugar production pollutes freshwater ecosystems with fertilizers, silt chemical sludge from production & the mentioned in point 2 above. All these contaminants flow out to sea and damage coral ecosystems like in the Great Barrier Reef and Mesoamerican Reef
  • Sugarcane plantations need to be cleared annually and this causes floods. Usually, the soil works as a sponge and stops erosion but without tree roots, this doesn’t happen causing erosions and the soil to travels to rivers and lowlands causing flooding. Nearby land also ends up affected as the forest (not sugar cane farms) would regulate the flow of water, temperature and humidity.

Also, diverse plants and rainforest species cannot grow on sugarcane stalks!

9 gallons of water are used to make a teaspoon of sugar.

... nine gallons used to make a teaspoon of sugar!

What the Future Looks Like?

As the human population continues to grow, the use of sugar in beverages and edibles continues to grow and as less consumers make the switch from sugar - sugar cane farms and production will expand even further. This will exponentially and harmfully expand as sugar cane is seen as a 'green' alternative (biofuel) to oil and gas. For example, in Brazil it is common for new cars to run on biofuel (biproduct of sugar production).

The trouble is, the world needs less sugar, not more (environmentally speaking and as Yummzy-health speaking!). As Ana Claudia said, 'Sugar cane is not our enemy but we need consider how many species (some fully wiped out and we will never even know about) we have sacrificed in order to have sugar?’

 

Solutions?

'Nature is extremely resilient, so there is hope. We need to have patience and let nature nurture itself. We can't rush reforesting, so the earlier we start the better.'

Ana continued: “You have to ask yourself: What price am I willing to pay for sugar? Think of nature as a commodity you benefit from. Are you willing to pay more for items that have sugar in them knowing you need much less than you eat and crave sugar wise?”

However, we cannot all just stop eating sugar as the masses of people that rely on sugar for their incomes would suffer. One sustainable solution is to reduce the sugar we consume but pay more for sugary products; enabling workers to meet their basics and pay but result in shrinking plantations.

“We can't just destroy the sugar industry, but [they] need to think outside the box and find alternatives.”

 

Other Options

There are more sustainable alternatives to sugar - for example Stevia, a perennial herb which requires less water and land than sugarcane. At Yummzy we use Stevia in all our products!

Another solution could be Yacón, it is a South American tuber that produces a molecule called Inulin which while sweet, does not have a calorific value as it is not broken down by the body. It can be bought in different forms and is even grown in Britain. Not just fighting environmental impact and deforestation; but also obesity, sugar dependency and other sugar related health risks.

British sugar beets, European birch and beech trees are other sweet and calorific sources of sugar; if needed for calorific purposes.

Ana says: “We need to find relevant ways to deal with the sugar industry now. We have tried sugar, came to realise it's bad for us, found better solutions, and now we can make a decision. How much are we willing to pay for a better life (environment and health wise)?”

Deforestation

Sourced from interviews & article from the Natural History Museum: https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/sugar-a-killer-crop.html?utm_campaign=Sugar&utm_medium=email&utm_source=1917385_me-booking-adult-20210408&dm_i=2XEG,153GP,4B7XW2,4ECFU,1

And World Wild Life: https://www.worldwildlife.org/magazine/issues/summer-2015/articles/sugarcane-farming-s-toll-on-the-environment

Toucan Photo By: Javier Mazzeo

Sugar Photo: Sharon McCutcheon