Sugarcane The Sugar-coated Threat



Sugarcane:The Sugar-coated Threat

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Sincethe beginning of sugarcane cultivation, man’s way of life haschanged. The plant has created a whole industry and has been a sourceof livelihood when grown for commercial purposes. Globally, severalcountries earn billions of dollars in sugar exports as the sugarindustry has expanded to include the food processing industry. Recenttechnology has utilized sugarcane syrup to produce ethanol as areplacement for fossil fuels which has led to higher demand forsugarcane. However, this high demand poses a threat to foodproduction and world’s forests. Additional sugarcane farming causessoil erosions, poisons aquatic systems and increased sugarcaneconsumption that has negative health implications. This paper thusrecommends strict control of sugarcane cultivation and consumption ofsugar to safeguard the environment and the health of the people. Itis also recommend that better farming practices should be introducedto curb soil erosion and overuse of chemicals.

Sugarcanegrowingis amajorcommercialactivityin manypartsof theworld.The crop, which is basically a type of grass, is grown for its canewhich can be consumed raw for its syrup or the cane is processed toproduce sucrose (table sugar) and ethanol. Other products obtainedfrom sugarcane include falernum, molasses and rum. The plant’suseful part is the fibrous stalk that holds the syrup and is dividedinto nodes that measure about 5 cm to about 15 cm. The crop grows toa height of 6-19 feet depending on the variety and climate. India andBrazil are the world’s largest sugarcane producers and reports fromthese countries and other countries indicate increased cases ofdeforestation in favor of sugarcane farming. As a cash crop with highdemand, increased sugarcane farming poses a threat to the world’sfood security and natural environment hence it should be scaled backto save lives and the environment regardless of its usefulness.

Sugarcanegrowing and human rights

Sugarcaneas a cash crop is a key driver of economic growth for millions ofpeople around the world. Various studies have revealed the economicbenefits of cash crop farming as opposed to subsistence food cropfarming (Kennedy 1989). On the other hand, sugarcane farming requireslarge tracts of land which means that a majority of small scalefarmers in the sugarcane growing regions are locked out of enjoyingsuch benefits. Furthermore, the government land ownership policies incountries such as the Philippines call for consolidation of land tocreate more economically viable large plantations (Oxford BusinessGroup 2012). Consequently, sugarcane cultivation does not benefitall.

Additionally,some of these plantations are guilty of utilizing child labor andeven exposing workers to poor working conditions (Goldemberg, Coelho,&amp Guardabassi, 2008). Such accusations are not new. Historically,sugarcane farming in the Americas and the Caribbean was a key driverof slavery from the 16thcentury to early 20thcentury. Slaves were bought or forcefully captured from Africanvillages and shipped to these plantations. The Dominican Republic andWest indies were in particular dominated by sugarcane plantations andwere thus major destinations for slaves from Africa. The industry wasso profitable that sugar was nicknamed the ‘white gold’ (Black,2015, p. 42). As a result of this desire for more profits, humanrights abuses proliferated and pattern is being replayed today albeitat lower scale. Plantations in Brazil and Philippines while in India,the caste system allows land owners to own workers without pay.

Sugarcanefarming food production

Thesame desire for profits is driving the increased farming of sugarcaneat the expense of food production and the world’s forests. Withenvironmental concerns promoting the use of ethanol to replace fossilfuels, there is growing demand for sugarcane as a raw material forproduction of ethanol. As a result, many farmers are shifting fromfood farming to sugarcane production. The long term effect of thistrend on the global food security is huge with millions of people ata greater risk of starvation (Actionaid 2010). The ripple effect onthe prices of food commodities will also be felt all over the world.In Kenya, Africa, the government commissioned a study to assess theeffect of shifting from maize farming to sugarcane farming the SouthNyanza region. The study conducted by Kennedy (1989), which has beencited in many studies, did not make conclusive findings but revealedthat increase in income levels were higher from cash crop farmingthan in food farming. However, households that were involved insugarcane farming spent a slightly higher amount of their income onnonfood items than food-growing households.

InBrazil, sugarcane cultivation is placing the environment and foodfarming under increased pressure. The country that is home to theAmazon basin has large suitable lands for agriculture but asignificant percentage is under forest cover. Martinelli and Filoso(2008) report that sugarcane farmers are displacing soybean farmersfrom their lands. Soybeans farmers are thus relocated to the Amazonregion where they clear the forests for farming. Data from Actionaid(2010) reveals that while the size of land under sugarcane productionin the Rubiatab municipality in Brazil has increased, land under foodcrops such as soybeans, corn, and rice has decreased significantly.From 1980 to 2008, land under sugarcane cultivation increased from 7hectares to over 7000 while land under rice cultivation decreasedfrom 3936 ha to just 180 ha over the same period (ibid).

Soiland aquatic systems

Sugarcanefarming is also accompanied by unsustainable practices. In Brazil,farmers employ the slash-and-burn method of farming where bushes arecleared by setting them on fire. This alone not only kills importantmicroorganisms and nutrients in the soil (Martinelli &amp Filoso2008) but also exposes the farmers and the people of Brazil to smokeand inhalable carbon particles and trace elements that increase therisks of respiratory infections (Uriarte, Yackulic, Cooper et al.,2009). The elderly and children are at the greatest risk of infection(Concado et al 2006). Additionally, sugarcane farming is highlymechanized in several countries. This means that heavy machineryincluding tractors is used in most processes such as planting andharvesting. Constant traffic from the heavy machinery leads to soilcompaction which destroys soils’ physical properties such asporosity and density (Martinelli &amp Filoso 2008).

Increasedsugarcane farming is also a source of soil erosion that not onlyaffects the quality of soil but also affects aquatic systems. InBrazil Sao Paulo sugarcane fields, soil erosion increasedsignificantly in lands previously under forest cover or pasture whensugarcane farming was introduced. This was fueled by clearing fieldsby burning that contributed to high rates of soil erosion afterleaving the ground bare. Surface runoff from these sugarcane fieldsends up in aquatic systems in surrounding areas. With the farmlandsbeing to higher usage of fertilizers and pesticides, the chemicalbalances in the water sources are largely affected (Martinelli &ampFiliso, 2008). Surface runoff water also carries along top soil thatends up in water sources as sediments that affects aquaticbiodiversity (Murali&amp Nair, 2014).

Sugarcaneimpact on health

Apartfrom sugarcane farming practices having an impact on nature, sugar asa food has can have negative impact on health. A few centuries ago,sugar was a preserve for the elite in Europe and other regions aroundthe world. Increased production and access promoted increasedconsumption of sugar. In the US, 40% of energy in diets is providedby added sugar contained in processed foods and beverages (Drewnowski2004). Increased intake of sugar, in this case sucrose fromsugarcane, is linked to increased cases of obesity, cardiovascularcomplications, high blood pressure, and other minor lifestylediseases (Johnston et al., 2009). The greatest risk faces childrenand preschoolers who have little control of their dietary intake.According to Drewnowski’s study, the amount of sugar intake isinversely related the education level of parents and income level, asituation that suggests that sugar-rich foods are more affordable tothe poor and education level increased people’s awareness of thehealth impacts of excessive sugar consumption (Kraz, Wright,Siega-Riz &amp Mitchell, 2005).


Itis highly recommended that the world should enact various practicesto regulate sugarcane farming. It is clear that sugarcane growingdirectly causes deforestation and soil erosion with a negative impacton the environment. As such, sugarcane cultivation should thus becontrolled to avoid encroaching on lands used for food farming andforests (Actionaid 2010).

Saleand consumption of sugar should be strictly regulated to save lives.The recent enactment of laws in the US limiting the amount of fatsand salts in food served in school should be advanced further toinclude controlling amount of sugar contained in soft drinks.Industry self-regulations such as introduction of Coke zero and Cokediet have not had the intended impact and hence the government shouldset strict limits on sugar content of foods especially those consumedby children. One such way is heavily taxing sweetened foods andbeverages that will lower sugar intake and discourage its use(Brownell, et al, 2009).


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