How Sugarcane Production Harms Wild Animals
For the last decade, ethanol has been considered an important biofuel to replace fossil fuels, limit carbon emissions, and fight climate change. World production is increasing and, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, sugarcane plantations currently take up 26 million hectares worldwide. Brazil is the world’s top producer and exporter of sugarcane, producing over 764 million tonnes in 2018.
In this blog, I explore data on sugarcane production in Brazil, since the country is the top producer and has one of the most important ecosystems in its territory — the Amazon Forest. I will show the impacts of sugarcane on ecosystems and wild animals, the risks associated with its production, and evaluate the cost-effectiveness of ethanol as a “cleaner” fuel. It’s important to emphasize that corn crops for ethanol, mainly grown in the U.S., are also a threat to wild animals. Certainly, sugarcane products have an impact in many other countries and, as I intend to show, are not the better option to replace fossil fuels.
A Brief History Of Brazilian Sugarcane
During colonial times, Brazil’s sugarcane production was concentrated in the Northeast region. In the 20th century, the state of São Paulo became the main sugarcane producer, home to 60% of Brazil’s crops. The rise of sugarcane contributed to the deforestation of Mata Atlantica, an important Brazilian ecosystem that was reduced to 8% of its original size. Brazil started to test ethanol as a fuel at the end of the 1920s, and in the 1930s, the Brazilian government created a law to make the addition of alcohol to gasoline obligatory.
In the last 11 years, sugarcane production has increased to 9.1 million hectares. There is no official data concerning animals killed in this process, but as I will explain below, we can estimate that thousands, even millions of animals have been killed directly and indirectly by sugarcane. Recently, Brazil has been increasing ethanol production to meet internal demand for biofuel and exportation, becoming the principal ethanol exporter with 2.67 billion liters exported in 2020. The rapid expansion of sugarcane crops has led them to reach the borders of important environmental ecosystems, such as the Amazon Forest.
A 2009 law forbade the planting of sugarcane in Amazonia, Pantanal (an important ecosystem in the center of Brazil), and Bacia do Alto Paraguai (in the Southwest). In 2019, President Jair Bolsonaro suspended this law and authorized sugarcane planting in these regions. According to the government, the country must increase the production of sustainable biofuels to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as outlined in the Paris Agreement.
The Impacts Of Sugarcane On Biomes And Animals
Replacing Amazonia and Pantanal’s existing crops with sugarcane displaces other activities (e.g., soy crops and cows) to forest areas, destroying vegetation and wild animals. Large companies buy small farms to produce sugarcane, pushing small farmers deeper into the forest and generating more destruction. In fact, deforestation in Amazonia has increased by 85% since the legalization of sugarcane production in the area, and fires have increased by 30%. Deforestation is one of the key causes of forest fires because it dries the land, helping fire to spread.
One of the most destructive effects of sugarcane on wild animals is when land is burned after harvest to prepare the ground for another crop. Many nearby animals are killed or injured in this process, as well as animals living in the crops (small mammals, birds, snakes, etc.).
Furthermore, the production of ethanol creates a toxic waste, called vinhaça, that’s extremely harmful to fish and other aquatic animals. Discharging it into rivers is forbidden, but is nonetheless common practice. Even when this waste is not discharged, it can contaminate the soil and the groundwater. Vinhaça is directly responsible for the death of thousands of fishes and indirectly for the death of birds and mammals that prey on aquatic species. It also impacts the natural balance of ecosystems, affecting species involved in pollination, which threatens the survival of forests.
In São Paulo, the growth of sugarcane production has caused biodiversity loss through forest fragmentation and polluted waterways. It has also presented a challenge to local ecosystems by promoting a surge in small rodent and capybara populations. Incidentally, these animals are potential hosts for hantavirus and leptospirosis and can infect humans.
Sugarcane And Climate Change
The main argument in favor of ethanol is that it can reduce carbon emissions and fight climate change. However, if it is directly responsible for the destruction of rainforests, ethanol is preventing tropical forests from becoming carbon sinks. The Amazon Forest was one of the primary carbon sinks in the world, but now, due to deforestation, it is becoming a carbon source. This means the forest is emitting more carbon than it is capturing. Amazonia is now emitting 0.3 billion tons of carbon per year. Indeed, the deforestation caused by cow farming and soy crops were important causal factors in this phenomenon, but now sugarcane production is speeding up the process. Sugarcane is a water-intensive crop, drying the land and killing trees in the plantation borders. The practice of burning the crop post-harvest further dries the area and increases carbon emissions.
Moreover, sugarcane crops emit nitrous oxide (N2O), a potent greenhouse gas, with a global-warming potential 300 times higher than carbon dioxide. This can be explained by the use of nitrogen as a fertilizer to increase sugarcane productivity. This gas is already responsible for 6% of global warming and its concentration in the atmosphere is rapidly increasing. Sugarcane also wastes extensive water — producing one liter of ethanol requires 1,400 liters of water, while producing 1 kg of sugar takes 1,500 – 3,000 liters of water.
Finally, there are the carbon aspects of sugarcane production. According to a study carried out in southern Brazil, 241 kg of carbon dioxide equivalent was released into the atmosphere per ton of sugar produced (2,406 kg of carbon dioxide equivalent per hectare of the cropped area, and 26.5 kg of carbon dioxide equivalent per ton of sugarcane processed).
How Advocates Can Support This Problem
There are several ways animal advocates can get involved in this issue. First, governments must be pushed to reconsider sugarcane ethanol as a good replacement for fossil fuels. Instead of funding sugarcane production, they can allocate investments to develop biofuels from less-impactful bacteria and fungi. Advocates must also increase pressure on the Brazilian government to ban sugarcane planting in Amazonia and Pantanal and restore its previous laws to protect these vital forests. From there, the government and sugarcane producers should collaborate to fund a national reforestation project.
Advocates can also put pressure on sugarcane producers, who need to be held accountable for their harmful methods. This includes banning the practice of burning crops after harvest, since this is dangerous (and usually deadly) to wild animals. On a global scale, important sugarcane-derived products should be conditional upon a producer’s environmental management. In general, there needs to be more transparency within the sugarcane industry. Along these lines, the Brazilian government should work with an autonomous organization to measure the environmental impacts of its sugarcane industry and make the findings publicly available.
Lastly, the public needs to be educated about the impact of sugar production and why it’s important to choose ethical sugar sources (or switch to alternative sweeteners). More research is needed to develop humane, healthy, environmentally-friendly sugar alternatives that can be used on a global scale.