Globally, the area of sugarcane is rising rapidly in response to growing demands for bioethanol and increased sugar demand for human consumption. Despite considerable diversity in production systems and contexts, sugarcane is a particularly “high impact” crop with significant positive and negative environmental and socio-economic impacts.
Our analysis is focused on Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), which is a critical region for continued expansion, due to its high production potential, low cost of production and proximity, and access, to European markets. Drawing on a systematic review of scientific evidence, combined with information from key informants, stakeholders and a research-industry workshop, we critically assess the impacts of sugarcane development on water, soil and air quality, employment, food security and human health. Our analysis shows that sugarcane production is, in general, neither explicitly good nor bad, sustainable nor unsustainable.
The impacts of expansion of sugarcane production on the environment and society depend on the global political economy of sugar, local context, quality of scheme, nature of the production system and farm management. Despite threats from climate change and forthcoming changes in the trade relationship with the European Union, agricultural development policies are driving national and international interest and investment in sugarcane in SSA, with expansion likely to play an important role in sustainable development in the region. Our findings will help guide researchers and policy makers with new insights in understanding the situated environmental and social impacts associated with alternative sugar economy models, production technologies and qualities of management.