Agriculture and Environment: Sugarcane

Environmental Impacts of Production: Soil Erosion & Degradation

During land preparation, there is a tremendous impact on soils as they are laid bare to be planted with cane.

Aside from being stripped of any protective cover, the soils dry out, affecting overall microorganism diversity and mass, both of which are essential to fertility. Exposed topsoil is easily washed off of sloping land, and even on lands with minimal slope nutrients may be leached from the topsoil.


Deteriorating quality of land
In some areas, such as Everglades in the United States, the production of sugarcane has contributed to the subsidence of the land. This can result both from the removal of groundwater for irrigation, or the drying out and compaction of land that had previously contained high levels of organic matter.

Sugar processing harms the soil as well. The continual removal of cane from the fields gradually reduces fertility and forces growers to rely increasingly on fertilisers to replace it. The removal of plant matter from the fields makes the production of sugarcane unsustainable as it is currently practiced.

Equivalent to a mining operation
In most of the world, sugarcane production is little more than a "mining" operation that strips the resource base. Bagasse, the organic matter left after crushing the liquid from it, is put to work as fuel from the cauldrons or sold as animal feed. If returned to the fields at all it is only in the form of ash, which is of little benefit to soil microorganisms.

Credits

Extracts from "World Agriculture & Environment" by Jason Clay - buy the book online from Island Press

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