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August 24, 2017

Not as Sweet as it Seems: The Real Costs of Sugarcane Farming

By Shambhavi Sahai

Recently, as I passed the bakery section of my local grocery store, I wondered what the actual cost of a box of 12 glazed donuts might be. What did the $2.78 price tag really take into account?

Sugarcane farming, the backbone of the sugar industry, is a menace for the farmers it seems to support. This might not cross the average consumer’s mind as the check-out clerk scans the barcode on that box of donuts,  but for farmers around the globe, growing sugarcane perpetuates cyclical and seasonal patterns of debt. These debts can seem insurmountable, as was the case for hundreds of thousands of farmers driven to suicide in the last few decades in India. These farmers and their children—who are forced to help as farm hands instead of attending school—suffer life-threatening exposure to dangerous pesticides used on the crops, most notably kidney diseases.

These tragic consequences of sugarcane farming are just one of the many harmful effects that sugarcane has on society. Sugarcane contributes to deforestation, the consequences of which leave a hefty carbon footprint. Processing and converting sugarcane into refined sugar entails burning residues, using synthetic fertilizers, and fossil fuel combustion.  Recent studies have estimate these activities emit approximately  241 kg of carbon dioxide per ton of sugar produced by an average sugarcane mill in Brazil, the world’s largest sugar manufacturer and home of the densest rainforests.

Many crops adversely effect biodiversity, but sugar’s impact is astronomical, beyond that of many other crops.  Sugarcane cultivation and refining is highly water and chemical dependent . Consequently, large volumes of effluents and pollutants are discharged in the form of wastewater. An estimated 213 gallons of water is wasted for every pound of sugar. Not only is water wasted, but also the natural habitat of marine species is polluted — resulting in biodiversity loss. Furthermore, sugarcane sludge and waste matter released from processing facilities overflows and decomposes in water bodies, absorbing available oxygen and killing masses of fish while depriving coral reefs of necessary sunlight.

Such biodiversity loss is not limited to aquatic species, but is also a result of the deforestation from sugarcane farm preparation . The mixed Atlantic Forest, which once covered massive regions in Brazil, has been reduced to 7% of its original size—a response to growing sugarcane demand.  In doing so wildlife habitats are destroyed, and several unique, indigenous, and undiscovered species are killed. Loss of these rich banks of biodiversity is a loss to mankind.

Lastly, the same pesticides that hurt farmers and children who harvest  and cultivate sugarcane are also responsible for the erosion of the soil over time. Use of fertilizers on land stripped bare after deforestation leeches the topsoil of nutrients and damages its natural fertility. This creates a cyclical dependence on fertilizers,  making sugarcane agriculture unsustainable. Yet, sugar interest groups lobby for less regulation on the basis that fertilizers and pesticides are  safe for humans, while overlooking the long-term effect on soil quality and food security.

Sweet as it may seem, sugarcane has bitter roots. Its obvious role in encouraging an obesity epidemic is only worsened by the role it plays in destroying lives. You can find a list of companies that support lobbying against regulations on sugar in the United States here . Learn more about the bills Coca-Cola has lobbied for here, and the lobbying firms it uses here. The world has much to gain by taking a stand against Big Sugar.


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