What Is the Cost of Sugar to the Planet?

Sugar seems to be popping up everywhere in packaged foods these days, which is a big health concern for those who consume a lot of it, but even aside from the issue of the health effects of sugar on the body, there’s another part of the story, which is the effect that growing sugar has on our planet, and on those who grow it.

The practice of Fair Trade certification for foods such as coffee, chocolate, and bananas, is becoming more recognizable, and more desirable, to customers, which is great, but sugar is another of those foods with similar environmental and social effects, and sourcing ethical or environmentally sustainable sugar ought to be common practice for any green food company.

If your business uses sugar as an ingredient for any of its products, and you haven’t yet considered the cost to the Earth, or the social costs, of the sugar you use, perhaps now is the time to evaluate your company’s choices so they’re in line with the rest of your values.

Here’s Vibrant Wellness Journal’s Andrea Bertoli on the social and environmental costs of sugar:

The-Social-Ethical-cost-of-SugarWhat is the the social and environmental cost of sugar, and how does the world work to keep our sweet tooth in action?

I stumbled upon a great news site a few days ago named Groundswell. Covering sustainable energy with a unique approach called Civic Consumption, working to ‘[unlock] communities’ shared economic power to grow sustainability and expand prosperity on the local level.” They cover energy, climate change and green living, all things that I’m passionate about and that I will continue to share here on VWJ. A recent article that addressed the health AND ecological cost of our sugar habits caught my eye.

Basically, sugar is a big (delicious) problem in modern life. As we’ve written about before, sugar consumption is linked to various lifestyle diseases, most notably diabetes for its huge affect on blood sugar levels which affect insulin production, hormones and weight gain. The recent film Fed UP, produced by Katie Couric, made a big to-do about how the US government is not making enough effort to eliminate excess sugar in our diets, and our entire population (and health care bills) is suffering.

But what about the cost of sugar on the planet?

Sugar is one of the most commonly-traded food crops. Billions of tons of sugar was produced globally last year, across all the warmer areas of our world. Part of the external cost of sugar includes water depletion and soil erosion. As mentioned in the article, The Guardian has reported that, “Sixty years of sugar in Pakistan in the Indus Basin has resulted in a 90 percent reduction in the amount of freshwater available.”

In addition to the water depletion, most sugar cane that is grown is not organic, which means that farming sugar also leads to high levels of pollution. On Maui, where I lived for a short time, the cane was hauled out and the fields were burned, leading to acrid smoke and ‘Hawaiian Snow’ falling throughout the lower parts of the island all day long. The burning of cane is still a common practice in all growing regions, leading to air pollution and creation of greenhouse gasses. Not only the burning of cane contributes to pollution, but fertilizers run off into water supplies and can threaten communities and wildlife.

The article notes that these impacts are hitting close to home too: the Everglades in Florida have been exploited by sugar companies, and yet the companies don’t want to foot the bill. Similar issues abound on Maui, where the sugar farms have diverted natural streams and damaged natural water supplies for the island. The article notes that, “It’s increasingly difficult to pull apart the sugar conglomerates from the politicians they deal with; much like tobacco or gun lobbyists, Big Sugar is tightly intertwined with legislation despite growing awareness of sugar’s detrimental effects.”

An alternative to sugar cane is sugar beets, which contributes half of the sugar produced in the US. However, almost all the sugar beets grown in the US are genetically modified, which is threatening organic production of regular beets and leaves consumers in the dark about their foods. If a label does not specifically note that it is cane sugar, it’s most likely beet sugar, and more than likely it’s GM.

Groundswell suggests taking all these considerations in mind and shares some tips for choosing the right sugar for your sweet tooth.

  • Fair Trade Products: “Purchasing a fair trade brand ensures some accountability and equitability has been guaranteed to the farmers and local producers of the sugar, be it from sugarcane or sugar beets. Farmers in impoverished countries still suffer a lot to reach a livable income, but this is one important step.” Florida Naturals is organic, fair-trade and carbon neutral; Alter Eco offers a great sugars that are also organic and fair-trade.
  • Coconut Palm Sugar: I’m a huge fan of the deep caramel flavor of coconut sugar, and its low glycemic index makes it a slightly healthier option.  Coconut trees are super sustainable, and yield us so many delicious products, sugar being one of the newest on the market.
  • Organic Brown Rice Syrup: A staple of natural foodies and Macrobiotic folks, brown rice syrup is thick and sweet, great as a less-sweet alternative to maple syrup or honey. Can be used for tea, coffee or even in baking.
  • Make your own with sugar beets! Groundswell says, “if  you can acquire sugar beets from a farmers market or another direct source, try your hand at gleaning sugar from it. The process is straightforward but time-intensive, with a lot of boiling, straining, and boiling again. But you’ll know you have chemical-free, fair-trade sugar.”

Reprinted with permission.

About the Author

lives in southwestern New Mexico and digs bicycles, simple living, organic gardening, sustainable lifestyle design, slacklining, bouldering, and permaculture. He loves good food, with fresh roasted chiles at the top of his list of favorites. Catch up with Derek on Twitter, RebelMouse, Google+, or at his natural parenting site, Natural Papa!