Sustainable sugarcane certification can halve GHG emissions and boost yields: study

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

© Getty Images/Sergio Mendoza Hochmann
© Getty Images/Sergio Mendoza Hochmann

Related tags Sugarcane

Producing sugarcane according to Bonsucro sustainability standards can halve greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and boost crop yields, according to recent research. "A clear case" for seeking certification for this "very thirsty crop", says Bonsucro.

Bonsucro is a global multi-stakeholder organization that aims to promote sustainable sugarcane production, processing and trade through voluntary certification. 

The peer-reviewed study was published in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)​, ​and was led by researchers from the University of Minnesota.

They found that if sugarcane farmers around the world began producing according to Bonsucro standards – either universally or selectively – the environmental benefits could be significant.

Assuming 100% compliance with Bonsucro’s criteria, the authors estimated this would increase crop yields, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 51%, reduce total production area by 24% and water use by 65%.

The study was partially funded by one of the largest global buyers of sugarcane - The Coca-Cola Company - and received support from NGO the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Danielle Morley, CEO of Bonsucro, said the study provided a clear case for greater uptake of the Bonsucro standard.

“As a science-based metric standard scheme, Bonsucro is committed to continuous improvement and will use the study to inform the revision of the standard this year," ​she added.

Ulrike Sapiro, senior director of water stewardship and sustainable agriculture at The Coca-Cola Company said: “We are very pleased that this study demonstrates Bonsucro's potential of creating significant positive impacts for the environment and ecosystems, which is critical for further uptake by farmers and industry.”

Making more sustainable choices

sugar cane harvest in brazil, Mailson Pignata
Sugarcane harvest in Brazil. © GettyImages/Mailson Pignata

Sugarcane is the biggest agricultural crop in the world in terms of biomass, used for food, feed, alcohol, and biofuels.

The researchers, who chose to focus on sugarcane because it has one of the fastest growing sustainability standards for a commodity market, said they hope their work would lead to more sustainable choices.

Public pressure can be effective in getting big food and drink manufacturers to switch to more sustainable practices, the authors wrote. They gave the example of when, in 2017, more than one million Indian traders in the drought-hit state of Tamil Nadu began boycotting PepsiCo and Coca-Cola​ over its water use. When water used in sugarcane production is taken into account, it takes around 400 liters of water to produce one liter of soda.

The companies responded by making public pledges to source all of their sugarcane via Bonsucro.

However, future research should focus on how to maximize uptake from other stakeholders such as incentives for farmers, which must be sufficient to cover the cost of criteria compliance, wrote the researchers.

“Determining these costs and public and private-sector mechanisms for efficiently transferring voluntary sustainability standards adoption subsidies to farmers and millers are key future research needs.”

Sustainable sugar cane in Latin America

Brazil is by far the biggest sugarcane producer in Latin America.

In 2017, it produced over 750 million tonnes, according to data from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), followed by Mexico (just under 57m mt), Colombia (nearly 35m mt) and Guatemala (nearly 34m mt).

According to Morley, Latin America, along with Asia-Pacific, is “very active” ​for certification.

Around 14% of the sugarcane grown in Brazil alone is certified by Bonsucro, and it expects this figure to increase.

2018 was also a year to celebrate the first certification in Bolivia and further growth in certifications in Argentina, Brazil, and Nicaragua, as well as growing interest and commitment in Mexico and other Central American countries,” ​Morley told FoodNavigator-LATAM.

Although around 60 to 70% of sugarcane is consumed in the countries where it is produced, the main buyers of certified sustainable sugar are food and drink companies headquartered in the EU and US.

‘We need more media coverage on sugarcane sustainability – but only if it is well informed’

Grown in over 100 countries worldwide, the sugarcane provides a livelihood for millions of farmers and communities but its supply chain is often beset with problems, such as poor working conditions, labor rights abuses, low wages, and health and safety issues.

Morley used to work at the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an organization that aims to encourage uptake of certified sustainable palm oil – another invisible tropical ingredient used in millions of consumer products.

However, unlike palm oil, which has “quite rightly​” caught the public’s attention due to its links with deforestation, she said most of the negative press on sugar tended to focus on the health of the final consumer.

Very few stop to think about how it is produced,” ​she said.

“We now need to pay more attention to sugarcane and transform one of the world’s biggest global agricultural crops, which has a significant impact on people and the environment.

“Sugarcane is a very thirsty crop and its production has led to polluted waters, soil erosion and has damaged sensitive eco-systems, including forests and coral reefs.”

Morley said that more media visibility around the issues would be helpful in driving more sustainable practices but only if the coverage was well informed. 

“The risk is that we end up with a with a situation where companies make bad decisions in response to public pressure and misleading information - I am thinking, for example, of [British supermarket] Iceland’s recent move to ban palm oil from its products​,​ rather than committing to sustainable palm oil.”

Source: PNAS
“Voluntary sustainability standards could significantly reduce detrimental impacts of global agriculture”
Published ahead of print January 22, 2019, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1707812116
Authors: W. K. Smith E. Nelson, J. A. Johnson et al.

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