Sugarcane is a water-intensive crop that remains in the soil all year long. As one of the world’s thirstiest crops, sugarcane has a significant impact on many environmentally sensitive regions, like the Mekong Delta and the Atlantic Forest. Historic planting of sugarcane around the world has led to significant impacts on biodiversity.
A vast global market for sugarcane derivatives keeps the industry booming. Sugar is prevalent in the modern diet and increasingly a source of biofuels and bioplastics. As prices of petroleum rise, there is a growing market for ethanol from sugarcane.
Managing social and environmental risks is important for sugarcane growers, processors and food companies due to regulatory pressures as well as shareholder and consumer expectations for sustainably produced goods.
Sugar has arguably had as great an impact on the environment as any other agricultural commodity. Wholesale conversion of habitat on tropical islands and in coastal areas led to significant environmental damage—particularly a loss of biodiversity.
Some of the most biodiverse regions on the planet have been cleared for sugarcane production. A dozen countries around the world devote 25 percent or more of all their agricultural land to the production of sugarcane.
Silt from eroded soils and nutrients from applied fertilizers often foul water supplies. Sugarcane processing also creates effluents that flow into water and damage important ecological areas. Water quality concerns have prompted a reduction in production in certain areas, with production consequently intensified and expanded onto sandy soils. Because such soils are easily leached, production can only be maintained over time with increasing applications of fertilizer.
Sugar mills produce wastewater, emissions and solid waste that impact the environment. The massive quantities of plant matter and sludge washed from mills decompose in freshwater bodies, absorbing all the available oxygen and leading to massive fish kills. In addition, mills release flue gases, soot, ash, ammonia and other substances during processing.
Land laid bare in preparation for cane planting is stripped of any protective cover, allowing the soils to dry out. This impacts overall microorganism diversity and mass, both of which are essential to fertility. Additionally, exposed topsoil is easily washed off of sloping land, with nutrients leached from the topsoil. Further, the continual removal of cane from the fields gradually reduces fertility and forces growers to rely increasingly on fertilizers.
WWF helped establish the Better Sugar Cane Initiative (BSI) six years ago in cooperation with retailers, investors, traders, producers and other non-governmental organizations. Now known as Bonsucro, the initiative seeks to reduce the social and environmental impact of sugarcane production by establishing global standards to certify sustainable production.
These efforts are beginning to pay off, with the first certified sugarcane offered from a Raízen mill in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and purchased by The Coca-Cola Company. WWF remains committed to transforming the sugar industry by calling on buyers of sugar to commit to Bonsucro-certified sugar as soon as possible.