If produced sustainably, sugarcane is the crop of the future, poised to improve the lives of millions globally.
Sugarcane is mostly used as an ingredient in foods and drinks. 85% of the sugar we consume are hidden in popular daily products like jelly, cookies, bread and soft drinks. We savour its sweetness when we celebrate, and it’s always a treat.
Who are the world’s largest sugar consumers in total volume? India, followed by the EU and China. The average Dutch consumer uses around 38 kilograms of sugar per year. Argentinians consume around 45 kilograms and people in Thailand consume about 30 kilograms annually. Interestingly, despite being one of the largest overall consumers due to population size, the average Chinese person only consumes about 8 kilograms per year.
In the EU, demand for cane sugar has grown and now stands at 4 million tonnes per year. While this growth is in line with the growing worldwide sugar consumption, an EU policy likely to change in the coming years has also helped boost this demand for cane sugar.
Other alcohols derived from sugarcane have an even wider range of uses by the chemical industry to make bioplastics, detergents and more. Read more on our campign site How To Change the World with Sugarcane.
The versatility of many commodities is striking. Sugarcane – like soy, palm oil, and other agro-commodities – can show up in many unexpected places, like paper we use to scribble, doodle, write, print, and do business on daily.
Paper demand has risen an astounding 400% over the past 40 years, but only 1% in the past the few years. This large upfront increase resulted in deforestation and other drawbacks like: water pollution, landfill waste, and high energy costs. More recently, there is an increased demand for sustainably sourced paper from plantation forests and uprecycling methods.
While measures have made significant sustainability strides, the paper of the future may be made from sugarcane. Why sugarcane? Because it makes use of the entire sugarcane plant, and is derived as a by-product from when juice is extracted from the stalks. Sugarcane paper is also biodegradable and grows quickly.
Ethanol made of sugarcane can be used to replace gasoline, thereby reducing CO2 emissions by 90%. Sugarcane ethanol is a competitive option to replace gasoline as it is the most environmentally friendly alternative for oil to date.
Governments around the world, including the European Union and the United States, stimulate the use of biofuels as a way to diversify their energy sources and to reduce CO2-emissions.
Brazil leads the way in sugarcane ethanol. Almost all cars sold in Brazil today have flex fuel engines, allowing their owners to switch from gasoline to ethanol depending on their price.
Many cane producing countries are following the example of Brazil. The benefits are clear: reduced import of fossil fuels and the creation of employment for their citizens.
The future for ethanol based fuels is looking bright as technological advances are made. Special airplane engines have also been developed to make use of sugarcane ethanol, with the first commercial flights already haven taken to the skies.
A cut below the rest
Being a cane cutter is demanding and too often unhealthy and dangerous. Poverty and a lack of basic human rights are adversely affecting the lives of millions.
An estimated 15 million sugarcane cutters work to produce our food, fuels and paper. The cane cutters are often poor and not well-educated. Forced and child labour are woefully common in this industry. Labourers, who manually cut stalks of sugarcane in the hot sun, work under conditions that endanger their health and safety.
Sugarcane cutters all over Central American have been prey to Chronic Kidney Disease. This disease has inordinately affected sugarcane cutters, killing thousands of people, threatening the livelihoods of entire communities who depend on sugarcane for survival.
There are an estimated 60 million small-scale sugar growers worldwide, mostly from Asia and to a lesser extent from Africa and Latin-America. Too many growers suffer from low yields and high input costs, which leaves them with insufficient incomes and the inability to exit the poverty cycle.
An Unsweet Smell
Sugarcane is a thirsty crop, consuming a great deal of water. This over-irrigation often leads to a drop in ground water levels and can contribute to water-based social conflicts.
Irrigation systems that are inefficient and poorly distributed water sources can cause over-irrigation, wasting large amounts of valuable water. In Pakistan, which is already plagued by water insecurity, 70% of irrigation water is wasted.
Moreover, some cultivation methods contribute to air pollution in cane-growing areas. Pre-harvest burning is a practice to rid sugarcane stalks of excess leaves, straw, and the tips of the stalks, which together account for around 25% of the plant. Farmers often suffer from a lack of knowledge regarding farming best practices, which results in inefficient fertilizer use and soil degradation.
The sustainable sugarcane programme in Brazil with Raizen and Orplana has expanded in terms of area (27,300 to 34,414 hectares) and numbers of both participating farmers (2,100 to 2,800) and associated farmer (100 to 126). The Rural Horizons platform is in the process of being upgraded to mobile Digital 3S to enable farmers to use it in the field. In Colombia, the number of producers using Rural Horizons increased from 50 to 200.
The sustainability narrative for the global sugarcane sector is changing. Water, climate change, labour, productivity, smallholder vulnerability and outgrower integration issues have emerged as major challenges. Solidaridad continued to develop multi-stakeholder dialogues and partnerships to address regional and global priorities. The focus in 2016 was on implementing good agricultural practices, creating robust infrastructure, enabling sustainable landscapes and facilitating better policy environments.
Water scarcity is one of the main long-term challenges for many sugarcane growing regions around the world. This is why Solidaridad has initiated public-private partnerships in South Africa and India to increase the amount of crops produced per drop and reduce agricultural demand. Solidaridad and our partners will build on tried and tested approaches to increase smallholder sugarcane production and improve water stewardship with the help of satellite derived data.
Solidaridad received almost €3 million from The Dutch National Postcode Lottery fund to combat the Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD) epidemic in Central America.
Solidaridad starts working on better labour practices in the Mexican sugarcane industry together with ILO SIMAPRO and launches the ‘How to Change the World with Sugarcane' campaign.
Solidaridad, the International Finance Corporation, and four companies began the largest global sugarcane project, targeting 229,000 growers who supply to 14 mills across seven states.
Solidaridad successfully contributes to Projeto Renovação in Brazil, having retrained 4,500 former cane cutters to find alternative work after mechanization of cane harvesting.
With the support of Solidaridad, Equipav mill from Renuka, Brazil is the second mill worldwide to attain Bonsucro certification.
Additionally, 483 sugarcane growers that participated in our Bolivian projects were awarded a certificate for the eradicating of child labour, forced labour, and discrimination.
Start of producer support programmes in India, Pakistan, Malawi, Belize, and Honduras in partnership with Bonsucro.
Solidaridad and Argos Energy partnered to set up the first certified supply chain for ethanol, from Brazil to The Netherlands.
Solidaridad helped to co-found the Better Sugarcane Initiative, later renamed: Bonsucro.
Growers & Estate workers
The cultivation of sugarcane provides a livelihood for millions of growers and estate workers around the world. If sustainable sugarcane production improves livelihoods, we are convinced that it can also supply us with food, energy, paper, plastic, and fuels into the future.
That is why we are investing in enterprising farmers in developing countries through the Farmer Support Programme (FSP). We place emphasis on the improvement of their land use, so that production can increase while at the same minimising harm to people and the environment.
We are training 289,000 farmers in India and Pakistan in sustainable farming methods in a variety of producer support programmes. Similar projects in Tanzania, Brazil, Swaziland, and Mexico are enabling farmers to obtain better harvests and earn higher incomes.
"The project has empowered me with the right skills. I now realize enough income to pay for school fees and send my kids to school."
Max Mkandawire Sugarcane Farmer
Partnering for change
Companies form a critical part of fostering sustainability in the sugarcane industry and we believe they play a vital role in lifting labourers out of poverty and making sure labour rights and environmental well-being are pillars of the industry. We support companies in the transition to a sustainable sugarcane sector, from grower to consumer.
Our extensive experience in similar sectors gives us the ability to make a big contribution. We also help processors and end users to build a more sustainable sugar or ethanol supply. Solidaridad is one of the driving forces behind the implementation of the global standard for better sugarcane production.
As an active member of Bonsucro, the better sugarcane initiative, we are dedicated to improving the environmental and social impacts of sugarcane production. Bonsucro focuses on issues such as legal compliance, fair labour practices, responsible expansion, efficient water use and biodiversity conservation.
Through our work in agro-commodity supply chains, we are dedicated to responsible food production to feed the growing world population and to providing the world with an alternative to fossil fuels like oil and gas.
"We are committed to working with partners and fully support the work that bodies such as Solidaridad and Bonsucro are doing."
Marc Engel Former Chief Procurement Officer Unilever
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