The Dalai Lama says,“We have a responsibility to look after our planet. It is our only home." How do we do that? Well, we can start by focusing on simple areas of our lives—something as simple as what sugar we use in our kitchen. Most holiday baking recipes call for sugar so this one is timely. Did you know that every time you purchase sugar you are either supporting a sustainable form of sugarcane farming or a more destructive one? With virtually all sugarcane production taking place in the tropics, choosing a "better" sugar can make a difference for the wellbeing of our rainforests.
If you grew up in the United States, you may remember the C&H advertising jingle, “C&H, pure cane sugar, from Hawaii, grown in the sun.”
Well, things have changed.
Today, Mexico is the top exporter of sugar to the U.S., and Brazil is the top producer and exporter of sugar in the world. Thailand and India are leading sugar exporters after Brazil, but sugarcane plantations are common in regions throughout the tropics. And it’s not all about sweetness. The rise of biofuels have “fueled” sugarcane agriculture to new heights as sugarcane offers the most efficient feedstock for ethanol production, providing Brazil’s travel sector with roughly 18 percent of its fuel and the world roughly 30 percent of its ethanol needs.
The Brazilian government, recognizing that sugar cultivation encroaching on the Amazon could be a disastrous problem, proposed a ban on sugarcane plantations in environmentally sensitive areas in 2009. While most sugarcane plantations are located in the southern central region of Brazil, far from the Amazon, experts say that they are likely having an indirect effect on the Amazon and the biodiverse cerrado. As more and more sugarcane plantations take over arable land, cattle ranchers and subsistence farmers need to move into new areas, including the cerrado and deeper into the Amazon biome. For this reason, environmentalists worry that too much dependence on biofuels can be a serious problem. Yet, Chris Wille, head of agriculture at the Rainforest Alliance, explains that unlike other types of crops, sugarcane is actually supremely efficient with new mechanization now phasing out difficult manual labor and the practice of burning cane prior to cutting. “When sugarcane cultivation is managed sustainably with minimal impact to the environment and fair support to workers, it is actually one of the better sources of biofuels available today,” he says. And this is how you can help with your choices.
Sugarcane cultivation in general has been problematic to both the environment and to workers. Indiscriminate use of pesticides contaminates the environment, and field burning prior to harvesting (to rid stalks of sharp leaves and repel snakes) causes respiratory problems for workers and neighboring communities as well as issues with sedimentation with soot and ash in waterways, which in turn, adversely affects wildlife. The Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN)—an international coalition of NGOs that jointly manages Rainforest Alliance certification—has developed standards for sustainable sugarcane cultivation. This means that you will soon be able to, if you’re not already, buy products made with Rainforest Alliance-certified sugar. Certified sugarcane farms that harvest mechanically will no longer be able to burn their fields, and all other farms will need to eliminate the practice within three years. In the meantime, burning will be subject to strict limitations to minimize its impact. Workers who lose their jobs as a result of mechanization must be given priority consideration for other opportunities and training and be compensated according to local labor laws. SAN standards also call for the reduction of pesticides and encourage farms to minimize their carbon footprints through innovative techniques. Farms established on recently cleared land (after 2006) cannot qualify for certification.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
So, when you go to the market to purchase sugar or to get your favorite sweet, look for the Rainforest Alliance logo. Buy products that use Rainforest Alliance-certified sugar.
Another option for sugar-loving rainforest enthusiasts is to buy organic. Organic sugar plantations obviously cannot use dangerous pesticides, herbicides or fungicides. And conditions for workers are generally better on organic farms than conventional ones.
You can always ask where the sugar you are purchasing is sourced. And if you are buying more natural, whole-food products that use sugar, you should definitely ask. “Your emails to manufacturers and suppliers absolutely make a difference,” Wille told us. He cited the example of Nestlé. After receiving thousands of emails, the corporation made a public commitment to more responsible sourcing of cocoa and palm oil.
Go for the good sugar and enjoy the "sweetness" of helping the rainforests!
Sustainable Agriculture Network