Sugarcane greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions can be cut by over half, alongside a 65% reduction in water use, and an increase in yield if producers adopt Bonsucro’s voluntary sustainability standards (VSS).
A landmark report from the University of Minnesota has shown “that adoption of the environmental criteria in the Bonsucro VSS […] would greatly reduce the direct environmental damage caused by sugarcane production.”
The study finds that global compliance with the Bonsucro VSS has the potential to deliver a 65% reduction in irrigation water use and a 51% reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Combined with these resource savings is increased yields generated by shifting production from nutrient-starved land to more traditionally agriculture-focused areas.
What are Bonsucro’s voluntary sustainability standards?
Voluntary sustainability standards are a set of principles producers uphold to deliver more sustainable production. Bonsucro VSS is sufficiently rigorous that even just 10% global adoption could, according to the report, still deliver over half the predicted environmental impacts of complete global compliance.
This highlights how a multi-criteria approach to any VSS underpins its real-world success. As the report finds, “only complying with individual criteria of the Bonsucro VSS […] results in unintended detrimental environmental outcomes.”
The report represents a key initial step to identifying the most effective way to implement a universal approach to agricultural production that has sustainability at its core. As it’s widely assumed global demand for sugarcane is set to double, initiatives such as the Bonsucro VSS may become vital to the future health of both our planet and the wider sugar industry,” highlights Ben Eastick, Ragus’ Marketing Director.
How to limit deforestation through Bonsucro VSS
To grow enough food to meet global demand, large areas of biodiversity rich ecosystems are currently converted into farming land. Implementation of Bonsucro VSS could significantly limit this practice, moving sugarcane production away from severely-water stressed and arid areas to more fit-for-purpose, arable land.
Such measures are in line with the growing number of commitments being made by the private sector to only source from deforestation-free and land conversion-free producers – Coca-Cola, for example, has said it will move towards 100% sustainably sourced water in the coming years.
Ensuring supply meets demand without destroying ecosystems is one of the greatest challenges facing global sugarcane production. The Bonsucro VSS’s ability to offer this, as Eastick notes, is “what makes it so exciting, and potentially crucial to shaping the future of sustainably sourced sugarcane.
“This issue of responsible production is pertinent to all levels of consumer – we’ve already seen India threaten to boycott PepsiCo and Coca-Cola over excessive water use. As a member of Bonsucro, we can now use this research as a springboard from which to base our own commitment to ethical sourcing.”
Quality; quantity; enforcement: making Bonsucro VSS a real-world success
The report, however, leaves a key question unanswered: what method of implementation for Bonsucro VSS will deliver the greatest impact? Although the model used by the researchers shows that a theoretical blanket adoption could reduce environmental harm, such an approach is not currently feasible in practice.
Reducing or eliminating sugarcane production in some areas under Bonsucro VSS would place a severe economic burden on many producers, potentially ruining livelihoods and damaging local economies.
“It is vital to the success of Bonsucro VSS that we work to find a solution to this challenge, scoping out what the report refers to as the best ‘rules of the game’ for producers to be both profitable and sustainable,” Eastick adds. “Without these, producers will lack the incentives necessary to guarantee Bonsucro VSS can deliver on its promises,”
Currently, the main driver behind compliance for producers is convenience, often leaving those areas that could deliver the greatest reduction in environmental harm ignored.
Can Bonsucro VSS gain wider acceptance to meet WWF targets?
Once a reasonable framework is agreed upon, the next step to ensuring Bonsucro VSS achieves maximum environmental impact is targeted implementation. Most of the standards’ benefits could be felt from targeting a relatively small area of sugar production, something that is missed by sweeping statements such as the WWF’s goal to have 25% of all producers enrolled under Bonsucro VVS by 2020.
This approach must also be backed by effective enforcement of Bonsucro standards on producers from all relevant bodies – failure to do so can produce a situation like the one experienced in Brazil, where only 6% of landowners enact the Brazilian Forest Code.
“There is, of course, still work to be done in terms of transferring Bonsucro VSS from a solution that works well in a scientific model to one that can have a real-world impact,” concludes Eastick. “These findings, however, do offer huge encouragement and what could be the first steps to sustainable harvests that don’t compromise on yields or producers’ livelihoods.”
The report shows that Bonsucro VSS can offer hope. Further research and time will tell whether it can deliver on its headline promises, but implementation in any form would significantly reduce the environmental impact of sugarcane production.