The environmental impact of the teaspoon of sugar in your morning coffee pales next to the impact of the coffee itself and even the electricity required to brew it. But it’s not just a teaspoon of sugar. Americans eat more sugar than any other country in the world. At about 152 pounds per year, that’s more than twice the average among industrialized nations. And we don’t even realize it, thanks to processed foods. There’s sugar in everything you buy, from sandwich bread to protein bars, and besides the health impact, the environmental impact of all those sweeteners may leave a bitter taste in your mouth. What is the environmental footprint of your sweet tooth?
Sugar is the most-grown crop in the world, but a lot of it goes to making biofuels and bioplastics instead of sweetening food. The impacts of sugar cultivation vary by location, but producing 1 kilogram (about 2.2 pounds) of refined sugar requires on average 1,782 liters of water (that’s more than 470 gallons). In places where crop residues are still burned, a ton of sugar produces around 241 kg of carbon dioxide equivalent. Sugarcane monocropping requires significant chemical inputs that contribute to water pollution. Cultivation of sugar is also labor-intensive; sugar plantations from Central America to Southeast Asia are accused of labor violations and human trafficking.
An international consortium called Bonsucro certifies sustainable sugarcane for corporations but does not provide a consumer-facing label. Organically grown sugar reduces carbon emissions and, through soil-enhancing farming methods, improves carbon sequestration. But most USDA Organic certified sugar is grown in countries with poor labor practices. Fairtrade certified products may be a better choice, since that label has standards for both labor and sustainability.
Sugar beets share many of the same issues as cane sugar, but beets are less water-intensive. On average, 1 kg of sugar from beets requires 920 liters of water. Since the 1990s, most of the sugar produced in the U.S. has come from Roundup Ready GMO beets and is used in processed foods. Although many consumers distrust GMO food crops, the trade-off is that these beets can grow with fewer chemical inputs. However, by definition, GMO crops cannot meet organic standards. One Dutch study found that domestically grown sugar beets had a quarter the climate impact of sugar imported from India, used half as much land, and cut erosion by nearly two-thirds. The information available in the U.S. is less encouraging: Beet processing facilities are found among the nation’s top 20 polluters alongside oil refineries, mining companies, and chemical manufacturers.