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Thursday, Feb. 9, 2006 09:36 pm

Earth Talk

From the editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear “Earth Talk”: What is the environmental impact of sugar, aside from its not-so-healthy aspects? I’ve heard that the industry is no friend to the environment. — Mary Oakes, via e-mail
Sugar is ever-present in products we consume every day, yet we rarely give a second thought as to how and where it is produced and what toll it may take on the environment. According to the World Wildlife Fund, roughly 145 million tons of sugar is produced in 121 countries each year. And sugar production does indeed take its toll on surrounding soil, water, and air, especially in threatened tropical ecosystems near the equator. A 2004 report by WWF, titled Sugar and the Environment, shows that sugar may be responsible for more biodiversity loss than any other crop because of its destruction of habitat to make way for plantations, its intensive use of water for irrigation, its heavy use of agricultural chemicals, and the polluted wastewater that is routinely discharged in the sugar-production process. One extreme example of environmental destruction by the sugar industry is the Great Barrier Reef, off Australia. Its waters suffer from large quantities of effluents, pesticides, and sediment from sugar farms, and the reef itself is threatened by the clearing of land, which has destroyed the wetlands that are an integral part of the reef’s ecology. Meanwhile, in Papua New Guinea, soil fertility has declined by about 40 percent over the last three decades in heavy sugarcane-cultivation regions. And some of the world’s mightiest rivers — including the Niger in West Africa, the Zambezi in southern Africa, the Indus in Pakistan, and the Mekong in Southeast Asia — have nearly dried up as a result of water-intensive sugar production. WWF blames Europe and, to a lesser extent, the United States, for overproducing sugar because of its profitability and resulting large contribution to the economy. WWF and other environmental groups are working on public-education and legal campaigns to try to reform the international sugar trade. “The world has a growing appetite for sugar,” says WWF’s Elizabeth Guttenstein. “Industry, consumers, and policy-makers must work together to make sure that in the future sugar is produced in ways that least harm the environment.” Here in the United States the health of one of the country’s most unique ecosystems, Florida’s Everglades, is seriously compromised after decades of sugarcane farming. Tens of thousands of acres of the Everglades have been converted from teeming subtropical forest to lifeless marshland as a result of excessive fertilizer runoff and drainage for irrigation. A tenuous agreement between environmentalists and sugar producers under a “Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan” has ceded some sugarcane land back to nature and reduced water use and fertilizer runoff. Only time will tell whether these and other restoration efforts will help bring back Florida’s once-teeming “river of grass.”
For more information: WWF, www.panda.org; Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, www.evergladesplan.org.
Send questions to “Earth Talk” in care of E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; or e-mail earthtalk@emagazine.com.
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