The history of sugar and its impact on the environment

Picture: Bruno /Germany/Pixabay

Picture: Bruno /Germany/Pixabay

Published May 28, 2021


I was driving up the KwaZulu-Natal north coast from Durban recently and I got the distinct aroma of burning sugar. As the sweet smell intensified, little black paper-like flakes – smut – began streaking across my windscreen.

I pondered a bit before realising what was happening. The barons were burning the sugar plantations.

According to the South African Sugar Association (Sasa), there are a total of 14 sugar mills in South Africa, 12 of which are in KZN. Tongaat Hulett and Illovo Sugar each own four mills with the remaining six belonging to RCL Foods, Gledhow Sugar, Umfolozi Sugar and UCL Company Limited.

The industry directly employs around 85 000 people across the country.

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There is no question that sugar is an important part of the South African economy, but where did it begin and what impact does this vast industry have on our environment?

The story starts within the famous Durban Botanic Gardens established in 1849 by the then Natal Agricultural & Horticultural Society. The garden was initially used as an agricultural research site to test which crops would be able to grow on the warm Natal coast. Tea, coffee and arrowroot were some of the candidates, but the humble sugar cane proved to be the most suitable and so the Natal sugar industry was born.

A shipment of 15 000 sugar tops would depart Mauritius and arrive at the port of Durban in 1852. Some 170 years and 152 000 Indian indentured workers later, South Africa now produces just over 19 million tons of raw sugar cane annually which generates an average direct income of R14 billion.

Picture: JamesDeMers/Pixabay

“South Africa consistently ranks in the top 15 out of approximately 120 sugar-producing countries worldwide,” says Sasa.

Sugar cane or Saccharum officinarum is essentially grass, and grass can be quite thirsty. It takes around 63 litres of water to produce 1kg of raw sugar. The World Wildlife Fund holds that sugar is one of the most water-intensive crops in the world as it is one of the few crops that stay in the ground for up to 5 years, sometimes more, sucking up every drop of water it can.

The warm, wet coast of KZN proved to be ideal for sugar cultivation 170 years ago but what will happen when the rains are not enough? Sasa’s website shares information regarding the conservation of natural resources and mentions “environmental strategies”, but the messaging is convoluted and does not say much on what the industry is doing to mitigate the environmental impacts of planting sugar.

Picture: Joseph Mucira/Pixabay

The Sasa website has an easy-to-follow guide on the process of cultivating sugar cane from cuttings all the way to processing, packaging and shipment but it says nothing about the widespread practice of burning the fields before harvesting. This seemed to be quite an important part of sugar cultivation, and I was perplexed as to why it was omitted.

A grass leaf is called a “blade” for good reason. Most tall grasses and reeds have strong leaves with sharp edges. Sugar cane leaves are particularly dangerous and will cause deep cuts if proper protection is not used during harvesting.

Almost all sugar cane in South Africa is still harvested by hand. Using machinery to harvest the cane damages the root systems which would mean planting new cuttings, wasting time and money.

It is estimated that 90% of cane is burned before harvesting, with the remainder “green” harvested. Burning sugar plantations has been standard practice for as long as the crop has been cultivated in South Africa. This causes widespread air pollution and the unnecessary release of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere.

Local farmers harvest between April and December every year, which means nine months of burning and resultant air pollution. Dr Marilyn Govender, Sasa natural resource manager, said in June 2019:

“The industry has researched and developed specific measures to address the implications of burning. These are implemented through the Codes of Burning Practices and form part of an initiative to promote better management practices in the industry. The codes focus on minimising atmospheric pollution, preventing runaway fires, preventing heat and smoke from being blown across public roads or affecting power lines.”

Burning is legally permissible under the National Veldt and Forest Fire Act No 101 of 1998. An outdated law that allows an outdated practice. We are at a point where we cannot “focus on minimising atmospheric pollution”, we have to focus on completely eradicating pollution in every aspect of agriculture as far as possible.

Brazil, the biggest producer of sugar in the world, has largely stopped the practise of burning and instead uses the leaves as mulch for the fields or as a source of fuel.

Besides air pollution caused by burning cane fields and pressure on our natural water resources, sugar cane cultivation causes widespread deforestation in many countries around the world, including in our backyard. A century ago, the KZN coast consisted of thick, lush forests stretching from as far as the Wild Coast all the way up to Mozambique.

Picture: Th G/Pixabay

Thousands of square kilometres of forest were cleared to make way for the booming sugar trade.

If the South African sugar industry wants to stay competitive on the global market, it needs to look past short-term economic benefits and focus on long-term environmentally sustainable, technological advancements.

The government needs to do more to protect local farmers against cheaper imports, which would allow them to focus on developing more sustainable farming practices instead of trying to compete with countries that have little regard for the environment.

Citizens can play their part by buying locally produced sugar even if it is a few rands more expensive. As a society, we can lobby the government and supermarket chains to stop imports from countries with a bad environmental track record.

We can make a difference, even if it is just one teaspoon of sugar at a time.

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