Q. My co-workers and I are having a debate: Which is more environmentally friendly, sugarcane or sugar beets? My colleague assumes sugar beets, but given the use of pesticides (especially on the new Roundup Ready sugar beets), I’m not so sure. But I also realize that sugarcane is traditionally burned to make harvest easier, although some places (like Brazil) are doing more green cane harvesting. So who is the green winner in the sugar beets vs. sugar cane battle, and which should we strive to purchase?

Amy V.
Portland

A. Dearest Amy,

If you and your colleagues were to scrutinize a teaspoon of sugar from your office coffee station, there’d be no easy way to tell if the white stuff came from lush, tropical sugarcane or a lumpy Minnesota sugar beet — these ostensibly very different crops boil down to the same saccharine spoonful by the time they reach our tables. There are indeed clear differences in how the two are grown and processed, but the question of which is the greener sweetener? Well, that’s a sticky one. Let’s get granular, shall we?

On one end of the scale, we have the sugar beet, a temperate-climate veggie grown all over the world. Here in the U.S., it’s raised in a belt across the northern states from Washington to Michigan and accounts for about 55 percent of our domestic sugar crop. Here’s the rub: Our sugar beets are now overwhelmingly genetically engineered (95 percent of ‘em, to put a number on it) to resist Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup.

The precise impact of Roundup Ready sugar beets on the planet remains controversial and muddled (shocker, I know). They have certainly raised alarms about cross-pollination with other crops and the development of chemical-resistant “superweeds.” They may have led to a deluge of the herbicide glyphosate being dumped on our fields. And by definition, there are no organic sugar beets to be found stateside.

On the other end of the scale, sugarcane: a tropical crop produced everywhere from Brazil to Thailand to Mexico. Here in the U.S., Florida leads the pack, although we also raise cane in Hawaii, Louisiana, and Texas. Sugarcane is no environmental angel, either: For one, it’s a “thirsty,” water-intensive crop. For two, growing operations can lead to polluted water supplies from fertilizer and chemical runoff, plus erosion and soil degradation. And as you note, Amy, harvesting sugarcane all too often involves torching the fields to strip the crop of leaves (and drive venomous snakes out of town – yikes), which spews particulate matter into the air and accounts for 20 percent of sugarcane’s carbon emissions. And it’s not just a faraway foreign problem — we burn the fields in the U.S., too.

There’s some forward momentum to make sugarcane more sustainable, at least. There is such a thing as organic sugarcane, produced without synthetic chemicals (though most of it is imported — there’s only one source of organic American-grown sugar). Some brands also tout the fact that they don’t pre-burn their fields for harvest. The Fair Trade certification program looks out for workers in the industry, too. And two new sustainability initiatives are beginning to gain ground in the field: a developing standard from the Rainforest Alliance and the current Bonsucro program, which aims for better environmental stewardship in production and has partnered with such sugary giants as Coca-Cola and Cadbury. Bonsucro certifies sugar mills, not farms or brands, so unfortunately you can’t just look for the Bonsucro label on a bag of sugar to guide your buying decisions.

So what can you do? As neither sugar beets nor sugarcane are environmentally blameless — and this may not be the definitive answer you seek — perhaps the sweetest answer of all is to reduce your sugar intake altogether (your doctor, at least, will call that an unequivocal win). You may also want to experiment with alternative sweeteners like homegrown maple syrup, local honey, stevia, or brown rice syrup. And when you do need some straight-up sweet powder, keep in mind that the least-processed versions (like turbinado or raw) represent a bit less energy spent in the refining process.

I suppose that means everybody wins your office debate, Amy. Toast your victory with a nice glass of … sparkling water? Unsweetened, of course.

Glycemically,
Umbra