How Sugarcane Impacts Biodiversity
Biodiversity conservation was a recurring theme at the recent Conference of the Parties on Climate Change (COP26) — mostly because preserving biodiversity is a crucial way to help mitigate climate change, and also because climate change, which is caused by human activity, is accelerating biodiversity loss around the world.
But what does sugar have to do with biodiversity?
A lot, as it turns out, because the plant that sugar most often comes from (sugarcane) is a major contributor to species and habitat loss in the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems. Tropical and subtropical rainforests only account for 2% of all of the earth’s landmass but are home to — brace yourself — more than 50% of the world’s species.
Sugarcane agriculture also requires large tracts of land: while it produces about 33 lbs of cane for every 10 square feet of land, for every ton of sugarcane, the end result is only about 265 lb of sugar. So when we clear scarce, sensitive tropical rainforest habitats to produce sugar, the costs from a biodiversity perspective, are enormously high. According to Elizabeth Abbott, a University of Toronto researcher and author of Sugar: A Bittersweet History, “cane culture has killed off millions of animals and plants, including monkeys and birds — and at least 16 kinds of parrots.”
Sugarcane is also a water-intensive crop; it takes about 400 to 800 gallons of water to produce just over two pounds of sugar. Additionally, it requires extensive use of chemical fertilizers, which pollute water streams that run into nearby fields, lakes, and oceans, further damaging ecosystems.
In Australia, for example, coral reefs exposed to sugarcane runoff are damaged due to chemicals and silt in the water. Fertilizer run-off also damages aquatic plants, especially submerged aquatic grasses, which means species like manatees have less food to eat, and numerous species of fishes lose their habitat. In addition, inconsistent drainage and flooding for sugar cane irrigation can affect the natural cycles of local species.
Sugarcane processing poses biodiversity risks, too. The run-off from sugar mills can deprive freshwater streams and rivers of oxygen, “particularly in tropical rivers that are already naturally low in oxygen,” says the World Wildlife Fund.
Less oxygen means fewer species can survive. For example, in the Florida Everglades, sugar cane farming has been part of the local economy for decades. But now, tens of thousands of acres of the formerly sub-tropical forest has turned into marshland due to sugar farming, resulting in further biodiversity loss.
For all of this devastating impact on the planet, sugarcane has a grain-to-fiber ratio of only 20 percent. Basically, it means that only 20% of the plant grown ends up becoming sugar, while the other 80% of the plant is left over plant fiber in the form of tops, straw, and pulp. But that leftover fiber — from sugarcane, and also from corn, wheat, rice, and other crops — is a rich source of carbohydrates just waiting to be unlocked. With the planet’s growing population there is a need to produce more food for more people, healthier food and with less environmental impact.
At The Supplant Company, we’ve been working on exactly that. Founder and CEO Dr. Tom Simmons invented a way to use enzymes from fungi to break unused agricultural fiber down into sugars from fiber.
This is our revolutionary new ingredient: Supplant™ sugars from fiber.
From Dr. Tom Simmons:
“I knew that to help solve the climate change and biodiversity crises, we needed to do something sustainable with unused plant fiber. And to help solve global hunger, and chronic malnutrition, we need to find a way to upcycle plant material that already exists, but would otherwise go unused by humans.”
Interested? Try our new chocolate bar, developed in partnership with celebrated American chef Thomas Keller.