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Can sugar be ecological?

Sugar is a glucid that is naturally found in fruits and vegetables, it is produced by all plants through photosynthesis. Its consumption has been increasing by 35kg each year since the 70's, an evolution that is especially present in developing countries. But did you know that its cultivation and manufacture have an impact on the environment?

PART 1 : The origins of sugar

The white or brown sugar in our stores comes essentially from two plants, sugar beet or sugar cane. According to a WWF study, 60 to 70% of sugar production comes from sugar cane.

Climatic factors explain the distribution of crop types (c.f. Fig. 1), sugar beet is grown in temperate environments and sugar cane in tropical environments, so in Europe and Russia it is mainly sugar beet crops.

Fig 1: Sugar producing countries. Source : cultures-sucre

Cane sugar production

In 2020 the main sugar cane producing countries are Brazil and India. In that year, Brazil produced about 758 million tons of sugarcane (c.f. Fig. 2).

Fig 2: Main sugarcane producers. Source: © Statista 2023

This statistic represents the main sugarcane producing countries in the world in 2020, according to production volume, in million tons.

France also produces cane sugar, more precisely in the French overseas departments and territories with an average production of 2,700,000 tons per year. The main cane sugar producing territories are Reunion, Guadeloupe and Martinique.

Beet sugar production

The European Union was the world's 3rd largest sugar producer in 2018, with production of 19.5 million tons, or about 10% of global production. This production comes mainly from sugar beet from northern Europe. France ranks first with 33% of European production followed by Germany with 22% and finally Poland with 12% of production (c.f. Fig. 3).

Fig 3: Main sugar beet producing countries in Europe Source: agriculture-strategies

The culture of beets contributes to the fight against global warming, by its strong capacity to store carbon dioxide, indeed 1 Ha stores about 40 tons of CO2/year, in addition to the return of leaves to the soil contribute positively to carbon storage. This culture also allows the creation of bioethanol, a point we will discuss later in the article.

Sugar production in France

The sugar beet developed in Central Europe, after the discovery in 1757 of a large amount of sugar in its roots by a German chemist named Marggraf. One ton of sugar beet yields 140kg of sugar. However, the sugar beet loses its sugar content over time once it has emerged from the ground, at a rate of 200g of sugar per day and per ton.

The production of beet sugar in France is mainly established in the north of France (c.f. Fig. 4), in fact there are no less than 25 beet sugar factories. In autumn, during the harvest, they receive 400 000T of sugar beet per day. France is the first producer of sugar beet in Europe. Nord-Pas-De-Calais is the third largest sugar beet growing region, followed by Picardie and Champagne-Ardenne. The surface area occupied by sugar beet cultivation represents about 7% of the arable land, i.e. 56,000 ha.

Fig 4: Industrial beet areas. Source : Agreste

Did you know that? In France, 92% of the sugar consumed is produced from sugar beets.

Picardy is the first sugar region in France, in fact the crops of the Aisne, Oise and Somme represent more than 70% of regional production, which represents 35% of French production. The production of sugar beet in Picardy is mainly used for the production of sugar and secondarily alcohol and ethanol. The Téréos sugar factory in Aisne is the largest beet alcohol distillery in the world.

France does not only cultivate sugar beets, in fact it is the first country of the European Union, with Spain and Portugal to cultivate sugar cane. This French sugar cane industry is located mainly in three overseas departments: Reunion, Guadeloupe and Martinique. These are cultivated in a traditional way for the manufacture of raw sugar and rum.

Each year, no less than 240,000 tons of cane sugar are produced in the French overseas departments, 65% of which comes from Reunion Island. 40% of this production in Reunion is made up of special sugars (which means that it is unrefined), which is a record in the world. The other part of this production is composed of raw sugar, destined to be refined in Europe to become white sugar with a part processed locally for local consumers. For rum production in particular, there are 24 distilleries in Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Martinique and Reunion Island, producing nearly 260,000 hectoliters of pure rum alcohol annually (see Fig. 5).

Fig 5: Sugar cane production in tons in 2017. Source: Ministry of Agriculture and Food - Ministry of Overseas France

Who consumes the most ?

The United States is the largest consumer of sugar, with an average of 126g per day per person. Germany is the second largest consumer with 103g followed by the Netherlands with 102g (c.f. Fig. 6).

France has a consumption of 50g per person per year for adults and 60g for children, a consumption rather stable for 40 years, but higher than the world average. India with 5g is the country with the lowest consumption. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends 50g of sugar per day for an adult and 40g of sugar per day for a child. The French National Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health Safety (Anses) recommends not to exceed 100g of sugar per day (excluding lactose).

Fig 6: Main sugar exporting and importing countries in the world. Source: ripleybelieves

China is the leading sugar importing country with an average of 6 million tons. Regarding the main exporting countries, Brazil is the leading exporter with 24.4 million tons, followed by Thailand, Europe is in sixth place among exporting countries and third place among importing countries.

PART : The different categories of sugar

The term "sugar" refers to all sugars in the broadest sense, such as glucose syrup, fructose etc. Sucrose, also called table sugar, is the sugar extracted from certain plants, mainly sugar cane and sugar beet.

Saccharoses :

-White sugar : White sugar comes from both the sugar cane and the sugar beet.

The sugar beet, unlike the red beet, is characterized by its white flesh. It is the roots that contain the sugar. With a single sugar beet, 25 lumps of sugar can be produced.

In 100 grams of sugar beet, we find :

  • 75% water

  • 15 to 20% sugar

  • 4 to 5% pulp

  • 2 to 3% unsweetened elements

-Cane or brown sugar : it is extracted from sugar cane, it comes from the cane juice and is therefore naturally red.

-Refined sugars : Refined sugars are sugars that have undergone a chemical process to be purified and/or decolorized. The more refined the sugar, the less minerals it has to nourish the body.

Honey is not a sucrose, but a fructose. While syrups will sooner be maltoses or glucoses.

Refined sugars :

Refined sugar is pure sucrose sugar, isolated from other nutrients (vitamins and minerals) found in sugars. The isolated nutrients are kept as molasses for animal consumption. 1 kg of refined cane sugar causes emissions of 0.42 kg of CO2 equivalent, while beet sugar emits twice as much, 0.85 kg of CO2 equivalent, mainly due to the use of fertilizers and pesticides.

But why refine sugar? Refining sugar makes it possible to obtain white sugar with no aftertaste. Beet sugar is naturally white, whereas if cane sugar is white, it means that it has been refined.

In metropolitan France, 90% of sugar comes from beets, which are naturally white and have not been refined.

If you are interested in the subject we invite you to watch this short video on the subject here !

The different types of refined sugars :

  • White cane sugar : It is the most refined sugar in order to remove its brown color. It is found in different forms such as crystal, semolina, ice or cube.

  • Brown, red and blond cane sugar : His name depends on his rate of refining and thus on his variation of shades. An unrefined brown sugar keeps all its nutritional properties.

  • Brown sugar : It is a refined white sugar made from sugar cane which is then colored like caramel.

The blond or brown vergeoise is a sugar from the sugar beet. It is obtained by cooking the syrup several times to obtain a dark brown color.

PART 3 : Impact on the environment

Who is the most ecological ?

White sugar has a bad image, because many people think that it is refined sugar, but as said above, beet sugar is naturally white, even unrefined. In France, white sugar from beet is much better for the environment than cane sugar.

Why ?

Most of the beet sugar consumed in France comes from our regions. Sugar beet sugar is therefore a local sugar for the French metropolitan population, which does not require heavy transportation.

In terms of water consumption for crops: it takes 1100 liters of water to produce one kilo of cane sugar and 640 liters of water to produce one kilo of beet sugar.

Moreover, according to a WWF study, sugar cane cultivation contributes to soil erosion, with a loss of 5 to 6 million hectares per year. This loss is due in particular to excessive irrigation, which leads to a loss of minerals and thus of the nutrients necessary for plants. As a result, farmers use mainly mineral fertilizers to make up for this lack of nutrients.

The solid residues of the sugar cane after extraction of the sugar (bagasse) are not used. They are burned while still wet, which increases the spread of ashes in the atmosphere. If these wastes were dried beforehand, the spread would be reduced by 98%.

Therefore, white sugar from sugar beet is more ecological. For a French person in France, it is therefore preferable to consume unrefined white sugar than refined or imported cane sugar.

Beet yellowing and neonicotinoids

The sugar beet also has consequences on the environment, indeed it is among the crops that use the most herbicides and chemical pesticides, among them neonicotinoids. These are a class of insecticides acting on the nervous system of insects. These substances are mainly used in agriculture for the protection of plants against harmful insects (see Fig. 7).

Fig 7 : Period of infestation by aphids on beet. Source: ITB (Institut Technique de le Betterave)

The use of these herbicides and pesticides is due to diseases such as beet yellows. This disease is generated by phytoviruses transmitted by aphids, mainly the green peach aphid and the black bean aphid. A disease that devastates the crops with an average loss of 40% (c.f. Fig. 8).

Fig 8: Status of sugar beet areas impacted by yellows, as of September 24, 2020. Source: ©ITB

Fig 9 :Beet leaf yellowing. Source : Ephytia-INRAE

Beet yellows is a yellow discoloration of the beet leaf blade between the veins (c.f. Fig. 9). The leaves thicken and become brittle, turning reddish in the most severe cases. The yellows cannot be cured once the field is infected.

One of the problems observed is that the aphids concerned emerge before their main natural pests: ladybugs, carabid beetles and hoverflies, which allows them to develop rapidly.

Neonicotinoids can be sprayed by chemical application like other pesticides, or used as seed coatings, intended to be absorbed by the seed. Unlike other pesticides that remain on the surface of treated leaves, neonicotinoids penetrate plants and are thus transported in leaves, roots, flowers, pollen and nectar. As a result, pollinating insects are affected. But also, as a result of their widespread use, these substances are found in the soil, air and water.

  • The consequences of polluted soils expose non-target species (especially soil invertebrates that are essential for crops). Indeed, earthworms enrich the soil with organic matter, making it more fertile.

  • The consequences on pollinating insects are; in bees, learning, food collection, longevity, disease resistance and fecundity. For bumblebees, the effects are on growth which is slower and queen production is much reduced.

It is estimated that there is a deficit of 13.4 million bee colonies to properly pollinate European crops, in France barely 25% of the necessary colonies are present.

In Italy, the use of neonicotinoids has been banned, so hive deaths have dropped from 37% to 15% in three years.

  • Consequence on aquatic ecosystems: consequence on fish growth, consequence on water quality (pollution).

  • Impact on the fertility of exposed animals/insects, leading to a reduction in the quantity of sperm, but also a decrease in the viability of spermatozoa. In addition, the drought we are currently experiencing does not improve the chances of survival of crops already in difficulty due to the presence of diseases. (link to article drought)

Consequences for human health?

Many animal studies report the potential toxicity of neonicotinoids to humans;

  • Neurologic Toxicity : Based on the Japanese study (Nicotine-Like Effects of the Neonicotinoid Insecticides Acetamiprid and Imidacloprid on Cerebellar Neurons from Neonatal Rats) exposure to neonicotinoids leads to morphological abnormalities in brain development and behavioral disorders

  • Endocrine disruption (thyroid and reproduction): the Canadian Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA), shows that neonicotinoids are potential endocrine disruptors and suspects effects on reproduction.

The end of neonicotinoids

Neonicotinoid pesticides, have been banned since 2018 in France, and are also banned at the European level, but beet crops were an exception following an epidemic of jaundice in 2020, a derogation voted by Parliament in late 2020. The yellows decimated plots, which led to historically low yields, with 26 tons per hectare on average against 85 tons in 2019, a drop of 30% at the national level compared to the average of the last five years.

In January 2023, a ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union deemed this derogation illegal, and it was an announcement by the Minister of Agriculture, Marc Fesneau, on January 23, 2023, that confirmed this: "There will be no new derogation for the use of neonicotinoids for the coating of beet seeds in France."

In case of jaundice, the General Confederation of Sugar Beet Growers (CGB) is calling for full compensation, with no deductible, or else "the whole sector will be endangered", from the 24,000 growers to the factories that transform the roots into sugar, alcohol or bioethanol fuel. In addition, its president, Franck Sander, fears European competition, particularly from Germany, which "has given up on coated seeds, but has authorized a neonicotinoid product for spraying".

The government with INREA, ANSES and technical institutes have launched a national research plan focused on sugar beet yellows to provide alternative solutions. In addition, financial aid will be set up to support growers in case of yield losses due to sugar beet yellows. More information on this aid will have to be provided soon.

Solutions for farmers

Following the cessation of neonicotinoids, solutions are being considered for the control of diseases in sugar beet crops :

  • A new variety : Work carried out in 2019 by the Modefy project has identified hybrid species that are more tolerant to yellows, the trials carried out have shown that these species can limit the loss by up to 15%.

  • Varietal mixtures : Mixing varieties is an agricultural practice that consists of sowing a heterogeneous mixture of varieties of the same species within the same plot. This practice has many advantages, including slowing the progression of diseases, the plot has an ability to adapt to changes in soil and climate.

  • Companion plants : It is the planting of different crops near the plots, for example, rapeseed will disrupt the cycle of pests like aphids.

  • Crop rotation : This is an agricultural practice that consists of alternating crops such as cereals and legumes on the same plot. A practice that helps limit diseases such as "black foot", a fungus present in the soil to which beets are particularly susceptible. A three-year rotation of beet crops reduces the risk of contamination.

Italy, which has been doing without neonicotinoids for several years, seems to have found good solutions to maintain its beet industry.

PART : Sugar and ethanol

Ethanol is an alcohol, its production comes mainly from corn, sugar beet and wheat, new technologies allow to produce it from waste and residues like straw.

The process begins with the extraction of sugar, the second step is fermentation via the addition of yeast. The resulting alcohol is then distilled and dehydrated to create ethanol. Finally, this ethanol can be added to unleaded gasoline SP95 to give biofuel (c.f. Fig. 10).

Fig 10: Steps in the ethanol manufacturing process. Source: Let's Talk Science


Biofuels are fuels produced from non-fossil organic materials. Those produced by the agricultural sector are also called agrofuels.

There are two families of biofuels :

  • Biodiesel or diester ; made essentially from 90% of oils extracted from rapeseed or sunflower.

  • Bioethanol ; made from the fermentation of beet or corn sugars.

Fig 11 : Feedstocks used in ethanol production in 2019. Source : ecologie.gouv

Made from vegetable alcohol mixed with SP95 (65% to 85% ethanol and 15% to 35% gasoline) (c.f. Fig. 11), bioethanol is an ecological and economical biofuel, produced from plants containing sugar (beet, corn and sugar cane). It is presented as a more ecological alternative to traditional fuels, producing 60% less greenhouse gases (c.f. Fig. 12).

French researchers in Reims have created a new form of bioethanol from our vegetable waste. Until now, this biofuel was made from cereals and vegetables (mainly wheat and beets) needed to feed the planet.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the Canadian company Enerkem is making biofuel by using landfill waste, but also raw materials such as forestry and agricultural residues, to produce clean fuels.

Fig 12: Biofuels produce less greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline and diesel. Source: ©IFEN

The use of biofuels in transportation is still low worldwide. In the United States its use is only 2%, against 30% in Brazil. France is among the main consumers with 1.1 billion liters used in 2020 with 776 million ethanol.

The sale of Superethanol E85 has been authorized since January 2007, and since 2009 it is the sale of E10, which is composed of 90% "unleaded 95" gasoline and 10% ethanol. France is the 4th largest producer of biofuel in the world and the European leader. Every second, 127 liters of bioethanol are produced on the French territory, which corresponds to 25% of the total production in Europe.

Bioethanol in France

Fig 13: Service stations distributing E10 in France. Source: © Collective of bioethanol

In France there are no less than 6,228 service stations that offer bio ethanol, compared to 5,880 at the end of 2017.At the same time, its consumption has increased by 55% between 2017 and 2018, from 117,902 m3 to 182,586 m3 (c.f. Fig. 13).

Crops for bioethanol production represent about 3% of the French agricultural area. In 2019, 83% of the raw materials used to produce bioethanol are of European origin.

Why develop biofuels?

In a context of global warming linked to greenhouse gas emissions and rising oil prices, biofuels represent an alternative and renewable energy resource and thus meet five essential challenges :

  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions

  • Anticipate the depletion of oil resources

  • Reduce energy dependency (oil)

  • Offer an additional outlet to the agricultural sector

  • Valorize waste

PART 5 : Alternatives for our consumption

  1. The complete cane sugar ; Also called "muscovado" or "rapadura" depending on its origin, unrefined whole cane sugar is made from dehydrated sugar cane juice. It is a sugar very rich in minerals (magnesium, zinc, copper).

  2. Xylitol ; Xylitol is a natural component of birch bark, a sugar derivative with a low glycemic index whose main virtue is to limit the risk of cavities. It is used more and more frequently, especially in chewing gums and dental products.

  3. Honey ; The sweetness of honey is also higher than that of cane sugar. It contains many minerals and vitamins. Honey has a sweeter taste than sugar and it is less caloric, to replace 100 ml of sugar, we put only 66 ml of honey.

  4. Syrup ; Like agave, maple or yacon syrup. The yacon is also called "ground pear", is related to Jerusalem artichoke and sunflower. Its syrup comes from the juice of ground pears (previously crushed), subjected to vacuum evaporation. The yacon contains fructo-oligosaccharides, sweetening substances that are not very well metabolized by the body and therefore have almost no impact on blood sugar levels. Agave is a plant that grows mainly in hot and dry regions of the world, such as South America and South Africa. The syrup is extracted from the fruit of the plant, sweeter than honey, the Agave syrup is a 100% vegetable and natural sweetener.

  5. Stevia ; Stevia is the name given to the sweetener obtained from the plant of the same name, since pre-Columbian times, it was used to sweeten teas, foods and medicinal drinks. Unrefined, stevia is a green powder. Stevia is 250 to 300 times sweeter than beet sugar. Its glycemic index is 0, which allows diabetics to consume it.

And what is aspartame? Aspartame is an artificial sweetener discovered in 1965 by the chemist James Schlatter. It is a molecule composed of two amino acids which are L-aspartic acid and L-phenylalanine. Aspartame was authorized on the market in 1974 in the United States and in 1981 in France. It is referenced in Europe under the name E951. Aspartame has a sweetening power 150 to 200 times greater than sucrose and has a low calorific value, hence the success of this sweetener. Aspartame is particularly used in the food industry, including the famous Coca-Cola Light.

There are other artificial sweeteners with high sweetening power such as: acesulfame K (also in Diet Coke), saccharin, sucralose, neotame, advantame.

Sugar and health

While sugar is an essential nutrient for the proper functioning of the human body, overconsumption can lead to health problems.

Among these problems are :

  • The formation of cavities. The bacteria on our teeth love sugar. They will transform starches and sugars into acidic substances that attack the enamel of the teeth.

  • Type 2 diabetes, known as "diabetes mellitus". It is linked to an excessive consumption of sugar. It mainly affects people over 50 years old. It can lead to cardiovascular diseases, eye problems, risks of infections, kidney failure, etc.

  • Obesity. Sugar has an indirect role on obesity. Its high glycemic index causes a rapid increase in insulin levels which leads to a feeling of hunger.

  • Sugar addiction. Sugars activate specific receptors in the hypothalamus related to addiction.

The Anses recommends not to consume more than 100g of sugars per day (excluding lactose and galactose which are naturally present in dairy products) and not more than one sweetened drink.

Generally speaking, unrefined natural sugars are better for your health than their refined white counterparts (as a reminder, white beet sugar is unrefined) because they contain nutrients that refined sugars lack because of the processing they have undergone, although a complete sugar is composed of 95% sucrose and only 5% nutrients.

Beware of hidden sugars. Most industrial products contain sugar, often listed as glucose on the label. This accumulation of sugar will increase the blood sugar level.

Little extra ! The French spend an average of 20% of their budget on food, compared to 42% in 1950, reported the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Sovereignty (c.f. Fig. 14).

Fig 14: Share of different consumption items from 1959 to 2016. We observe a decrease in food and an increase in housing, water and electricity. Source: Insee

An effective solution for the environment, health and the well-being of farmers would be to reduce our consumption of sugars (all sugars) while accepting to pay more for our products. A solution would also be to favour the purchase from the producer in order to ensure a better remuneration of the farmer.

Figure 15: Evolution of European and international prices since the 2006 reform. Source: agriculture-strategies

Established by the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) in 1968, sugar quotas have mainly allowed sugar producers to develop the cultivation of sugar beet through price and production stability. But in 2017 these sugar quotas disappeared (c.f. Fig. 15). The end of the quotas did not have the desired result and weakened European sugar production: the price of sugar fell and tensions within the sector were created. The price of sugar has fallen and tensions within the sector have arisen. It has therefore been necessary to produce more to earn less, which runs counter to an environmental policy that would like to encourage more reasoned production.

For more details on these quotas, click here


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