A sugar crisis or a circular economy opportunity

How we can turn around unsustainable palm sugar farming with blue Agave

Some time ago we featured an article about plant-based solutions to our climate crisis. It featured Agave. I consider this resilient cactus a green business catalyst. Why? The plant is a giver of raw materials that we can turn into value added products. I showed how this plant could become our ally in fighting climate change. This time I want to share a few concepts from my own work – integrated models of sustainability. Through this I have been successfully connecting rainforest conservation with truly sustainable income creation. So we develop one or more economically sustainable solutions in one area to solve environmental problems in another area.

How we can halt rainforest deforestation

How do we create sustainable incomes for poor farmers in the tropics? What alternatives do we have to make this ethical switch? Will this empower our transition to carbon-neutral agriculture? Will this help us design farming models that save carbon sinks instead of destroying them? How do we envision viable alternatives to unsustainable sugar and oil palm monocultures? How do we fund carbon-neutral solutions? How do we meet the Paris Climate Accord pledges that help us steer the right course of international climate action?

The answer is this integrated model of sustainability done in practice. It is a process that involves cross-sector collaboration: farmers, NGOs, local governments, students, ecopreneurs, and the public. You and I included! We join the dots and see that all these strands that appear separate do, in fact, connect in a closed loop of sustainability.

What has the desert plant got to do with saving rainforests?

One is very wet and the other extremely dry, so they couldn’t be more different, right? But they are more similar than you think. They both have poor soils. While both are biodiverse in their own right, they can only support highly specialised plants. So this is where this ingenious connection comes into play. We utilise this fact, practically.

Coconut sugar and oil palm monocultures weaken our planet’s carbon sinks. In short, this bad cycle works like this. Tropical farmers cut the ancient trees down to replace them with sugar palms. They tap plant’s sweetness for our benefit. Just like in a different cycle when our ancestors tapped rubber for car wheels to get the world rolling. Today, as then, this pushes carbon emissions up, the major driver of global temperature warming. This cycle is negative because it reduces forests that balance our climate. The palm farms do not pay workers fair incomes. So we need to reverse this win-lose cycle if we want our planet to look after us and generations after us.

What is palm sugar, and how is it produced?

We derive palm sugar from different palm trees. Most palm sugar comes from Southeast Asia. The tree is tapped for its sugar-rich sap so it can be sustainable. Palm trees grow easily, and their soil demand is low. So anyone can convert their palm trees into sugar producing trees and this is where the drama unfolds. Palm sugar, that is generally available in our supermarkets and comes from many countries, is not. The reason is the source – coconut palm trees. Why is that? In a cycle of a coconut palm, the tree cannot produce coconuts and sugar at the same time. As sugar fetches higher prices, farmers ditch coconut growing. So we end up with cheap sugar but an ecologically expensive trade-off. This escapes even the radar of the most conscious consumers.

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Brown coconut sugar can be sustainable

Sugar palm monoculture reduces biodiversity

If it comes to sugar, the lure of instant but short-term profits wins the day. Monoculture plantations replace native plants, deplete soils and biodiversity. So, farmers resort to using chemical fertilizers to boost productivity. By the very nature, single-crop farms are also susceptible to disease. This means farmers need to spend more on costly insecticides. Chemicals harm wildlife while polluting soil and water. Thus closing the negative cycle of farming that can no longer give us healthy food.

New plantations mean new roads and these fragment the forest and open up vast areas to poachers and illegal loggers. City folks also move in to look for work. This is true for oil and sugar palm plantations. Sadly, orangutans come into contact with people. This puts them at risk of conflict with the human intruders while they live and roam freely, nest and feed in the trees. What is the connection between sugar and orangutans? The tree felling opens vast areas for growing of sugar palms. Orangutans have no choice other than to get down on the ground to get away from danger and find food. These slow-moving animals often get stranded in vast clearings. Many get caught in forest fires and burn to death.

How sustainable is your sugar?

Today more and more of us seek healthy alternatives to all sorts of food products. Sugar is no exception. While we want products to answer our health concerns, choosing the product that is sustainable and fair is not easy. This is typically due to a lack of proper labelling. Do we know an ecological impact of sugar we buy? If the product doesn’t mention the environment or how it was made, do we assume that environmental standards were ignored? This is not easy to know unless sugar products display organic and a non-GMO, or Fairtrade labels. And the sustainability question is a big one because it directly affects the health of our most precious ecosystems on Earth – tropical forests. These little labels make a huge difference to communities that live on the edges of forests. They protect these forests on our behalf. How? By creating forest gardens that encourage biodiversity and growing palms organically.

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Despite knowing how incredibly biodiverse, beautiful and fragile these forests are, we may not link this to sugar we eat. That a simple purchase of uncertified coconut palm sugar creates problems for orangutans and indigenous people who live there. In northern Sumatra conversion of forests and peat swamps into palm oil and sugar farms is rampant. We can change this by purchasing only sustainable certified sugar products. We no longer take part in transactions that destroy rainforests and push many critically endangered species, including Sumatran orangutan, to extinction.

On balance, some sugar products, we can buy today, come from sustainable farms. These are usually smaller and have a circular business model. Honest and clear labelling help us see the connection between rainforests and climate change. There are key questions that arise from this. Can we justify producing and consuming a product on profit and health grounds alone? Do we need so many varieties of sugar to satisfy our needs? The fact is that our consumer demand for sugar locks even more tropical land into monocultures. So what are the answers? There are many alternatives available to us. Many of them are healthier than palm sugar. For example, sugar cane, or stevia. The latter is a Latin American herb that is thirty times sweeter than table sugar and free of calories. And, of, course there is sustainably sourced palm sugar.

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This endemic palm, Arenga pinnata, is a traditional non-coconut bearing palm tree. Farmers grow it just for its sugar. This creates a win-win scenario for other farmers who grow coconut palm trees.

It is up to us to demand these higher standards from sugar industry brokers, suppliers, and retailers. That way we can be certain that our sugar isn’t literally costing us the Earth.

So how does blue Agave help farmers grow circular economy and sustainability? 

We learnt earlier how agave that is native to the driest regions in the world fits into the wettest regions as a dynamic nature based solution. How can desert’s most resilient plants generate new viable answers for saving our rainforests by replacing less sustainable crops? How can we halt the loss of tropical carbon sinks that sugar palm monocultures displace?  Well, agave plants are a solution that deserves attention and investment. They are a perfect crop with fantastic eco credentials. What’s more, they are capable of aligning the needs of people and the planet, simultaneously. They are a true ally in our efforts of addressing climate crisis.

Going beyond a circular economy

The economics of one region needs to factor in the ecosystems, resources, and development costs in another region for it to be truly sustainable. Agave plants offer a way forward for saving and protecting our shared natural heritage. Incomes from sustainable agave plantations in the deserts can save The Amazon and other biodiverse tropical and subtropical forests. In addition, other sustainable crops such as bamboo, cork, and hemp can produce ecologically viable industries and new markets for ecological goods. Tropical farmers can use these highly adaptable plants to achieve long-term incomes. And agaves’ land regeneration capacities bring in business opportunities for ecopreneurs. This also means that young people can stay in the area and get access to education and vocational training. Preservation of traditions and good land practices can continue.  Also transfer of this know-how to younger generations is possible in this new framework.

We need to replace short-termism of highly damaging economies of palm oil and sugar monocultures. We need to ditch cash crops that do not fit the rainforest chemistry and are in conflict with guardian cultures that take care of them. Sustainable agave businesses could provide seed funding for new start-ups in the tropics. Tropical farmers can then grow grasses and trees that adapt better and are more effective carbon sequesters. There is a huge scope to create ecotourism and other eco ventures run by local people in the areas that struggle to have viable incomes.

The equator is a home to many jobless and landless people. Thus, small permaculture style agroforestry provides local people with the means to live and work close to the forests. This way we also create efficient, ecologically sustainable human settlements. So they move beyond just deriving sustenance from the forest to having decent incomes. This creates peace and allows the indigenous residents to focus on using the best land practices. In order to bring back biodiversity like the one the early European explorers in the Amazonia witnessed.

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Local communities farming rice in Java, Indonesia

We can create highly productive and biodiverse forest gardens with the funds from this type of circular business model. And also answer many problems. Although this may sound counterintuitive at first, a sustainable cultivation of Agave presents a viable solution for the tropics. This solution goes a long way toward creating peace through integrated sustainability in the world’s key regions.



Image of coconut sugar palm plantation from: https://www.ubudfoodfestival.com/indonesian-superfoods-coconut/

Image of brown coconut sugar by Edi Wibowo : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coconut_sugar

Image of sugar palm from: plantillustrations.org

Image of wild Agave cupreata sp. growing wildly beneath the pines in agroforest ecosystem, Michoacan, Mexico

Image of rice paddies cultivated by local communities in Gunung Halimun-Salak National Park, Java, Indonesia, by Mokhamad Edliadi/CIFOR.