Sugar is one of the world’s largest agricultural products, with about 60 percent to 70 percent of the world's production derived from sugar cane. By 2015, the sugar market is expected to reach more than 177 million metric tons, according to Global Industry Analysts. Brazil, India, Thailand and China account for more than half of the world's sugar production, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). This production scale brings with it several negative impacts on local cultures and the environment, prompting some sugar producers to move to more sustainable sugar cane growing and harvesting practices.
Sugar cane production uses a lot of water due to inefficient irrigation practices. The process of washing soil off the cane roots when they’re harvested also wastes a lot of water.
Polluting runoff caused by sugar byproducts and cleaning enters and contaminates drinking water sources, while chemicals used for pest control and fertilizers pollute the air and ground in addition to water. Another major cause of air pollution is the practice of cane burning, in which farmers burn fields prior to harvest to ease cutting; this method also removes healthy microbes from the soil, reducing its quality.
In areas with large sugar cane operations, man-made structures, such as dams, change the amount of water available to surrounding communities. Sugar cane production has also reduced natural habitat in areas such as Florida’s Everglades wetlands.
It’s possible for sugar cane producers to reduce the negative impacts of farming the crop by replacing destructive practices with more sustainable ones. A couple of green solutions include introducing more efficient irrigation to reduce water waste, and applying fertilizers and pesticides via drip irrigation, targeting smaller plant areas and reducing the amount and strength of both chemicals needed.