Sugar: why our favourite spoonful is not so sweet

Sugar may be a favourite sweetener globally, but is increasingly linked to a host of environmental and social impacts.

Sugar may be a favourite sweetener globally, but is increasingly linked to a host of environmental and social impacts

Sugar can be produced from both sugar beet and sugarcane. Sugarcane production is of particular concern in terms of environmental degradation and human rights abuses, reports William McLennan

The cultivation of sugarcane negatively impacts the land on which it is grown, and the surrounding environment.
Habitat loss
The conversion of natural habitats for sugar cultivation is widespread and reduces biodiversity.

  • In 15 sugar-producing countries 10 to 50 per cent of land is dedicated to sugar cultivation and in seven countries sugarcane covers more than 50 per cent of land.
  • Sugar cultivation affects the wider environment, altering water flow rates, increasing soil erosion and changing nutrient cycles.
  • Sugar cultivation requires a large volume of water and alters natural water flow resulting in the loss of wetland habitats, such as mangroves.
  • In Australia, sugar cultivation; including the damming of rivers, increases in soil erosion and heavy fertiliser use, has reduced the quality of freshwater flow to the Great Barrier Reef.


Soil quality

  • Sugar cultivation can decrease soil quality, leading to a decrease in productivity and increased soil erosion.
  • Growing sugar in monoculture over repeated seasons reduces the soils ability to store water and nutrients, leading to increased water use and intensive application of fertilisers.
  • Increased soil erosion results in sediment pollution of surrounding rivers, lakes and marine environments.

Large quantities of chemicals are applied to sugar plantations to control pests and supply inorganic nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen. These chemicals can be toxic to the environment and alter natural biochemical systems.

  • Application of fertilisers leads to acidification of soil making it unsuitable for many plants.
  • Up to 30 per cent of fertilisers are washed off in to the surrounding environment leading to an increase in available nutrients.
  • Increased nutrients lead to blooms of plants or microorganisms, which causes the depletion of oxygen in water.
  • In Florida, fertiliser runoff from sugar plantations has increased the available nutrients in the Everglades allowing aggressive species to take over and reducing biodiversity.



  • Pesticides are toxic to humans and the environment and can accumulate in sugarcane.
  • 25 million cases of poisoning from pesticides occur in developing world each year, according to the World Health Organisation.
  • Overuse of pesticides can lead to the development of resistance in pests and can release secondary pests due to the elimination of their natural enemies.

The processing of sugarcane into refined sugar requires large quantities of water and chemicals, such as sulphur dioxide and phosphoric acid.

  • Nutrient rich effluents from the sugar mills are constantly released into the environment. In tropical regions where the oxygen content of water is already low, this can lead to the suffocation of waterways.
  • Annual cleaning of sugar mills can lead to the pollution of waterways with oil and chemicals. In 1995 in Bolivia the annual cleaning of sugar mills resulted in the deaths of millions of fish (WWF).

Human rights
In less industrialised countries, sugarcane is harvested by hand and is extremely labour intensive; violations of sugar plantation worker’s human rights are frequently reported.
Forced Labour
Around the world inequality and poverty are used by rich landowners to secure cheap labour.

  • In Bolivia and Brazil, indigenous people are recruited from remote areas and lead into a cycle of ‘debt-bondage’ where advances on wages are offered, these debts are then used to legitimise bondage over multiple seasons.
  • In 2007, in just eight months, 3,400 workers were liberated from ‘conditions analogous to slavery’ on Brazilian farms. However these practices are thought to be on going; plantations are in the remote Western Amazonian frontier and there is a history of governmental corruption, according to Human Rights Watch.
  • In South Asia cultural prejudices and traditions are used to exploit the most vulnerable groups. The majority of labourers working in debt bondage are Dalits or ‘untouchables’- a group at the bottom of the Hindu caste system, historically associated with occupations regarded as unsuitable for other groups.

Child Labour

Children have been found to be working on sugar plantations across the globe, cases range from young children helping their parents to teenagers working fulltime harvesting cane.

  • Children as young as 9-13 years old were found to be working fulltime on Bolivian sugar plantations, preventing them from gaining an education.
  • Child labour was ‘rampant’ on sugarcane plantations in El Salvador in 2004 with as many as 30,000 children under the age of 18 working the harvest, according to Human Rights Watch.

The sugarcane harvest involves dangerous, exhausting and filthy work making the meagre wages even more unacceptable.

  • Labourers are paid as little as $3 per ton of cane harvested.
  • Sugarcane is harvested using machetes and often leads to injuries on hands and legs, leading labour inspectors to categorise it among the most dangerous types of agriculture.
  • Harvesting sugarcane is labour intensive and workers cut as much as 500 kilograms per hour.
  • Sugarcane fields are burnt immediately before harvesting meaning labourers work in dusty and sooty conditions.
  • Living conditions are often poor with workers sharing basic huts or plastic tents with limited sanitation and little privacy.


Add to StumbleUpon
Special report PG Tips and Lipton tea hit by 'sexual harassment and poor conditions'
Unilever and the Rainforest Alliance deny female employees at the Kericho tea plantation in Kenya are subjected to sexual harassment. But Dutch research outfit SOMO paints a very different picture of life for some working at the plantation? Verity Largo visits Kenya to investigate
Special report Revealed: the bitter taste of Cambodia’s sugar boom
Sugar may seem innocuous enough, but sweet-toothed Western consumers could be fuelling conflict between poor farming communities and big business with every spoonful. Sam Campbell reports from Phnom Penh
Special report Milk: why the white stuff leaves a bad taste
Unlike tea and sugar, the fresh milk we drink with our cuppa is likely to come from farms in the UK. But as Tom Levitt reports, there are still serious environmental and animal welfare problems associated with the UK dairy sector
Special report Sugar: why our favourite sweetener is not so sweet
Sugar can be produced from both sugar beet and sugarcane. Sugarcane production is of particular concern in terms of environmental degradation and human rights abuses, reports William McLennan
Special report Environmental damage and human rights abuses blight global tea sector
Human rights violations have been reported at plantations in virtually all major tea producing countries, while tea growing itself has a profound effect on the local environment. William McLennan reports

More from this author