Earth Notes: Sugar Rush


By Frank Daggett

I love my morning coffee. Well, that’s a bit of an understatement. Truth be told, I need my morning coffee! And yes, my mid-morning coffee and my cuppa after lunch, without which I’d be found face down on my desk in the late afternoon. All day long, I can take each sip with a clear conscience, knowing that my caffeine habit is organic and shade-grown according to fair labor practices.

The effect of consumer awareness on earth-friendly practices in coffee production is one of the great successes of the environmental movement. The USA leads the world in national coffee consumption. Americans drink nearly seven pounds of coffee per person per year — more coffee per capita than any other country in the western hemisphere, over 20% more than the next in individual consumption, Canada. Coffee consumption is on the rise. One reason is the proliferation of a great many coffee-flavored beverages, including not only hot coffee with added flavor shots, but something that’s especially popular on hot summer days: a whole range of iced coffee drinks. Everything from Coolatta to Espresso on Ice and 28 varieties of Frappacino is keeping much of America refreshed and energized these days. The main ingredient of all these drinks, after H2O, is not coffee, but sugar.

Since Maine became a state in 1820, American sugar consumption has grown tenfold. Today, the average American ingests more than 100 pounds of sugar per year — not counting 60 pounds of corn sweeteners, tripled since 1980. The upshot is that sugar production has a far greater ecological impact than coffee, and one species that is most adversely affected is human. Here, the human cost is measured in widespread obesity and rising diabetes incidence.

In sugar-producing countries, the cost is measured in terms of decreased access to the land required to grow the food needed to sustain families, increased carbon emissions due to the conversion of land from forest to sugarcane, erosion, pollution and respiratory distress from the frequent burning of sugarcane residue between crops. Add the demand for sugarcane ethanol, and these problems are exacerbated. Moreover, the habitats that other species depend upon on are destroyed, an ecological loss that also degrades the cultural identity of whole peoples.

Sugarcane, indigenous to India and Southeast Asia, was first brought to the Caribbean on Columbus’ second voyage. Today, Brazil leads the world’s sugarcane production, growing three times as much as second-place India. In Colombia, sugar production has been steadily growing. Though famous for its coffee, 570 megatons of which it produced in 2012, Colombia grows over five times as much sugar. Brazil produced over 3,400 megatons of coffee and 10 times as much sugar. U.S. market forces and foreign policy impact land use patterns, and the plight of the poor in Central and South America. In Haiti, U.S.-grown rice is cheaper than locally-grown. The disparity means that a Haitian with access to a little land and willing to do the hard work of cultivating rice is at a severe disadvantage and in most cases will end up out of work and dependent upon more foreign aid or charity to provide what he could otherwise have grown for himself. In the end, the family is most likely to be uprooted when necessity forces the sale of their land to big sugar cane growers with ready cash.

In 2003, Fair Trade, shade grown, organic coffee could only be found in specialty shops and the organic section of some grocery stores. Today, nearly all coffee sold in restaurants, and most coffee on supermarket shelves, claims some earth-friendly status. Perhaps it’s time for a similar grassroots effort aimed at sugar.

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