Nation & World

Does 'sustainably sourced' really help the environment?

Yes, but with a caveat

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Farmers have examined a project called Bonsucro, which promotes a set of voluntary water-use and farming standards for sugar cane and has been adopted by some of the world’s biggest sugar buyers. Farm workers shred sugar cane near Lake Okeechobee.
Getty Images Farmers have examined a project called Bonsucro, which promotes a set of voluntary water-use and farming standards for sugar cane and has been adopted by some of the world’s biggest sugar buyers. Farm workers shred sugar cane near Lake Okeechobee.

The label on the grocery package contains the reassuring words, “sustainably sourced.” But what does that actually mean for the environment?

Researchers at the University of Minnesota are trying to answer that question with a careful study of one of the world’s largest commodities — sugar. They examined a project called Bonsucro, which promotes a set of voluntary water-use and farming standards for sugar cane and has been adopted by some of the world’s biggest sugar buyers, including General Mills, which has facilities in Cedar Rapids, and Coca-Cola.

The findings, published last month, show that if sugar cane growers and major buyers across the globe meet Bonsucro standards, the environmental benefits would be great: Greenhouse gas emissions from sugar production would be halved and water use would be cut by two-thirds.

It’s a groundbreaking and rigorous vindication of the ever-expanding “sustainability” certifications that companies are vowing to meet.

But it comes with a big catch.

The problem is that attaining the full benefits of Bonsucro would require what may be practical and political impossibilities, such as closing off a third of India — the world’s second-largest sugar producer — to sugar farming because it doesn’t get enough rainfall.

As a result, companies might not be able to achieve 100 percent compliance by a certain date unless the standards are relaxed, exceptions are created for regions such as India, or a third of that nation’s sugar farmers receive enough incentives to replace sugar with a new crop, said Derric Pennington, one of the study’s authors and adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota.

“These are wicked problems,” Pennington said. “It’s not an individual company issue, it’s an industry issue.”

For General Mills, the study shows both the potential and the hard realities of Bonsucro certification, said Kevin O’Donnell, the company’s director of sustainability sourcing and operations.

The Twin Cities-based food and cereal giant has committed to having 100 percent of its sugar cane come from Bonsucro-certified producers within the next few years.

While the potential benefits are heartening, he said, it is very difficult to shift the production of sugar cane to different areas of the world. You can’t tell India, “Sorry, you can’t grow sugar cane anymore,” O’Donnell said.

“That doesn’t mean you can’t make progress,” he said. “It’s just harder to do.”

The company met its 2018 goal to have 70 percent of its sugar cane certified and still is on track to get to 100 percent, O’Donnell said.

Bonsucro was created by a large coalition of environmental advocates and major growers and buyers such as PepsiCo, which owns the Quaker Oats facility in Cedar Rapids, and Coca-Cola. It’s promoted by the World Wildlife Fund and based in London.

It sets dozens of criteria for sugar production, including labor standards as well as pesticide use, carbon reduction and bans on using land classified with “high conservation value.”

Certifications such as Bonsucro exist for just about everything that grows, from palm oil and cotton to salmon. The state of Minnesota, for example, boasts that more than 90 percent of the forests under its management have been certified as “sustainable” for logging, allowing for the lumber to be sold with that label, often at a premium.

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Yet there’s been little research into the actual global environmental benefit that results from the approved practices, or what would happen if more major players adopt them, Pennington said.

Pennington and the University of Minnesota hope the study can serve as a framework allowing governments, corporations and shoppers to judge the merits of such certifications. The Bonsucro study is designed to be replicated for other commodities and certification standards, he said.

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