World sugar production for the 2010/11 marketing year is estimated at 161.9 million tons while consumption forecast is at 158.9 million tons. The United States produces 7.2 million tons of sugar annually making it the 5th largest sugar producer in the world. It US consumes 8.8 million tons of sugar annually ranking it fourth in sugar consumption. The United States is forecast to import 1.9 million tons of sugar to make up for the shortage making it the third largest importer of sugar in the world.
With this ever increasing demand for sugar, cultivation systems, use of agrochemicals, genetic modification, and increased land areas for cultivation have become necessary to keep up with demands. Still, most sugar is consumed within the country of production and only about 25% is traded internationally. It would seem that the entire world, and not just the US, is addicted to sugar. Sugar is produced in around 120 countries with cane sugar accounting for about seventy percent (70%) of the global total. Sugar cane is concentrated in tropical areas while sugar beets are in temperate regions. We know that too much consumption of sugar can have adverse effects on our health and it's somewhat ironic that the concern over the negative environmental impacts of sugar production can underpin the supply of sugar which may ultimately impair the our health!
What are some of the environmental impacts of sugar production?
Biodiversity - With the increasing demand for sugar, substantial areas have been cleared for cane cultivation, leading to the loss of habitats including rainforest, and tropical seasonal forest to name a few. In South America, South East Asia and Australia, the area under cultivation has continued to expand in recent years. Land clearance results in the direct loss of species and habitats and even have a wider impact on ecosystem function including water supply and soil erosion.
Excessive water consumption and water pollution - cultivating and processing sugar crops is a relatively water intensive process involving a number of stages that use water. Processing beets consumes a large amount of water as they need to wash off the soil from the beets at harvest. Waterways and aquatic habitats can be polluted by agrochemicals and other sediments used in the cultivation process.
One of the most significant environmental impact from cane and beet processing is related to polluted effluent. In some countries with weak environmental laws, sugar mills release a tremendous amount of matter when they are cleaned annually. This effluent is usually discharged straight into streams. Cane mill effluents tend to be relatively rich in organic matter compared to other sources, and the decomposition of this matter reduces the oxygen levels in the water, affecting natural biochemical processes and the species inhabiting those freshwater systems. Potential pollutants in these effluents include heavy metals, oil, grease and cleaning agents.
Soil Degradation - Sugar cane cultivation causes soil erosion and reduces its capability for water retention. In many areas, cane is cultivated on slopes, and beet is often cultivated in such a way that fields are left bare over winter; both activities exacerbate erosion risks. Other soil quality impacts commonly associated with sugar crop cultivation include loss of soil organic matter, changes in nutrient levels, salinization and acidification.
Air Pollution - Farmers burn sugarcane to reduce the amount of leafy extraneous material such as dried cane leaves and stalk tops ("cane trash") to reduce the cost of harvesting, hauling and milling the cane. Cane is essentially burned everywhere it is grown. There are some "green" harvesting in a few areas most notably in Australia, but they use different varieties of cane developed specifically for their geographic area, soil types, and climatic conditions.
Overall, there is currently no proven technology that allows for economically efficient harvesting without burning. Being able to burn sugarcane is a significant economic factor for the survival of the individual farmer and the sugarcane industry. Without it, production costs would increase considerably and the farmer would not survive as the price of sugar remains low. There is currently no effective way to deal with the enormous volume of cane trash by mechanical means.
How about Coconut Sugar?
Coconut sugar production is insignificant compared to cane sugar. On a daily basis, a coconut tree may produce about a half gallon of coconut sap. After evaporating the water content of the sap, this half gallon sap yields about 9 oz of sugar. Once a coconut tree starts producing sap (typically in the fourth or fifth year), it would continue to do so for the next 20 years or possibly even longer. Unlike sugar cane, there is no "cane trash" to burn during harvesting so it does not contribute to CO2 in the atmosphere. In fact, a short term two-year study in the Philippines reported the rate of carbon sequestration in local Tall variety coconut crop to be 4.78 tons carbon per hectare per year, which is equivalent to 17.54 tons of CO2 per hectare per year. In Vanuatu, South Pacific, a longer study (2001 - 2007) showed a carbon sequestration rate of a 20-year old plantation grown to coconut hybrids under optimum conditions ranging from 4.7 to 8.1 tons carbon per hectare per year.
Coconuts also do not require much water nor much care to grow. Coconuts will grow without any care if:
- Daily temperature above 53-55 degrees Fahrenheit
- Yearly rainfall of above 40 inches
- High humidity - 70% to 80% (for optimum growth)
- Sunlight - although it can grow under high levels of shade, it grows best with sunlight
Coconut is susceptible to drought and cold temperatures. Severe frost is fatal to seedlings and young coconut trees.
Other Environmental Benefits of Coconut Tree
Mulch - Coconut husks can as mulch and is commonly used around coconut seedlings and other plants to control weeds. Fresh or dried leaves are also used for mulch. Shredded husk can also be used as mulch or in nursery potting mix.
Crop Shade - Coconut provides an excellent overhead shade. Its fixed canopy size provides a fairly constant level of shading for crops that require it. It has been successfully intercropped with cocoa and coffee. Cattle are also grazed under coconut trees in the Philippines, Samoa and the Solomon Islands.
Windbreaks and coastal protection - Coconut is one of the most wind-tolerant plants in the world. Flexibility in the stem and fronds reduces the cross-sectional area presented by each tree and thus reduces the drag forces they must endure. In fact most coconuts survive severe storms unless there is not sufficient rooting depth in which case they are uprooted.Coconuts have a remarkable ability to adapt to a wide range of soil types. Its natural habitat is coarse sand and it can be used to stabilize sandy coastal areas.
Coconut sugar harvesting requires no burning, no re-plantation, and is sustainable. In fact, once the tree start to produce sap, it will do so for the next 20 to 30 years (at times even 50-60 years!). It does not pollute the air, quite the opposite in fact as it has quite a capability to sequester a significant amount CO2 which fuels global warming. Coconut sugar is not highly processed so "mill cleaning" is never required. Annual mill cleaning pollute natural water ways causing harm to the various life species in it path.
Coconut sugar is the perfect sugar substitute! It is healthy, tastes great and is good for the environment! Make the switch today! Coconut sugar is available online and is the most convenient way of obtaining coconut sugar but you can check your local Asian grocery store and see if they carry it.
- Sugar: World Production Supply and Distribution - http://www.fas.usda.gov/htp/sugar/2010/sugarNov2010.pdf
- Sugar - World Supply and Demand Summary - http://www.spectrumcommodities.com/education/commodity/statistics/sugar.html
- Species Profiles for Pacific Island Agroforestry - http://www.agroforestry.net/tti/Cocos-coconut.pdf
- Sugar and the Environment: A World Wildlife Fund Report - http://assets.panda.org/downloads/sugarandtheenvironment_fidq.pdf
- Oliver D. Cheesman (2004) - Environmental Impacts of Sugar Production: The Cultivation and Processing of Sugarcane and Sugar Beet ISBN-13# 978-0851999814
- Coconut Lands help ease climate change - http://www.pna.gov.ph/index.php?&sid=6&pfn=318441&arch=1&go=Go&search_arch=coconut&andor=and&mdte_arch=12&ddte_arch=0&ydte_arch=2010