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Sugar cane - not so sweet?

by the stormy present Mon Mar 20th, 2006 at 08:25:48 AM EST

I don't like sugar.  I mean, sure, I love a chocolate bar or a cup of ice cream as much as the next girl, but I don't put sugar itself in anything.  I drink my coffee with a splash of skim milk, and I sweeten my tea with honey, if at all.  The only reason I ever even buy sugar is because visitors seem to expect it with their coffee or tea.

Here in the Arab world, most people put vast amounts of sugar in everything.  When I'm visiting someone's home or office, they offer me trays of tiny sweet pastries, and little cups of tea or Turkish coffee, sweetened beyond recognition.  It's especially stark in the glass teacups, where I can see the little layer of sugar sitting at the bottom, mocking me.

Yes, they have a bit of a diabetes problem here, but that's a subject for another diary.

We think about sugar's effects on our teeth, on our health, on our waistlines... but how often does anyone think about what sugar does to the environment?


I was asked in the open thread to share what I know about the environmental impact of sugar cane agriculture and processing.  I'm certainly no expert, and most everything I know on the subject is anecdotal, based on having spent quite a few years living and working in countries where sugar cane is a major crop.

Skipping over the deforestation and/or draining of wetlands that often preceeds the planting of sugar cane....

Everywhere I've ever seen sugar cane grown (which is four or five countries now) the harvesting process involves burning the entire field before the cane, bereft of its grassy bits, can be cut and processed.  You see these huge plumes of smoke going up from the fields, as you drive through this surreal snowstorm of ash flakes falling around you.  (Surreal, because it really does look like snow, but sugar cane is grown in places where it never snows.)

It's also a tremendously water-intensive business, both in the growing and the processing.  Sugar cane grows in saturated soil, which makes it singularly inappropriate for arid countries like Egypt, but they're growing it here in vast quantities anyway.  Three crops a year, with heavy irrigation from the Nile, has contributed (although it is by far not the only factor) to the raising of the groundwater tables in towns in the Nile Valley and the Nile Delta, which has serious public health implications, especially given the rudimentary nature of those towns' sanitation systems.

Rising groundwater is also threatening Egypt's famed antiquities:

Some of the world's most precious archaeological treasures - the ancient Egyptian tombs and temples at Luxor - are being devastated by salt water that is eating their foundations, scientists have discovered.

The temples of Amun, Luxor and Karnak, designated World Heritage Sites, have survived 4,000 years of arid desert heat but are now being destroyed by rising ground water.


The crisis has been caused by several factors, including climate change and the breakdown of the area's ageing sewer system. However, the most important threat has involved the recent, massive intensification of farming along the Nile and the widespread planting of sugar cane, a plant that flourishes in saturated soil. To boost harvests - up to three crops a year can now be grown - farmers have been inundating their fields all year round with water sucked from the Nile. Land that was once parched desert now sports massive, flourishing tracts of canes. Drainage canals are now never allowed to dry out, with the result that Luxor's water tables have risen several metres in the past few years.

As if that weren't bad enough, then there's the nasty stuff that's left over from the processing of sugar cane into, um, sugar and stuff.  I really don't know a whole lot about the sugar leftovers, but I know they're not good.  According to WWF, sugar-industry effulent in Australia is damaging the Great Barrier Reef.  

The father of a friend of mine is a sugar-industry scientist whose job is trying to find productive uses for the sugar byproducts.  He's been at it a long time.  Sugar cane byproducts have been used to make paper, animal feed, bioethanol and fertilizer, among other things.

My friend, the scientist's son, who grew up around the sugar industry, will not use sugar in anything.  Familiarity breeds contempt.

When you live near a sugar mill, the air is literally thick with a molasses smell.  A few years ago, I visited the tiny town of Tongaat, about 60 kilometers north of Durban and near the site of South Africa's first sugar mill.  Even if you didn't know there were sugar mills in town, you'd figure it out fast just by breathing.  I actually liked the smell for about the first half-hour, but eventually it gets icky.

There are a lot of other issues surrounding sugar production, not least the fact that sugar cane grown in the (mainly developing-world) tropics competes directly with sugar beets grown in the (mainly developed-world) temperate zones, leading to arguments over subsidies... Perhaps of interest to ET is the WWF criticism of the EU sugar regime, but that's yet another subject I'm not qualified to discuss.

Apparently, in Brazil, some sugar processing plants (which also make ethanol) are self-sustaining, in that the remnants are burned to create electricty to run the processing plant itself.  That is a creative and productive use of byproducts, but still doesn't address the environmental impact.

Last year, WWF published a report on sugar and the environment (.pdf) that provides more details on a number of these issues than I could possibly hope to.  Its conclusions are not suprising, and could probably be applied to most modern commercial agricultural crops:  Managed well, with best practices (e.g. lower-volume irrigation and better wastewater processing) and under good environmental regulations and enforcement, sugar can be a "sustainable source of valuable foreign earnings for some of the world's poorest countries."  But absent those controls, it can be hell on the environment.

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It's a little strange that I have such an aversion to sweetend drinks and super-sugary desserts.  Everyone else in my family loves them.

My mom grew up in the US Deep South, where they grow some sugar cane, and she passed on one of her favorite childhood treats to me.  When I was a small kid, every once in a while she'd obtain a big stick of raw sugar cane, and split it between my sisters and me.  We'd chew those sticks till they shredded, extracting every last bit of sweetness.  I love that memory.

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Mon Mar 20th, 2006 at 08:31:13 AM EST
mmm, my grandmother in India sometimes gave me that treat.

Of course, the ultimate oddity for me was that some people in the village used sugar cane to clean their teeth...

by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Mon Mar 20th, 2006 at 09:43:49 AM EST
[ Parent ]
In Hawaii, where i lived for 5 years and much sugar cane has been planted...it tends to really such the nutrition out of the soil. But, it is easy to grow...and it was fun to chew on a cane stick once in awhile.

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Mon Mar 20th, 2006 at 09:48:28 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Oh, I forgot about Hawaii, but I guess those fields of sugar cane are part of my mental image of the islands.

Do you know whether they burn it there before they harvest it?

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Mon Mar 20th, 2006 at 10:17:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
AS I recall, yes...in most places....

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Mon Mar 20th, 2006 at 10:45:56 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It seems that the rising value of land in Hawaii is making growing sugar cane uneconomical. The land can be sold for housing. When I visited several years ago there were quite a few closed sugar cane processing plants.
Here is a photo of one of them from my web site:
Sugar Mill

Another stupid place where sugar cane is grown is Florida. The ecological destruction is well-known and the crop would not survive if it weren't for government subsidies.

In the US, industry (and agriculture) is all for an open, competitive, market, except in their particular sector. Then, special treatment is OK.

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Mon Mar 20th, 2006 at 10:20:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]
land prices haven't been the big issue on Kauai.  main problem is that even with price supports at roughly 21 cts/lb, they just can't make a decent return.  If they had to compete with foreign sugar, they'd disappear tomorrow.  That's starting to change as more and more sugar is being converted to fuel ethanol.  The world price is up from 8 cts/lb to more like 15 the last time I looked.

Most of the former cane land on my island is still unused.  Steve Case (of AOL fame) bought 30K acres from AMFAC (the last one to go bust) and hasn't done much with any of it so far.  Thousands of acres in other areas are sitting idle as well.  We do have 1 of the 2 remaining plantations in the state (out of about 30 in 1960).  Much of this plantation's cropland is leased from the state for pennies/acre so land costs arent't the problem.  It's labor/shipping cost to market and inefficient operations.  They are going to be rescued by a mandate to have 10% ethanol in gasoline from this summer though.  

Not to argue that the land isn't worth 100X in development than in sugar or pineapple.  And development is proceeding in areas like Koloa (where the very first sugar was grown here) but not in such size that it would preclude a plantation if economic.

by HiD on Tue Mar 21st, 2006 at 03:44:29 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Perhaps land is being held aside in expectations of even bigger increases in value in the future. If land appreciates at, let's say, 10% per year, and taxes are low (because it is "agricultural") then it pays to do nothing for the present. A 10% growth rate with almost no risk is not very common these days.

I was surprised to see little solar or wind development on my visit to Hawaii. On the sunny side of most islands this would seem to be ideal and on the rainy sides there seem to be fairly steady winds. Perhaps I just wasn't in the right places or didn't notice...

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Tue Mar 21st, 2006 at 11:15:03 AM EST
[ Parent ]
some of that is going on no doubt, but the bottom line is even with cheap dirt, the sugar plantations don't make any money even with a price propped up at 2X the world market.  If not for transportation subsidies on top of the price games, the last 2 plantations would have died years ago.  Ethanol may save them though.

Wind is coming.  The BI has a couple of decent sized farms and are doubling capacity.  Maui is adding a wind farm too.  Oahu has an older windfarm that was regarded as a dog, but stories have been circulating that they were going to replace the turbines and add new capacity as well.  Even on kauai our backward coop is now getting serious.

Solar is still 2X the price of oil fired juice.  Nobody is rushing to put in solar on a big scale.  More likely we'll jump into biomass as the ag lobby is strong.

by HiD on Tue Mar 28th, 2006 at 04:05:03 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Wow... it would never have occurred to me to clean my teeth with sugar cane, but I've seen it done with other kinds of twigs that fray like sugar cane does, so it makes sense in that way.  You could get to those hard-to-reach areas....

Here's an interesting teeth-cleansing ritual.

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Mon Mar 20th, 2006 at 10:15:42 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Coincidentally, a colleague today happened to bring me a copy of the 2005 UNDP Human Development Report for Egypt, which she stumbled across while running an unrelated errand and knew I'd be interested in it.

Among the recommendations in the agriculture section:

cropping patterns can be adjusted to reduce the acreage of high water-consuming crops, such as rie and sugar cane.  For example, the Ministry of Public Works and Water Resources' water conservation plan aims to save about 1.5 billion cubic meters of water annually by substituting sugar cane with beets and reducing the area of rice growth from 1.3 million feddans* to 950 thousand feddans.  But financial, technical support and guidance will be needed to persuade farmers of the beneffits of these proposals.

Problem with sugar beets is that they're a winter crop here, while sugar cane can be grown year-round, so it could be a hard sell to the farmers.

* (A feddan is an Egyptian unit of land measurement equal to about 4,200 square meters, or 1.038 acres.  And yes, I had to look it up.)

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Mon Mar 20th, 2006 at 10:08:35 AM EST
Yes, the farmers will definetely refuse to grow a crops that has a production three times lower than the sugar cane. The profits matters nowadays; in some region of my countries even 90 year old ladies grow cannabis to earn money and do not care that may be their own grandchildren fell victims...
The world has gone crazy about profits ;))

I'm not ugly,but my beauty is a total creation.Hegel
by Chris on Mon Mar 20th, 2006 at 12:43:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Have you seen the film Saving Grace?

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Mar 20th, 2006 at 12:45:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
No, but I will see it when I am at leisure? Thanks

I'm not ugly,but my beauty is a total creation.Hegel
by Chris on Mon Mar 20th, 2006 at 03:49:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]
This was really interesting.  Thanks stormy.


She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre
by ATinNM on Mon Mar 20th, 2006 at 08:38:56 PM EST
Burning the left over sugar cane bagasse (cane stem after crushing) to make steam for the processing and electricity for export offsite is very common.  50 yrs ago, my island's electricity mostly came from the plantations and little oil was burned.  Even 10 years ago as much as 20% of our power was from burning bagasse.

But as the plantations died, we're at like 95% oil burning and have 32 cts/kwh delivered cost.  (my bill last month).  No one invested in much hydro or any other alternative as long as bagasse was a "free" byproduct of the sugar making process.  As a result, in one of the world's wettest places, we have only about 5 MW of hydro in place.  Now, of course, people would fight tooth and nail to prevent damming streams or even diverting some flow into electricity generation.

by HiD on Tue Mar 21st, 2006 at 03:51:55 AM EST


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