New insights for water-guzzling sugar industry

WWF India, Rabobank and producer working jointly to increase sustainability

Few other crops are as thirsty as sugar cane. In India, sugar cane farming is pursued at the expense of the water supply, other forms of agriculture and the surrounding nature. Things really need to change to secure the future of the sugar industry in the country and the local ecosystems. One large sugar producer is taking the pioneering step towards more sustainable production, thanks to a partnership between WWF India and Rabobank.

More than 25 centuries ago, the Indians were the first to discover how to convert the juice from sugar canes stalks into sugar. Today, the whole world has a sweet tooth and an enormous industry hinges on sugar worldwide. Demand is huge. And this is not only because we are so fond of eating sweet things and because it is an essential component of our food intake, but because we also use sugar cane as a raw material for bioplastics and biofuels, such as ethanol.

Sugar production

India still plays a leading role in the distribution of sugar. The country is the world’s second-largest exporter of sugar, after Brazil. The livelihood of more than 35 million Indians depends on the sugar industry. The sugar cane is farmed in an area that is roughly the size of the whole of the Netherlands: approximately 4.1 million hectares.
Unfortunately, the sugar canes, which resemble bamboo, are one of the thirstiest crops in the world. In India, which regularly has to contend with droughts as it is, farmers are using irresponsible quantities of ground water in the production of this crop. In some regions, as much as 60 percent of the available irrigation water is used for sugar cane, even though this crop only covers around 3 to 4 percent of the agricultural land. This cannot go on like this for much longer, particularly as irregular rainy seasons have led to unusually high levels of drought in the past few years.
In addition, sugar cane is grown throughout the year without interruption, without any rotation with other crops. This leads to soil depletion and excessive use of fertilisers to maximise harvests from this depleted soil. In some places, farmers also burn the unusable part of the sugar cane just before the harvest, producing significant air pollution. Indian sugar cane farming accordingly causes considerable damage to local nature and ecosystems.

Partnership

WWF India and Rabobank have therefore launched a partnership with one major Indian sugar producer, EID Parry. The aim pursued by the partners in this project is for the cooperating sugar producer to have achieved a successful transition to more sustainable sugar production by the end of this year. The partners believe that sugar production characterised by better water management, more responsible water consumption, a reduced impact on the surrounding ecosystems, lower CO2 emissions and better re-use of residual products will not only protect nature but also produce better economic returns.

According to Sankara Raghu, director of EID Parry, it is therefore urgent for sugar farming in India to achieve progress on the way towards more sustainable production. The country is expected to have a water shortage amounting to 50 percent of the total requirement as early as 2030. If India wants to continue as an agricultural producer, incisive measures are required.

“We have no choice,” underlines Raghu. “For our customers, which include major companies such as Pepsi and Mondelez for example, sustainability is increasingly important as well. If we do not increase its sustainability, India’s sugar industry will not have much of a future. Things are already worrying. Our production depends on the monsoon rains. If they fail to materialise, we suffer intense droughts. That is what we have seen in the past two years. It was so bad, in fact, that there was a shortage of drinking water. It is not sustainable in that case that we need so much water for our production. We have to find new ways of working.”
EID Parry is already one of the sustainable front-runners in the sugar industry. As one of the country’s oldest companies, with roots stretching back to British colonial times, it is one the few businesses in the country to have been awarded a sustainability certification by Bonsucro, the worldwide organisation for sustainable sugar cane farming.

Insights

But how to become more sustainable if you do not know exactly what can be improved? It is therefore important for companies to obtain greater insight into their own operations. How much water do they consume for sugar cane farming? How large is their CO2 footprint? How much water is available today and how much will be there be tomorrow? These are insights that WWF India and Rabobank have given the companies in the partnership. “We want to ensure that our water consumption as well as our CO2 and water footprints are reduced even further,” Raghu explains his ambitions. “We also look at the soil and nutrients. We have a good research division. We analyse and conduct interviews with farmers and give them advice. With the help of WWF India, we have set up national geophysical laboratories to more accurately map both the water potential and consumption in our country, before as well as after the monsoon rains. That enables us to monitor how much water the crop needs exactly and how much is available. We can adapt our operations in line with this information. We are eager to share this data with the farmers with which we work.”

Sustainable water management

As part of the partnership, the parties involved also jointly developed the Sustainable Water Management Decision Support Tool, which is designed to help farmers manage water more efficiently and to limit their CO2 emissions in order to combat depletion of the ecosystem. “With this tool, we aim to show farmers how best to irrigate their sugar cane,” Raghu states. “For instance, we made hygrometers available to them so that they can monitor their irrigation themselves. We also ask them, for instance, not to irrigate just before the harvest. Farmers often do so in the hope that they will increase the weight of their sugar cane, as they are paid by the kilo.”

After this year, both companies will act increasingly as pioneers and represent inspiring examples for the other sugar cane producers in India. Sharing their successes via effective communication can ensure sustainable measures are scaled up throughout India. In any case, the tool will soon be presented to the ISMA, the industrial organisation of sugar producers in India. Raghu: “This is an excellent platform for further upscaling. A good first step that should lead to a benchmark for the entire Indian sugar industry. And perhaps even for the rest of the world.”