The world’s biggest sugar producer is warning it could be on the verge of collapse if the world does not get its act together to address the environmental, economic and human costs of its operations.
A report by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) warns that the global sugar industry is a $2 trillion business with more than 100,000 workers and the potential for an additional 400,000 jobs if it collapses.
The report, published by the Paris-based think tank, also said sugar-based products are increasingly being sold at supermarkets and online.
But it warned the industry has become so dependent on subsidies that it could crash without addressing its shortcomings.
“We’re seeing huge demand for sugar, particularly from Asia, which is what drives the industry,” said John Molloy, director of UNEP’s sugar and crop protection programme.
“What we’re seeing is the global market for sugar is increasing by more than 30 percent per year.”
The report estimates that the sugar industry, which relies on subsidies, employs more than 120,000 people in the US alone.
Its business model relies on the use in products such as food and beverages, including sugar, cocoa and cane sugar, which has a long history of being used to boost productivity.
Its impact on the environment has been devastating.
The world produces about half of all global greenhouse gas emissions and is the second largest user of pesticides.
The World Trade Organisation recently issued a call for all countries to reduce the use and misuse of pesticides to combat global climate change.
But the report warns that countries could also be putting off implementing their own measures to address climate change if they do not understand the consequences of sugar use.
It says the global industry could be the single largest source of carbon emissions for the next 50 years and that by 2050, it will account for more than 90 percent of global CO2 emissions.
“If we don’t get this right, we will be in the position where we are not only at risk of losing our way, but in the end, we’ll be at serious risk of going extinct,” said Mollohoy.
The sugar industry has come under increased scrutiny in recent years.
The US Food and Drug Administration has begun requiring producers to conduct annual evaluations of pesticides used in their products.
In January, a US court ruled that a company, the Australian Sugar Industry Association, had failed to provide adequate data on the chemicals used in its products.
It was the latest in a series of regulatory and enforcement actions by US and international regulators against the industry, as well as its suppliers.
The UNEP report said the US and Australian governments had made little progress in tackling the industry’s problems.
“The US has only just begun to tackle the problem of sugar-related pesticides, but the regulatory framework that was put in place in 2010 was inadequate,” said Peter Aiken, the report’s author.
“There is an urgent need for stronger action in both countries.”
The UN says it is working with a range of countries to address problems with the industry.
The US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) says the industry uses more pesticides than anyone else, but its pesticide regulations do not account for the environmental impacts of those products.
The report says some pesticides, including glyphosate and carbamate, are “potentially carcinogenic”.
But the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that it is taking a cautious approach to pesticides.
“Pesticides are used widely in many food products but it is important to assess the impact of pesticides on their potential to cause adverse health effects and to determine if the chemicals are safe and effective,” said EPA spokesperson Liz Arrington.
The UK’s Environment Agency says the chemicals that make up sugar are a “complex mixture of toxic compounds that interact with other chemicals, plants, microbes and animal organisms”.