Sustainable development initiatives for the sugar industry

SUGAR CANE has been cultivated for human and animal consumption for over 500 years. About 80 percent of the sugar produced from cane sugar is grown in 110 countries, covering about 27 million hectares and producing an annual average of about 170 million tonnes.

Sugar cane is planted on about 65 million acres of land worldwide, and a dozen countries use at least 25 percent of their farmland to cultivate it. The industry contributes significantly to the gross domestic product in major sugarcane producing economies like the Philippines and is a major provider of livelihoods as it supports millions of farmers.

The demand for sugar for human consumption has grown slowly over the past 50 years, driven primarily by emerging markets where populations are growing, incomes are rising, and processed foods are becoming more common.

In addition to sugar, cane can be used to produce products such as falernum, molasses, rum, bagasse, and ethanol, creating economic benefits throughout the supply chain. Sugar crops are also a potential source of renewable energy, biofuels, bioelectricity and biomaterials.

Food and beverage manufacturers account for 51 percent of the sugar industry’s revenues, with food wholesalers and supermarkets contributing an additional 25 percent. Non-food users, such as energy companies, account for 24 percent.

The national sugar cane industry – the oldest and main source of agricultural income – contributes as much as 70 billion pesos to the economy each year with 23.3 million metric tons of cane grown out of an estimated 398 478 hectares of agricultural land in 17 provinces and about 630,000 farmers dependent on the industry for their livelihood and income.

However, the sugarcane industry is currently under threat due to various environmental and social concerns, including climate change. Long-term changes in weather conditions have resulted in major environmental problems that affect the country today and will be in the future.

Impact of climate change

Over the past decades, it has become increasingly clear that human activities, especially the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation, have altered climatic conditions due to rising temperatures, extreme weather events, droughts, major changes in rainfall and sea level rise.

Despite the cooling effect of the La Niña phenomenon, 2020 was one of the warmest years on record with an average global temperature of around 1.2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The World Meteorological Organization has reported that the past six years (2015 to 2020) have been the hottest on record. The trend will continue in the years to come due to the increase in heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

The Philippines, as a developing country, is more vulnerable to extreme weather events which have become more frequent and intense in recent years. In Germanwatch’s latest Global Climate Risk Index, the Philippines ranked fourth among the countries most affected by extreme weather events – mostly devastating typhoons – from 2000 to 2019. A total of 317 extreme weather events were recorded in the country – highest among the top 10 in the report.

We are living in the midst of climate change. We are currently experiencing extreme weather events, rising temperatures and rising sea levels, and agriculture is the economic sector most vulnerable to such phenomena. Agriculture, however, may not be as popular as we would like because some of us are not aware and serious enough to focus on the issues in the sector.

Climate change directly affects agriculture through rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns, extreme droughts and forest fires, heavy rains and floods. It indirectly affects crops through soil, nutrients and increasing interference from pests. The impact of climate change affects the entire value chain, from the field to harvest, transport and factory.

In 2016, when El Niño hit the country, continued droughts in Negros Occidental – the country’s largest sugar-producing province – resulted in 99.51 million pesos ($ 2.08 million) in crops. of damaged sugar cane with 7,861 farmers and 7,372 hectares of sugar cane plantation. affected. Currently, various sugarcane producing areas are experiencing heavy rains and flooding due to the ongoing La Niña. The extreme rainfall reduced the sugar content of the cane, leading to a decline in sugar production for the current season and leading to the removal of the allowance for the export of sugar to the United States.

Adverse weather events are expected to inflict more damage to agriculture and property, reduce already low incomes, increase disease and lead to loss of life – especially among those with little or no income. ways to cope with climate change due to low savings, no property insurance and limited access to public services.

Sustainability initiatives

Sustainability is a broad term that has economic, social and environmental dimensions. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, a sustainable agricultural value chain is “profitable throughout, has general benefits for society and does not permanently deplete resources. natural resources “.

Businesses along the sugar industry value chain have a role to play. From small farmers to large multinational buyers, they are interconnected and interdependent, their actions affecting everyone’s opportunities and incentives.

Producers, millers and refiners must implement sustainable production and processing practices and millers, refiners, traders and large industrial buyers must source in ways that support these practices.

For waste management, we must ensure sustainable and responsible sugar production by reducing waste through the transformation of by-products or waste from cane into environmentally friendly materials and energy cogeneration.

For the use and management of water, we need to implement best management practices to reduce water consumption and make rational use of the resource through efficient irrigation systems and application new technologies and processes. Industrial wastewater from sugar production should be reused by treating it for fertigation.

For energy production, millers must be encouraged to turn to renewable energy produced from a sugar by-product (sugar bagasse). Producing renewable energy from biomass can prevent up to 4 million tonnes of CO2 from reaching the environment due to reduced use of fossil fuels.

For science, research and biodiversity conservation, we need to develop new varieties of sugarcane more resistant to plant diseases and water stress so that the plant adapts better to regional climatic conditions. Agricultural research and development should focus on the development of heat-resistant species so that sugar cane adapts sustainably to future global warming.

There are many research findings, but these need to be translated to stakeholders so that they have a deep understanding of future climate change as well as information on risks, opportunities and response strategies.

The private sector must support the development of appropriate agricultural practices, crop insurance programs and infrastructure to support farmers.

And finally, we need to educate producers, millers and farmers about the effects of climate change on sugar cane production.

The author is the Executive Director of the Young Environmental Forum and a non-resident member of the Stratbase ADR Institute. He completed his course on Climate Change and Development at the University of East Anglia and an Executive Program on Leadership in Sustainable Development at Yale University. You can send him an e-mail at [email protected]

Rachel J. Bradford