Building a sustainability standard from the ground up | WWF
	© WWF South Africa Inge Kotze

Responsible Sugarcane

A group of sugarcane farmers in South Africa have been building their sustainability approach from the ground up
Tree plantations and sugarcane dominate the fertile landscapes of South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. As global demand grew for wood and paper from sustainable sources, timber farmers began to seek Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification: today, all of South Africa’s commercial tree plantation area is FSC certified. Sugar farmers watched with interest. Lotar Schulz, who grows 500 hectares of sugar and 240 hectares of timber on his family farm, could see which way the wind was blowing. In the early 2000s, he was elected chairman of Midlands North Environmental Committee representing some 200 commercial farmers on about 50,000 hectares.

“We decided the sugar industry in South Africa needed to develop its own sustainable farm management system,” says Lotar. “The big buyers are going to be demanding sustainability and traceability, and we knew that sooner or later something like FSC certification would come our way. We wanted to build something from the bottom up, developed by the grower for the grower.”

Farm planning 

The Noodsberg Canegrowers worked with neighbouring farmers from UCL Company Limited and the extension officer from the South African Sugarcane Research Institute, along with WWF the Mondi Wetlands Programme. Over the course of nine years and many drafts, the group developed the Sustainable Sugarcane Farm Management System, or SUSFARMS.  

SUSFARMS gives guidelines for better farm management practices that bring environmental, social and economic benefits. A supporting self-assessment tool makes it easy for farmers to monitor progress and identify areas for improvement. It is also a simple way to ensure they are complying with their various legal obligations. “Where growers are using SUSFARMS in our area, you can see that farms are improving and they’re getting more tonnes per hectares,” says Lotar.

One important aspect is having a farm land-use plan mapping out soil types, slopes, watercourses, wetland areas and so on – Lotar likens this to the architectural drawings you need before building a house. Planning roads and planting along contours, for example, could reduce erosion while avoiding wetland areas and restoring natural vegetation around watercourses is crucial for conserving South Africa’s scarce freshwater resources.

“The FSC process resulted in timber companies pulling back from wetlands, allowing a significant number of valuable wetlands to regenerate,” says Vaughan Koopman from the WWF Mondi Wetlands Programme.
 “If sugar farmers do the same, as advocated in SUSFARMS, this will have a massive impact on South Africa’s threatened freshwater resources and habitats.”


 The voluntary system has prompted such interest that the national industry body is now promoting SUSFARMS to sugarcane farmers throughout South Africa. Adopting SUSFARMS guidelines could, in future, help South African farmers achieve certification from Bonsucro, the global standard for sustainable sugar production.

When the largest industrial buyer of sugar in the Midlands expressed an interest in engaging with WWF and the Midlands growers and millers on sourcing responsibly produced sugar from the Midlands, the need for a novel multi stakeholder governance platform was recognised. Over the next three years WWF helped bring the platform to life which now serves the seven entities (WWF, millers, sugar buyer, farmers and sugar industry) in developing  their work plans, securing funding and overseeing implementation of projects and activities towards achieving their goal of 300 000 tonnes of responsibly produced sugar by 2020. 

Meanwhile,  the collaboration platform is a useful way for cane farmers, WWF and the other collaboration members to engage with other land users, including the forestry industry on responsible practice.

“We’ve held a number of field days and workshops  with dairy farmers, foresters, a bank, retailer and others to share information and lessons learned on the benefits and challenges of  managing water related risk and unlock value through collaboration,” says Vaughan.

“The more farmers and their connected value chain come together to work on water risk in their value chains, the greater the cumulative impact and the more assured we can be of our rivers and wetlands continuing to provide clean water for present and future generations.”
	© Inge Kotz WWF South Africa
Field preparation for sugarcane planting in South Africa
© Inge Kotz WWF South Africa


  • Degradation of freshwater resources, including pollution, availability, transformation of wetland and river buffer areas
  • Habitat conversion and biodiversity loss
  • Soil erosion, land degradation and associated impacts of sugarcane burning
  • Greenhouse gas emissions

  • Potential to reduce habitat destruction, biodiversity and water
  • Increased production on same area of farmland
  • Greenhouse gas avoidance, mitigation through biofuel production for fuel and plastics and co-generation
  • Improve water quality and availability
  • Improve and sustain livelihoods and economy of rural communities
  • Create opportunities for independent smallholders

Adopting SUSFARMS has significant environmental, social and economic benefits. It reduces the negative impacts of sugarcane production on South Africa´s scarce water resources and helps farmers operate more efficiently. It´s also getting growers on track and well-positioned to apply for Bonsucro certification or a similar local equivalence rating.

Inge Kotze WWF Senior Manager Sustainable Agriculture Programme

WWF Targets

2020: 25% of global sugarcane production will be Bonsucro certified

  • Drive industry uptake of SUSFARMS®, monitoring and verification of sugarcane farm better practice and alignment with the global Bonsucro scheme.
  • Secure freshwater benefits and socio-economic co-benefits by reconnecting landscapes through improved land use planning and  production practices, effective natural resource management incl. fire management, grazing, alien invasive plant control.



3.9% of global sugarcane production is Bonsucro certified (August 2016)
	© Bonsucro
    Bonsucro aims to improve the social, environmental, and economic sustainability of sugarcane.

Sugar in South Africa

  • Currently there is no Bonsucro certified sugarcane on the market but a voluntary, local sustainable farm management system (SUSFARMS®) is being aligned to the Bonsucro standard. It is applied by 240 farmers on 90 000 ha of productive land to produce 300 000 tons of responsibly sugarcane by 2020. 

    • 12th largest sugar producer in the world producing 2.2 million tonnes per annum which generates ZAR3 billion yearly
    • 382,271 ha sugarcane production
    • Approx. 1,550 large-scale growers produce 84,69% of total sugarcane production
    • More than 27,580 small-scale growers produce 8,59% of the total crop


    About 70% marketed in Southern African Customs Union (SACU), remainder exported to other markets in Africa, Asia and the Middle East
	© WWF / Rachel Wiseman

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