Could sugar bring the global drinks industry together?

Could sugar bring the global drinks industry together?

Within the sustainable sourcing challenge for food and drinks producers, the focus on sugarcane is set to increase substantially over the coming years. Not only does sugarcane present daunting sustainability challenges, Ben Cooper writes, but as a key ingredient shared by two of the major beverage sectors it could present opportunities for collective industry engagement.

Taking a 'whole value chain' approach is now considered vital in an effective sustainability strategy. Already driving efficiency and mitigating impacts in their own facilities, drinks companies are increasingly addressing arguably heftier challenges in agricultural supply chains.

The commodity now attracting heightened attention is sugar, specifically cane sugar. Despite being the world's largest agricultural commodity, sugarcane has received less attention than commodities like palm oil, soy and cocoa, even though it presents many sustainability challenges. To begin with, sugarcane is hugely reliant on smallholder farming, with global production estimated to support 100m livelihoods across the world. However, one uses the word 'support' cautiously, as many sugarcane growers live in extreme poverty. In Tanzania, farmers may earn on average less than US$1 a day and their situation would be far from unique.

From an environmental perspective, sugar is the third most water-intensive agricultural commodity, requiring 1,400 to 3,000 litres per kilogramme. Water pollution, for instance from fertiliser run-off from fields, is a prevalent problem, while sugar mills generate around 1,000 litres of wastewater per ton of sugarcane processed, according to a report published jointly last month by Business Fights Poverty (BFP), a network bringing together corporate engagement on tackling poverty, and the Corporate Social Responsibility Initiative (CSRI) at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Loss of soil fertility due to continued monoculture and erosion is another worrying factor, as is air pollution from the burning of both stalks after harvest and of by-products at mills. In addition to the general levels of poverty, human rights issues include hazardous working conditions, forced and child labour and land rights issues and land use conflicts.

Given this litany, it is surprising that sugar has been less discussed than other commodities. This is partly because it is also produced in the Northern Hemisphere from sugar beet, which accounts for around a fifth of global production. European food and beverage companies can source a significant proportion of their sugar requirements from beet.

For major beverage companies particularly, however, cane sugar has been - or certainly should have been - on the radar for some time. The Coca-Cola Co, for instance, has been praised by Oxfam for its work on land rights in sugarcane-producing countries. Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, SABMiller and Bacardi, meanwhile, are members of the Bonsucro multi-stakeholder initiative, which aims to foster sustainability in sugarcane production, underlining that sugarcane is a key commodity for two beverage sectors, namely spirits - notably rums and liqueurs - and soft drinks.

Bonsucro, along with other certification organisations looking across multiple agricultural sectors, such as Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance, has been a major force in driving improvement to date. However, the views of its CEO, Simon Usher, speak to the scale of the challenges ahead. Among the pre-conditions that he believes are necessary to achieve "transformational change", Usher cites alignment of efforts between initiatives using a "common performance framework".

Meanwhile, Dave Howson, formerly global sustainability director at Bacardi and now an independent consultant specialising in sustainable supply chains, tells just-drinks: "To drive true market demand for sustainable sugarcane, both the branded end-users and the intermediary brokers need to work collaboratively in engaging the mills and producers."

Usher adds that taking sustainability efforts to scale will necessitate collaboration between all actors and, crucially, will have to "go beyond certification". Among the key advancements likely to play a role in driving substantial progress on sugarcane sustainability will be jurisdictional approaches which, through collaboration with various stakeholders, development agencies and local governments, look to bring entire areas up to acceptable sustainability standards.

Looking at challenges through the "jurisdiction lens", Usher says, with the aim of providing "opportunities to create value at scale" for farming communities, will form part of a new strategy to be unveiled by Bonsucro in October.

Regarding further and enhanced engagement from drinks sectors on sugar, it is interesting to note that cross-sector initiative the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable (BIER) is steadily extending its purview beyond on-site water and carbon impacts, which have been its principal focus since its foundation in 2006. Significantly, the BIER Joint Commitment on Climate Change, launched last month, extends to impact mitigation in agricultural supply chains.

The Joint Commitment stresses the importance of "collaboration within the sector to develop capacity and solutions that have a broader impact in the supply chain of our products and in the resilience of our society to the impacts of climate change". While continuing to reduce energy consumption and source cleaner fuels in their operations, BIER members have commited to "pursue partnerships within our supply chains to reduce the carbon footprint of our products".

On water, meanwhile, the signatories pledge to "deepen our commitment to work together to develop and execute solutions to reduce water risk in order to create more sustainable watersheds for all users".

The Commitment also stresses how BIER members, which include beer, wine, soft drinks and spirits producers, can contribute further in creating a more sustainable global agriculture sector. BIER member companies are working on "leading-edge research and novel partnerships with the agricultural sector to create more resilient agricultural products in the face of greater variability in precipitation and water scarcity", the Commitment states. It adds: "We will collaborate as BIER members to enhance these initiatives and share best practice for the broader benefit of a more climate resilient food chain".

Returning to sugar, one further shadow on the horizon for sugarcane farmers in the developing world is the impact on global sugar prices and loss of European market presence stemming from the end of EU sugar quotas in 2017. Uncertainty is "causing significant stress", Usher says, and in particular is delaying or preventing investment in sustainable production.

A report by the UK's Fairtrade Foundation, published in February, states that the end of the EU quota system, which capped European sugar beet production allowing sugarcane producers in the developing world to retain a reasonable presence in the EU, threatens to "put the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of smallholder farmers in Africa, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) and Least Developed Countries (LDC) at risk".

In this context, raising living standards and mitigating environmental impacts in sugarcane production is likely to become an even sterner challenge over the coming years. It can only be hoped that the end of EU quotas, as potentially damaging as it could be, also prompts and galvanises engagement.