The environmental impact of sugarcane cultivation
Figure 1: You could encounter this field anywhere between Thailand, Brazil, the USA, India or Mexico. Sugarcane is cultivated extensively in tropical regions all round the world.
In the last decade, biofuel has emerged as a solution to help solve climate change. However, bioethanol is mainly produced from sugarcane, whose cultivation is still far from being environmental-friendly. This article presents an overview of the environmental impacts of sugarcane cultivation, and sustainable alternatives to explore in the future.
The landscape of sugarcane cultivation in the world1
Around 1,950 tons of sugarcane are produced in the world every year to process sugar for human consumption and biofuel. The global demand for sugarcane increased gradually over the past decades and is supported by South America (Brazil: 39% of the world’s production) and Asia (India: 20%, China and Thailand: 6% each).
Figure 1: sugarcane burning has an impact on the environment, and on workers' health
What is the environmental impact of sugarcane cultivation?
Fitting into the widespread model of industrialized agriculture, sugarcane is cultivated in monoculture, with intensive use of agrochemical and artificial fertilizers. In addition to the greenhouse gases emission from fertilizer use (more details about this topic in this article) and fossil fuel use, sugarcane cultivation releases a significant amount of carbon when farmers use the sugarcane burning harvest method. It consists in burning the cane leaves before harvesting, therefore cutting in half the harvest time. Scientific studies estimate that for each ton of sugarcane produced, between 27kg2 and 49kg3 of CO2-equivalent are released into the atmosphere (depending on the geographical specificities and farming practices). Besides the greenhouse gas emissions, intensive sugarcane cultivation in monoculture reduces soil fertility and threatens local biodiversity.
What can be done to mitigate this environmental footprint?
Sustainable farming practices consist in stopping sugarcane burning practices, using organic fertilizer, reducing fossil fuel consumption, and starting to shift from a monocultural system to a regenerative system with the combination of different crops and with specific attention given to soil health. However, it is necessary to grasp the technical and social complexity of such a shift. Quitting the conventional agricultural system requires investment (to buy harvesting machines replacing sugarcane burning, to try organic fertilizer instead of artificial ones…), technical knowledge (conduct soil testing, learning good practices…) and above all commitment. Many farmers, especially in Asia, are small or medium holders who do not have the financial and technical capacity to change their practices.
Figure 2: Mechanization is scarce in Thailand today
Who can support farmers in their journey to sustainable farming?
National regulations and governmental actions are a prerequisite to fostering a shift to more sustainable farming practices, but a wide range of positions can be witnessed across countries. In Brazil, the government of Jair Bolsonaro allowed the expansion of sugarcane plantations into protected areas in the country to intensify the Brazilian production of biofuel ethanol, thus encouraging environmentally devastating practices. The Thai government, on the contrary, claimed his ambition to reduce sugarcane burning and issued 1.5-billion-baht worth of loans to farmers to buy specialized harvesters. However, these supportive mechanisms face some barriers at the farm level. Firstly, such harvesters might not be adapted for small farms. Secondly, it is not uncommon that farmers remain unaware of the existence of such government initiatives or that they struggle with the administrative processes to activate them. Finally, farmers will be willing to take the risk of shifting their farming practices only if there is a guarantee of selling their sustainable sugarcane at premium prices. This is where international buyers play a big role in reversing the trend: they can support the sustainable transition by signing contracts for premium products with farmers. Private companies indeed play a key role in the successful implementation of solutions, and at FairAgora Asia, we made this our mission.
Figures from FAOSTAT, United Nations, 2019
Figueiredo et al. (2010)
Yuttitham et al. (2011)
Lima et al. (2020)