Appetite For Sugar Causing Massive Environmental Damage
By Sanjida O'Connell
The Independent - UK
Sugar has for generations sweetened our palates and expanded our waistlines. But it is not only our health that has suffered from the global cultivation of Sugar cane. Studies conducted over recent years have shown that the crop has also been bad for two of the most important and unique ecosystems in the world - the Florida everglades and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
Until the advent of Sugar cane, the Florida Everglades was a vast swampland radiating from Lake Okeechobee, one of America's largest freshwater lakes. Marjory Stoneman Douglas, campaigner and author of many books on the Everglades, says: "Nowhere else is like them ... the miracle of the light pours over the green and brown expanse of saw grass and water ... it is a river of grass."
The Everglades were home to numerous species, from West Indian manatees to wood storks, Cape Sable seaside sparrows to snail kites. Now there are fewer than 30 Florida panthers left - a reddish-brown cougar indigenous to south-west Florida - in fact, there are more statues of the cat than there are real ones. Fifty-six species living in the Everglades are either on the endangered or threatened list, the highest number in the country. Since 1930 there has been a 90 per cent decrease in the number of wading birds, such as white ibis and roseate spoonbills. During the past 30 years, all animal species have declined by between 75 and 90 per cent.
The problem is largely due to the way in which sugar cane is farmed. The Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) was created out of drained land, 80 per cent of which is used to cultivate sugar cane. At 283,000 hectares, it is the largest area set aside for farming in the world. But it wasn't until 1981 that scientists began to realise what such cultivation was doing to the environment. Phosphorus and nitrates from fertilisers used for sugar cane have been pouring into drainage canals and thus into national parks. As a result of the extra fertilisers, species such as cattails, a native grass, have grown rampantly, choking the Everglades and preventing wading birds from feeding.
Dr John Ogden, a biologist from South Florida water management district, has noticed an even more fundamental change at the very heart of this complex ecosystem. One of the major components of the Everglades is a slimy substance coating the plants in the marshes. It's made up of different types of freshwater algae and is food for many tiny freshwater creatures and fish that other larger animals feed on; in other words, it is the basis of the whole food chain in the Everglades. But recently, the change in the water chemistry has altered the composition of these algal colonies and now the creatures that once fed upon them are unable to do so.
There seems little hope for the future. The power of sugar companies in the state is legendary: half-way through 2003, Governor Jeb Bush passed a law pushed through by the US Sugar Corp that relaxed requirements to clean up the Everglades. Essentially the bill allows water-quality standards to be reduced, which means levels of phosphorus do not have to be dramatically lowered for some time.
Alan Farago, chair of the Florida branch of the Sierra Club, an environmental organisation, says: "We understand politics perfectly well. We understand that big money and big influence can buy just about anything in the state of Florida, including the redefinition of pollution so that polluters can continue to pollute."
On the other side of the world, the situation is no less acute. The Great Barrier Reef is also affected by run-off from sugar cane plantations. Production has expanded rapidly - 400,000 hectares are currently under cultivation. The result is that soil is quickly eroded and runs into the wetlands, rivers, streams and ultimately the sea. In sugar cane regions, losses of 380 tons per hectare have been recorded, compared with only four in natural rainforests. Since the 1950s, fertiliser has been used in ever-increasing amounts to keep sugar cane yields high, and this too washes into waterways.
The impact is immense: in 2003 a report by an independent panel of experts commissioned by the Queensland government showed that run-off from sugar cane plantations was the main cause of decline of up to 60 per cent of coral species in the inner section of the Great Barrier Reef. The high levels of nutrients from the fertilisers that wash into the sea promote the growth of plankton, which supports larger numbers of filter feeders, such as tubeworms and sponges, and these animals compete with coral for space.
But not everything is doom and gloom. Some 65 per cent of sugar cane grown here is now cultivated in a more environmentally friendly way. Traditionally, cane is burnt before it is harvested, to kill pests and make the fields more manageable for tilling after the harvest. However, "green cane", harvested without burning, is actually fresher and contains at least 6 per cent more sucrose. If the "trash", such as the leaves, is left on the soil, soil structure and fertility improves.
Over a five-year cycle of cane growth, fields treated in this way only lose 10 tons of soil per hectare on average per year. Nutrient loss, including fertiliser, is also reduced. Nevertheless, more than 20,000 tons of nitrates still pour onto the barrier reef, a quarter of which comes from sugar cane agriculture.
Sugar derived from sugar beet, a turnip-like tuber, is little better for the environment. Like sugar cane it is grown in a monoculture creating a sterile environment for wildlife. Beet is also fed heavily with fertiliser and pesticides: farmers in Britain use 10.5 active herbicide ingredients per year, more than twice as much as is used on any other crop. According to the Soil Association, these practices particularly affect birds which live and nest in this habitat: for instance, between 1987 and 1998 the numbers of breeding lapwings declined by 50 per cent in Britain. Water demand is three times higher for beet than for cane, and the crop is one of the major causes of soil erosion in the UK - we lose more than 350,000 tons every time beet is harvested.
In response, Broom's Barn, the national centre for sugar beet research in Suffolk, has been conducting trials on genetically manipulated beet that is herbicide resistant. It needs 90 per cent less weed-killer, which could help make it more wildlife-friendly. "Frequent spraying destroys the weeds on which the insects and birds feed," says Broom's Barn's director, Dr John Pidgeon. "But our system means we can reduce the amount of spraying and allow weeds in between the rows to flourish in summer without affecting yield. We are very excited about our results because this is the first time research has shown that Genetically-Modified herbicide-tolerant crops can be managed for environmental benefit."
He hopes that, if trials are approved, the Genetically-Modified sugar will be on sale by 2007; though whether this will sweeten the unpalatable effects of sugar on the environment remains to be seen.