Sugaronline Editorial - Finally Getting It Right by Meghan Sapp
Published: 06/24/2011, 2:52:00 PM
Not paying attention to sustainability now is going to mean a big headache, and perhaps losses, later on.
The Maracaí mill in Sao Paulo. Image: Bonsucro.
Amidst all the hubbub of the FO Licht conference in Brussels this week, the real hot and exciting news is the thing that was sadly overshadowed. No, it’s not the possibility of a decent Indian crop or that Brazil might suffer more than feared from drought. It’s that after years of talk, the world finally has sustainably produced sugar.
Maybe that doesn’t sound so exciting, but it should be. The concept of sustainability is one that went from somewhat obscurity among academics in the 1970s and 1980s to finding its way into public policy in the past few years. It’s talked about in terms of biofuels, and almost always in the same breath. In agriculture, it’s a concept most thought of in terms of production in developing countries but will soon become a reality in Europe that everything one consumes must be considered sustainable.
The term in and of itself has varied over time, making it even more difficult to figure out exactly what it is, let alone how to measure it. Is it Fair Trade? And if not, why? How can it be expanded beyond this concept of Fair Trade? The attempts to answer these questions have been stakeholder-led, crop-led, government-led, all with varying forms of success and rarely an idea of whether or not the result really is sustainable. What is known, however, is that consumers are demanding sustainability and industry of all kinds must find out how to deliver it or risk losing out.
In terms of sugar, in many ways the push was biofuels-driven as the European Union made it very clear that biofuels that did not meet its sustainability criteria would not be welcome in the lucrative European market. But consumer demand for Fair Trade products has also been a major driver to find this elusive concept of sustainability for sugar. As the demands on sustainability concepts themselves have matured into a fairly clear triangle of social, environmental and economic sustainability, industry began understanding that it could find a way to determine who was sustainable and who was not.
Several industries have attempted to regulate themselves through these types of voluntary schemes from palm oil to soy, but those in the sugar industry took two very different positions. First, the programme must be developed by the entire supply chain so they made sure to include organisations like UNICA that represented mills, producers themselves like Cargill, but also traders as well as consumers like Coca Cola and NGOs like WWF. Having the entire supply chain working together to find this concept of sustainability, and make sure it worked, was vital.
The second innovation among the sugar industry was to make the scheme—that would become known as the Better Sugarcane Initiative and has since evolved into Bonsucro—is that it is based on metrics. Cold, hard facts and numbers that are hard to dispute yet set a baseline as well as benchmarks for improvement. No reliance on academic theory or development ideals of what should be or could be, no gray areas. Sustainable sugar or not: this is how you achieve it and this is how you get better.
After more than two years of consultations, the standard was developed and the certification programme was devised. This week the first mill was certified by Bonsucro, which is valid for three years with annual audits, and the first sale of certified sugar shortly followed, again making the sustainability supply chain complete. With Raizen, the Shell-Cosan JV, as the producer of the world’s first sustainable sugar at its Maracaí mill and Coca Cola the first buyer, the industry has taken an irreversible step forward that leaves no room for people to make excuses that sustainability can’t be achieved.
Now that the European Commission has given the OK as a voluntary scheme achieving the EU’s strict sustainability criteria for biofuels, Bonsucro has now taken the lead in global sustainability initiatives. As a result, cane sugar too takes its place as the global leader in sustainable commodity practices.
Yes, cane sugar. But where is beet sugar in this whole question of industry sustainability? It seems to be conspicuously absent, as if sustainability is only required in countries that might have questionable human rights or environmental protection standards. But even though the majority of beet is produced in Europe and the US, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for improvement in environmental and social management nor that they shouldn’t strive to achieve better efficiency and economic performance.
So why all the focus on cane? If the sugar industry wants to stand out above other commodities and above other industries as a whole, then cane needs to get its beet-producing kin onto the sustainability bandwagon. Since it’s unlikely they’ll ever find Fair Trade beet sugar, the competition for consumer demand may come down to choosing between Bonsucro cane sugar and ‘unsustainable’ beet sugar.
The beet industry should take the opportunity to set its own voluntary standards before they’re forced to do so, which could become costly later rather than taking care of it sooner. Setting that baseline will be important as governments begin introducing stricter environmental regulations and consumers continue to demand more and more sustainable products. Maybe if they’re lucky, they’ll even get a price premium out of it too, but what they can’t be is left behind.