Europe's sweet tooth compromising environment

Sugar production is causing environmental damage throughout Europe, according to a report published this week by the WWF.

Intensive irrigation for sugar has contributed to lower water levels in the Guadalquivir River, limiting the water reaching important Spanish wetlands. Copyright WWF-Canon / Tanya Petersen

Intensive irrigation for sugar has contributed to lower water levels in the Guadalquivir River, limiting the water reaching important Spanish wetlands. Copyright WWF-Canon / Tanya Petersen

According to the report, sugar production could be responsible for more biodiversity loss than any other crops due to habitat loss, intensive water use for irrigation, heavy use of agro-chemicals, and the consequent discharge and runoff of polluted effluent.

It is estimated that around six million hectares of cropland are lost every year because of intensive sugar production, which is steadily expanding every year by around two million tonnes. Beet farm cultivation in the EU also results in the annual loss of around three million tonnes of soil.

In the southern Spanish region of Andalucia, sugar beet irrigation has contributed considerably to lower water levels in the Guadalquivir river, thereby limiting the amount of water reaching fragile, ecologically important wetlands during the summer months.

Danish coastal waters have also been seriously polluted by sugar production, as sugar factory effluent has been linked to the occurrence of bacterial pathogens and an ulcer syndrome in cod.

Countries need to take more care with their constant craving for more sugar, according to Elizabeth Guttenstein, the WWF's European agriculture and rural development officer.

"The world has a growing appetite for sugar," she said. "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."

She said that the report highlighted various improvements to practices that could be implemented to prevent environmental damage, such as:

  • Reducing water demands through more efficient irrigation systems;

  • Improving the control of chemical use;

  • Mulching in cane cultivation to increase soil fertility;

  • Reducing water erosion; and

  • Soil acidification through cover crops, terracing, strip planting and more rational land use planning.

    The report said that the current EU regime prevented the use of such practices because: "it supports the over production of sugar beet in Europe, allows excess production to be dumped on world markets, and severely restricts the amount of sugar imported from developing countries."

    The WWF's Sugar and the Environment report has been released just as EU Agriculture Ministers are discussing ways to reform the Union's sugar sector.

    But it is not only in Europe where sugar production is putting strain on the environment, with over 50% of the land in countries such as Antigua, Barbados, Mauritius and Guadaloupe used for sugar production.

    Figures from the WWF show that in Papua New Guinea, soil fertility declined by about 40% between 1979 and 1996 in areas where cane was cultivated; in Pakistan, sugar crops are largely responsible for reducing water supplies to the Indus Delta, which supports the largest area of arid mangrove forest; and in Australia, sugar cane farming has altered freshwater inflows and blanketed part of the Great Barrier Reef with sediment and pollutants.

    Oxfam International has also been working with the WWF to put pressure on the EU to reform its sugar regime to ensure a more sustainable global sugar trade.

    "Europe is putting the interests of big business and rich land owners ahead of the needs of poor people in developing countries who could gain from growing and trading sugar," said Phil Bloomer, head of Oxfam International's Make Trade Fair Campaign. "In Mozambique and Zambia alone 30,000 new jobs could be created if Europe made the right changes to the rules that govern its sugar regime."

    Encouraging fair trade for sugar producers would raise environmental standards, as well as alleviate poverty, he added.

    By Jane Kettle

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