Impacts of sugarcane production

Many ecosystems in the tropics have been irreversibly changed as a result of sugarcane plantations. Today, these impacts are still being felt. Fortunately, there are ways to produce sugar in much less environmentally damaging ways. What exactly are the problems that we have to address?

Habitat loss and ecosystem degradation

With millions of hectares under production, the sheer scale of sugarcane has degraded tropical forests, fragile coastal wetlands and islands. A dozen countries around the world devote 25% or more of all their agricultural land to the production of sugarcane.​ 

For nearly 500 years, tropical forests, the entire natural habitat of thousands of islands, and millions of hectares of fragile coastal wetlands around the world have been cleared or otherwise converted for planting sugarcane. For example, because of sugarcane the Caribbean is not considered significant biologically.

​Chemicals, silt and sludge

Fertilizers and other agrochemicals, and silt from eroded soils can pollute water courses, affecting people and wildlife. Wastewater from processing mills is a problem too. Another problem with sugarcane production is nonpoint source pollution of water with pesticides, which is caused either by drift from spraying or by percolation of water through the soil.

Effluents are also created from sugarcane processing. Effluent flows into water supplies, and into important ecological areas such as the Everglades, need to be reduced. Perhaps the greatest environmental threat from processing occurs when mills are cleaned and thoroughly washed out, which occurs once or twice per year.

The resultant impacts are not from toxic chemicals, but rather from the release of massive quantities of plant matter and sludge. As these decompose in freshwater bodies they absorb all the available oxygen, which in turn leads to massive fish kills.

In addition, mills release flue gases from the combustion in the boiler rooms. The flue emissions also include soot, ash, and other solid substances. Ammonia is released during the concentration process.

Erosion and degradation

When natural vegetation is removed to make way for sugarcane, soils are left exposed. This leads to erosion, loss of nutrients and hence more reliance on costly, environmentally damaging solutions—fertilizers. 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.

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.
 / ©: WWF-Canon / John E. Newby
Use of inefficient irrigation systems on sugar cane plantations leaves less water for wildlife and people.
© WWF-Canon / John E. Newby

Be part of the solution

Sugar producers, traders and buyers, along with non-profits involved in the sugar industry, can join Bonsucro to drive this industry towards more responsible practices. ► Visit the Bonsucro website 

When shopping, look for products with the Bonsucro label—an assurance that the sugar in this product was produced without causing environmental harm.

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