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Greening the sugar industry

Greening the sugar industry

What if the sugar industry, which is blamed for causing massive environmental devastation, could reverse the effects of large-scale conventional farming, improve soil quality, create clean water sources and increase biodiversity by 500 percent? In the heart of Brazil, one producer claims to be doing just that with the Green Cane Project.

For generations, sugarcane production was a brutal endeavor, employing low-wage and slave labor to cut cane by hand, soaking the earth in chemicals, destroying animal habitats, polluting water and blanketing the sky with smoke from epic fires used to clear fields between harvests.

The World Wildlife Fund stated in a 2004 report that sugarcane production has caused "a greater loss of biodiversity on the planet than any other single crop."

Once a luxury enjoyed only by royal and noble classes, sugar is no longer the food of the rich, but the plague of the poor. The American Heart Association estimates that each American consumes an average of 22 teaspoons of sugar per day, most of it in the form of soda and other processed foods.

In the natural products industry, it’s tempting to dismiss such a statistic as "not our problem," but a quick scan of the labels on your shelves reveals that sugar—whether it’s granulated, raw, brown or evaporated cane juice—is everywhere.

But what if the very industry that caused this environmental devastation could reverse the effects of large-scale conventional farming, improve soil quality, create clean water sources and increase biodiversity by 500 percent? In the heart of Brazil, a country that supplies more sugar to the global market than any other nation, one producer claims to be doing just that.

The Green Cane Project

Most Americans don’t have time for a man like Leontino Balbo, Jr.; he wants to tell you everything. While driving through his sugarcane fields, he identifies each swath of plantings by name. "I know this cane like my sons," he says. "We have 40 varieties. This is 1842. This is 5453 ... ."

Balbo is the mastermind behind the Green Cane Project, a sugar-production operation that combines old-world ideals of land stewardship with modern technology to generate 90,000 metric tons of sugar a year from approximately 15,000 hectares (around 34,500 acres) of certified-organic cane fields in the northeastern region of Brazil’s Sao Paolo state.

The Green Cane Project grew out of a goal to create a self-sustaining system of sugarcane production. In the mid-1980s, when his company was still using slash-and-burn methods—burning the fields to remove leaves from the cane, cutting cane by hand and then burning any leftover leaves to rid the fields of pests and "sterilize" the earth between harvests—Balbo, who had just earned his degree as an agronomist engineer, suspected that the potential of this unique crop was literally going up in smoke.

The first step was to develop a mechanized method for cutting unburned, or green, cane. Balbo’s company purchased special green-cane harvesters—gargantuan trucks affixed with blades to cut, load and transport up to 1,000 tons of cane per day. The harvesters separate green stalks from the leaves, otherwise known as cane "trash." Rather than being burned, that trash now remains on the fields, acting as mulch and protecting against erosion and sun exposure.

Pests are the bane of most agriculture, but one of the Green Cane Project’s founding principles is the idea that, under the right conditions, agricultural lands can reach "homeostasis," a state in which the ecosystem will balance itself out, controlling any species that threatens to disrupt it. Balbo built two entomological labs and hired teams of scientists to develop a pest-management system that does not rely on chemicals.

"Other producers are trying to get insects away from their farms, while we are trying to bring more," Balbo explains. "We discovered the more diversity of insects, birds and plants, the more stable the ecosystem."

Sugarcane's environmental potential

In most sugarcane fields, water is a problem. Cane stalks drink it up in massive quantities, requiring extensive irrigation systems, while runoff spiked with chemical fertilizers and pesticides feeds into streams and groundwater.

The Green Cane Project has improved soil water retention so much that there’s no longer any need for irrigation. Plus, three drainage ditches that were once used to divert excess water during the rainy season now flow permanently. These new year-round streams are a direct result of the reduced evaporation caused by the grounds being covered at all times by cane stalks, mulch or rotation crops, Balbo says. 

Another of the Green Cane Project’s goals was to recreate conditions in its fields that mirror as much as possible those of uncultivated soil. The project began employing biodynamic principles. Rather than applying ready-made compost made of chicken or cattle manure, as most organic operations do, the project encourages the natural breakdown of organic materials by allowing and assisting with the growth of particular fungi and bacteria that aid in decomposing the cane trash, which is left to break down right alongside living stalks.

"When you use ready compost, the fields become lazy," Balbo says. "We start that process of homeostasis, and then the farm goes by itself."

In the past 15 years, the level of organic matter in the project’s cane-field soil has increased from 1 percent to 3 percent. (Virgin forest soil has 4 percent.) This added nutrient content may be one reason why the project’s fields and integrated forested areas—dubbed biodiversity islands—are able to support a wide variety of wildlife.

Changing the sugar culture

Green-cane harvesting is still in its infancy. It’s practiced in Australia and Brazil, but not much anywhere else. In Brazil’s Sao Paolo state, it is mandatory to harvest cane in its green state, and all growers must cease burning by 2017. Still, some of the Green Cane Project’s methods are contentious within the larger sugar industry.

Mae Nakahata, an agronomist for Maui-based Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co., which produces conventional raw sugar on approximately 37,000 acres, questions the use of vinasse—the fertilizer made of cane juice and yeast used by the Green Cane Project. HC&S applies no insecticides to its crops and has been using biological methods to eliminate pests since the early 1900s. However, the company still utilizes herbicides to manage weeds. Nakahata says that HC&S uses these compounds sparingly, and that switching over to organic methods would require hiring extra workers to pull weeds by hand. Given Hawaii’s isolated location, that labor force is not readily available.

The Green Cane Project does employ laborers to do manual weeding; however, Balbo emphasizes that those jobs are held by people who want them. When the project transitioned away from hand harvesting, some former cane-cutters took the lower-skilled weeding jobs, while others were retrained to work in the entomological labs, assist with the biological surveys or operate the high-tech green-cane harvesters.

In the decade that it took for the Green Cane Project's fields to transition to organic and biodynamic methods, everyone had doubts, including, at times, Balbo himself. In the first few years, yields from his cane fields plunged from 85 tons per hectare—the average for a conventional sugar plantation in that area—to as low as 75 tons per hectare. But as the conversion approached its eighth year, the fields began to show signs of rejuvenation. By the 10-year mark, they were suddenly producing 95 tons per hectare. Today, some of the project’s fields produce upwards of 110 tons per hectare. 

Even with all of his success, Balbo still struggles to convince some of his countrymen to change their ways. "They think we are trying to deceive them," he says. "Sometimes you have to talk to a 60-year-old person and then after you convince that person, he says, ‘OK, now I have to talk to my 90-year-old father.’

"I tell them it’s not about price; it’s about a life mission," Balbo says. "If you don’t understand that, this method is not for you." 

What is EcoSocial certification?

In addition to holding U.S. Department of Agriculture and EcoCert certifications for its organic products and Demeter certification on its biodynamic sugar, the Green Cane Project’s Native brand—and its Canadian business associate, Crofter’s Organic—are both certified by the EcoSocial Program, which is one of the few certifications that combines fair-trade and organic standards.

Alexandre Harkaly, cofounder and director of Brazil-based IBD Certifications, spearheaded the launch of the EcoSocial program in 2004. The program currently works with around 800 clients and has certified approximately 5,000 farms throughout South America, North America, Asia and Europe. He says the impetus for the EcoSocial program resulted partly out of frustration with other certifications that come from "the north," where priorities sometimes differ from the rest of the world.

For starters, the EcoSocial label focuses solely on certified-organic products. This is an important distinction, Harkaly says, because consumers may not realize that products certified as fair trade don’t have to be organic. For example, one of the world’s largest fair-trade certifying groups, the Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International, prohibits the use of genetically modified materials, but the organization does permit "minimized and safe use of agrochemicals."

The cornerstone of the EcoSocial program is the concept of continuous improvement. EcoSocial certifiers work with companies to develop goals and action plans for at least two environmental and two social improvement projects  each certification year. EcoSocial requires that goals be determined in a collaborative atmosphere, with workers from all levels of an operation participating in the process.

"The whole idea of fair trade is very interesting and noble," Harkaly says. "The EcoSocial program is just creating that same process in our own style."

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