sugar “Sugar in the morning, sugar in the evening, sugar at suppertime...” sang the McGuire Sisters in 1958. But this sparkling white powder does unhappy things to the environment. Photo by Carlos Paes.




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STEPHANIE ZONIS focuses on good foods and the people who produce them. Click here to contact her.



Product Reviews / NutriNibbles / Organic Matter


Organic Matter Archive

November 2005

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Sugar Cultivation and Production: Raising “Cane” With the Environment

My name is Stephanie Zonis, and welcome to Organic Matter for November 2005.

The human appetite for sugar is vast. According to a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report published in November of 2004, more than 319 billion pounds of sugar are produced annually in over 120 countries. Annual consumption is not only keeping pace with this staggering quantity, it’s causing an expansion of it. We’ve all heard time and again that we eat too much sugar, and I’m sure that’s accurate in most cases. For the present, however, I’m not as concerned with what sugar does to our teeth or our waistlines as much as I am with what it does to the environment.

First, you need to know that there are two basic types of sugar: cane sugar and beet sugar. Estimates are that cane sugar accounts for up to 70% of worldwide production; beet sugar accounts for the rest. Both types, unfortunately, contribute to significant damage to the environment as well as to multiple plant and animal species. The WWF reports that the production of cane sugar is likely responsible for a greater loss of biodiversity than any other crop. Species-dense environments, such as forests, are often clear-cut for cane cultivation. Wetlands areas, with nutrient-rich soils and abundant natural water supply, are claimed for cane production. As you can imagine, the effect on habitat loss for innumerable species is immense.

How that sweet spoonful of sugar wreaks havoc on the environment. Soil erosion is a big problem in sugar crop cultivation. Erosion from water occurs in both sugar cane and sugar beet fields, whenever rainfall is excessive or irrigation (heavily used in sugar cane cultivation) is inexpert. But there’s also an issue with wind erosion, which happens when the fields of sugar beets are left bare over the winter. If excessive irrigation is combined with insufficient drainage, soil can become saline, which will adversely affect crop yields. Soil is also damaged in sugar crop cultivation via compaction (mostly from heavy machinery) and acidification (from inorganic nitrogen-based fertilizers).

Speaking of those fertilizers, the conventional sugar industry uses heavy concentrations of them as well as pesticides, though there is some evidence that these large quantities are not necessary in all cases. Unfortunately, in many nations, standards for the handling and application of these chemicals are lax, so many field workers are exposed to these chemicals with little or no knowledge or protection. And there’s been a lengthy history of appalling treatment of the field workers who grow and harvest sugar crops—not excluding the U.S., shamefully enough. The great majority of these field workers, who perform arduous manual labor, are impoverished and poorly educated. As far back as the early 1940’s, long before the advent of political correctness, charges were leveled at the U.S. Sugar Corporation and other big producers that their “employees” were virtually bound in servitude. For an excellent book on this topic, read Alec Wilkinson’s Big Sugar: Seasons in the Cane Fields of Florida. Although the book was published 15 years ago, I have not seen anything indicating that much has changed in the interim.

sugar cane
Above, a stalk of cane. Below, stalks ready to be harvested. Photos by Ivana De Battisti.

As has been done for generations, most fields of sugar cane are burned right before harvesting. While it’s true that burning makes the harvest easier in terms of controlling pests and eliminating much of the leafy residue of the cane stalk that is not processed, it also contributes to air pollution, a poorer soil quality, and loss of both quality and quantity of sugar recovered from the cane.

What happens once sugarcane or sugar beets get to the processing mill? Is there any change for the better?  Not particularly, no. Granulated sugar requires extensive processing, and it’s both labor-and fossil-fuel-consumption-intensive. Sugar refining involves a series of steps, including clarification and filtration. Even brown sugar or other forms of sugar (such as evaporated cane juice) require some processing.

cane harvesting
Sugar cane field, New Orleans. Photo by Alvaro Prieto. Sugar cane harvesting. Photo by Robert Lincolne.

So what can you do? Must you forswear sugar in any form? I don’t think so. The same WWF report spelling out the damage sugar crop cultivation can do also contains many solid suggestions to reduce environmental destruction/degradation, soil erosion, and pollution from sugar mills. Protecting habitats for wildlife and by-product use are also discussed. These aren’t just pie-in-the-sky flights of wishful thinking; there are details of particular areas where these ideas have been put into practice, with beneficial results for people, other animals, and the planet. To paraphrase Jane Austen, this report is about “sense and sustainability,” and I think it should be required reading for all consumers of sugar. The paragraphs at the very end regarding subsidization of sugar production and trade are enough to make one think about staging a coup! Beyond this:

  • You can buy organic sugar. Organic sugar is produced without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, but with beneficial practices such as integrated pest management (IPM), renewable energy sources, and crop rotation. Farming sugar crops organically causes less water contamination than conventional cultivation. And organic sugar is processed less than granulated sugar, which saves energy and reduces the use of synthetic chemicals and whitening agents. Organic sugar is easy to find in many American markets; the companies that produce it will usually mail order, too. The business I know best is Florida Crystals, which offers both organic sugar and organic rice (the two crops are rotated with one another). While I haven’t tried their rice, their organic sugar is a delight. It makes a wonderful pound cake.  
  • What about evaporated cane juice or Sucanat? Evaporated cane juice, widely available in natural foods stores and online, may or may not be produced organically (much of what I’ve found has been organic, though). Sucanat is a different story. Sucanat is a brand name; it stands for “Sugar Cane Natural” and is produced by dehydration and aeration from the juice of organically grown cane sugar (evaporated cane juice comes about from evaporation of the juice plus a crystallization process). Sucanat contains more molasses than evaporated cane juice, and it is darker in both flavor and color. Both evaporated cane juice and Sucanat can often be used in place of granulated (or other brown) sugar. (As an aside, I’ve seen claims about both sweeteners having some nutritive value. According to Wholesome Sweeteners, Sucanat, which is their brand, is an excellent source of iron, calcium, vitamin B6, and potassium. But I don’t know what kind of serving size we’re talking about here, and both Sucanat and evaporated cane juice are sugars; so, as usual, moderation in consumption is a good idea.)

Given the quantities in which sugar is consumed, it’s time for us to give serious consideration to the global impacts resulting from its cultivation, production, and economics. Governmental subsidies and protection systems for the price of sugar must change, but consumers can do their part by buying organically-grown and –produced sugars whenever possible. Sugar consumption may dismay your doctor, but it need not wreak havoc with the environment or mean a life of grinding poverty for those who toil to produce it.

Organic Find of the Month: Wholesome Sweeteners

Appropriately based in Sugar Land, Texas, Wholesome Sweeteners, sells sugars and other sweeteners. As you might guess based on this month’s article, many (though not all) are organic. Better still, seven are both organic and Fair Trade certified, meaning that a fair price is paid for the sugar cane. The money is not paid to a middleman or plantation owner, but directly to the  farmer who grew it. This practice helps both individuals and communities and encourages sustainability in farming practices.

Organic sugars available range from a Powdered to a large-crystal Turbinado to a Dark Brown. I am fond of the Organic Fair Trade Sugar, which contains the inviting aroma of molasses and is a beautiful light golden color. It works very well in baking, especially in chocolate cakes, and makes a beautiful vanilla-rum pound cake. Wholesome Sweeteners products are available in many natural foods stores, and the company maintains an online list of retailers. Check out their website at, and do your bit to help sugar purchases help the environment as well as the farmer.

organic sugar sucanat turbinado sugar
Wholesome Organic Sugar Organic Sucanat Organic Turbinado Sugar


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