First, a lesson on the history of sugar cane and its production:
Today, coffee and sugarcane are two of the major, monocrops that have reshaped the world’s agricultural landscape. According to World Agriculture and Environment, the cultivation of coffee yields a worldwide harvest of 7.9 million tons of coffee annually. However, compare this to sugarcane, which yields a worldwide harvest of 1.83 billion tons per year. Though sugar has little nutritional value, it is addictive and therefore incorporated in all processed foods today. Their prevalence, whether people like it or not, means that 20% of all the calories consumed at least in the United States is composed of sugar. In fact, for every 2.5 days, an American consumes on average half a kilogram (a pound) of sugar. Coffee further exacerbates this consumption of sugar as artificial sweeteners such as Splenda or apartame are added to the 22 gallons of coffee consumed per person/yr in the United States. Currently, the major exporters of coffee, which produces 55% of the world’s coffee are Brazil, Vietnam and Colombia. The locations of sugar plantations are similar in that some of their major exporters come from highly biodiverse regions within countries such as Brazil (again), Thailand, Australia and Guatemala (WWF). As previously stated, Brazil is a major exporter of both coffee and sugarcane, and the recent production of ethanol for biofuel has only led to further expansion of sugarcane plantations. The vast amount of incredibly biodiverse spaces in the Amazon and neighboring marshlands have made the high production of these two crops possible while simultaneously empowering transnational companies, such as Kraft, Nestle, Proctor and Gamble, that control prices in the global sugar and coffee trade and foster the country’s dependency on these crops’ exports. Of course, the countries that import most of the coffee and sugar’s products are frankly more developed and wealthier, including almost all of western Europe and the United States. As a result, coffee and sugarcane plantations have created a coffee-drinking, sugar-absorbing culture that sustains the demand for their productions from the countries that import them. Thus, coffee and sugarcane work in tandem in terms of the economic value. If more people demand coffee, more people will inevitably want more sugar. This has already occurred as greater demand has led to the overproduction of both coffee and sugarcane, which has generated lower prices for the consumers and unfortunately lower net profit for the producers in the free trade market. In 1997, for example, coffee was traded for $3/lb. However, in 2001, coffee was traded for 43 cents/lb. Similarly, productions of sugarcane is only $21 per MT (WWF). Overall, coffee and sugar production has great economic value worldwide, reshaping and creating the societal and environmental landscape we see today.
When the prices “crash” as a result of overproduction, both the farmers in coffee and sugarcane plantations suffer, forcing them into impoverished conditions involving child labour, prostitution and ironically starvation. The main problem in both cases is within this chain from import to export, there are layers of middlemen that do not properly give the money that the farmers deserve to make a livelihood. In terms of coffee production, farmers make about $2,200 per year in the free trade market. Consequently, Fair Trade was created in order to ensure a premium for farmers regardless of global prices. Despite not being subjective to the whims of the global free market, farmers experienced minimal improvement. Farmers gain only $200 more, which approximates to about $2,400 per year—not even close to the amount farmers can live off of! Direct trade is another route which strives to take away the layer of middlemen, allowing farmers to make total net profit of $24,000 per year (given that they do not participate in NGOs such as Thrive that claim direct trade, entitling farmers of only about $12,000 per year). This strategy permits farmers to earn enough money to make their livelihood on the plantation, even enabling them to pay for their children’s education. However, the production of this kind can only be done on a local scale and often times farmers are not educated enough in terms of efficient management and accounting practices; sometimes, they don’t even know how much they make! Similarly, global market prices of sugar have made the livelihood of a sugarcane farmer impossible, displacing millions of farmers in developing countries to urban areas in hopes of a better life in the service industry. Furthermore, the rapid expansion of sugarcane, again more than any other agricultural crop, is displacing thousands of indigenous populations living from their homes, these sought-after, biodiverse areas thought suitable for the crop’s cultivation. In fact, in the west-central state of Mato Grosso do Sul of Brazil, the Guaraní people are confined to territories too small for them to maintain their traditional way of life (Galdu). Hostilities including threats, attacks and invasions of these natural reserves are destroying the indigenous peoples’ way of life and forcing them to choose to either poor working conditions outside of their homes or internal violence within the village, namely drug abuse, alcoholism or suicide. The worst problem of expansion of both coffee and sugar plantations, however, is that countries whose economies are based and so dependent on their production will suffer severe economical shock, deepening societal issues and making it even impossible to shift the production of a cultivated land, whose natural resources, biodiversity and ecosystem has already been irreversibly damaged, to something else such as ecotourism.
Both coffee production and sugarcane production are major causes of today’s deforestation. These monocrop productions, having thrived most in warmer and more humid regions, create irreversible damage to ecosystems and great reductions in biodiversity in tropical countries such as Costa Rica and Brazil as a result of their expansion. In coffee plantations for example, the recent shift from shade-grown coffee production in traditional polyculture plantations to sun-coffee plantations in countries such as Indonesia has resulted in a 90% reduction in bird species, especially in migratory bird populations that are forced to seek shelter elsewhere, in shrinking areas that are no longer their seasonal resting spot. Combine this with the fact that the top 25 exporters of coffee have a combined average annual forest cover loss of 70,000 square kilometers in the same years according to World Agriculture and Environment further suggests that the production of coffee strongly correlates with the reduction of 80% or more tree species in these converted, now disturbed areas. Similarly, sugarcane production has caused great loss of biodiversity, perhaps more than any other single agricultural crop such as coffee in the world. In fact, according to World Agriculture and Environment, there are nearly 20 million hectares dedicated to the cultivation of sugarcane in the tropics and countries such as Brazil devote 25% of their agriculture to the production of sugarcane. Though sugarcane by far has cleared more biodiverse regions than coffee, the recent trend for high-grade specialty coffees has led to a fierce expansion into pristine areas known for their “unique soils and typographies that give to unusual flavour profiles” within countries such as Vietnam, Papua New Guinea, Laos, Myanmar and Mexico, giving sugarcane a run for its money in terms of exacerbating environmental degradation (WWF). Regardless of which crop results in the greatest rate of habitat conversion and biodiversity loss, the resulting soil erosion, pesticide use and degrading water quality due to the discharge of effluents have made their production environmentally unsustainable, implicating major economic crises in the future for countries dependent on this kind of agriculture. There are minor solutions for making both cases more sustainable, however, including better management practices that focus on improving the quality of soil that’s already been cultivated. By abandoning the usual practice of the burn-and-slash method and building up organic material instead, advocating the production of a wider diversity of crops within these plantations and incorporating the use of microorganisms that can both hasten the decomposition of wastes and organic material and naturally add more nutrients for the soil, producers of both coffee and sugarcane plantations can yield greater outputs over the long-run without having to expand to regions with high biodiversity but poor soils that result in unsustainable productions.
Both coffee and sugar have devastating economic, social and environmental effects, implicating unknown consequences for a world continually and unsustainable depleting its finite resources. Yet their productions are woven in an intricate system of supply and demand, of globalization as well as urbanization, creating cyclic dependencies ironically on one another. Without sugar, coffee fails and yet the existence of coffee begets more sugar! As a result, their coffee and sugarcane plantations will continue to exist and expand, guaranteeing further exacerbation of already existing issues in countries that manifest their productions.
Again, what’s coffee without your sugar?
Clay. 2004. “Agriculture and Environment:Commodities.” http://www.panda.org/what_we_do/footprint/agriculture/sugarcane/table_of_facts/ . World Agriculture and Environment (WWF).
Fernández, Gisella. 2014. CIEE HUMANS IN THE TROPICS LECTURE. SEPT 2014.
GALDU. 2008. “Ethanol BRAZIL: Land Shortage Provokes Murders of Indigenous Guaranis People” http://www.sucre-ethique.org/Ethanol-BRAZIL-Land-Shortage.html Ethical-Sugar.