Upcycled Plants, Explained
In the first two parts of this series, we talked about how low-value or unused agricultural fiber can be upcycled into sugars from fiber, and explained our patented enzymatic process for achieving this.
Here, in part three of the series, we’ll look at all of the good things that could happen in the world if we upcycled more plant fiber at a global scale.
According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control, the average American eats 17 teaspoons of added sugar per day, a small amount that adds up fast. In 2020–21, Americans consumed about 11 million metric tons of sugar — one ton more than a decade earlier. Worldwide, humans consumed 171.8 million metric tons of sugar in 2020/2021.
As we wrote in our last installment, only 15–20 percent of each sugarcane plant ends up as refined sugar. The rest is either used for animal bedding and feed, burned, or plowed under.
At current production levels, that means the sugarcane industry creates roughly 900 million tons of fiber that doesn’t make its way into the food system.
What would the world look like if we could use this “waste” for other purposes?
The World Wildlife Fund reports that globally, sugarcane covers 65 million acres of land, and uses greater than 25% of available land in at least 12 countries. It contributes to biodiversity loss, and air and water pollution, in areas where sugar is produced. It also causes downstream ecosystem pollution due to silt and fertilizer runoff, and chemical sludge from sugar mills.
These contaminants eventually reach the ocean, where they can damage coral ecosystems like the Great Barrier Reef and Mesoamerican Reef, and harm endangered species like sea turtles, fish, and more.
Given the scale of the industry, displacing even 10% of the sugar consumed globally each year would reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, and human health.
Agriculture and forestry currently account for 18.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. About 3.5 percent of this comes from practices like crop burning, which disposes of agricultural leftovers from crops like sugarcane, rice, wheat, and corn. The process contributes carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane to the atmosphere. Hypothetically, upcycling even half of these leftovers could help reduce GHGs by 1.75 percent globally.
Further, cutting down trees to make room for agricultural land is common in countries where industrialized sugarcane production occurs. This practice, which removes and burns carbon-capturing trees, contributes to another 2.2 percent of global GHG emissions.
Upcycling agricultural byproducts would mean each hectare of agricultural land could become as much as 50 percent more productive. Using upcycled plant fiber for products like sugars from fiber increases the yield of every existing acre. This means more forests can remain standing to store greenhouse gases, instead of releasing them into the atmosphere.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, sugarcane has the biggest impact on biodiversity of any agricultural crop. Besides needing large amounts of land cleared for production, its cultivation demands significant use of chemicals and pesticides. Sugarcane cultivation uses roughly 65 million acres of land worldwide, much of which was previously tropical rainforest, or other sensitive, high-biodiversity habitat.
For example, the world’s top sugarcane-producing areas are Brazil, India, China, Thailand, and Pakistan. These countries are home to some of the world’s most critically endangered species, including the Amazon rainforest’s jaguar (the largest cat in the Americas), the golden lion tamarin, and the Indian elephant.
In all of these countries, introducing additional sugarcane cultivation negatively impacts biodiversity by changing the way the land is used, and by adding chemicals to the ecosystem. For example, the WWF reports that sugarcane cultivation impacts animals that remain in or near the fields, which may then be seen as pests.
In addition, the practice of using herbicides for competing plants that become considered weeds can also impact biodiversity, as it impacts the food chain and overall health of the agro-ecosystem. By reducing sugarcane cultivation by even 10%, as much as 65 million acres of biodiverse land could be restored.
The International Diabetes Federation (IDF) estimates that globally, more than 451 million adults live with diabetes, with more diagnosed each year. The incidence of this disease, which is one of the top 10 causes of death, has increased by more than 109 percent since 1990. And in 2017, the cost of managing this disease was estimated to be $327 billion globally each year.
Researchers have found that diets with fewer calories from refined sugar can help prevent or manage diabetes. They also note that a low-glycemic index diet is particularly useful for managing diabetes, as are diets that contain higher amounts of dietary fiber.
Given the amount spent on managing diabetes each year, reducing global sugar consumption by just 10%, and replacing it with upcycled plant products, could save the global economy billions in healthcare costs each year.
We could share many more examples, but the results are clear — upcycling unused or low-value agricultural “waste” is tremendously good for the environment, and for human health.