As a greenie who has largely given up consuming sugar for health (rather than ecological) reasons, this question nevertheless always lurks at the back of my mind. On one hand, world sugar production is set to reach a record 185 million tons over the last two years—which the USDA attributes to a record harvest in Brazil (top grower), as well as increased production in India, Thailand and China—with consumption rising to a record 174 million tons. At the same time, Brazil ranks fourth in the world for type 2 and that’s not accounting for growth in the disease, which presents a huge burden for the country’s health system, and more than 60% of the world’s diabetics live in Asia, with almost half living in China (first place) or India (second place with more than 65.1 million diabetics), and 1/3 of Thais having diabetes. In addition to the negative health impacts of eating sugar, The EAT-Lancet Commission’s 2019 report recommends a 50% reduction in human sugar consumption to achieve a ‘planetary health diet.’

On the other hand, sugarcane ethanol cuts carbon dioxide emissions by an average of 90 percent compared to standard gasoline, and many countries who produce it to eat also use, or could potentially use, it to reduce their carbon emissions. For example, Brazil sells pure ethanol fuel or its blended with gasoline (all gas in Brazil is 18 -27.5 percent ethanol) and has, along with the introduction of flex fuel vehicles, reduced its CO2 emissions over 350 million tons since 2003— the estimated equivalent of planting and maintaining 2.5 billion trees for 20 years. China uses other crops besides sugar—surplus corn, possibly straw and forestry waste, sweet potatoes, sorghum—for increasing its use of ethanol to clean up air pollution, and there is plenty of room for growth as it adopts better standards for its future vehicle fleets. What if the sugarcane produced in southern China were re-routed towards a localized effort to reduce C02 emissions either through using ethanol in its cars or biomass in its power plants?

It would be worthwhile to calculate the environmental and economic impact, including health care costs, of moving from sugarcane for consumption by humans to consumption by vehicles and power plants. While some have only seen ethanol as a near-term solution in the long run goal of getting off gasoline in the race to create electric vehicles, there is plenty of evidence (and investment, for example via Nissan) into powering electric vehicles themselves through ethanol fuel cells, the use of sugarcane waste (rather than fossil fuels) to produce ethanol and to provide electricity directly through bagasse, as in the case of Brazil’s public-private partnership for commercial plants.

So, I can’t help but think we’ve got it all wrong when it comes to sugar. We should be using it to power our lives more cleanly and not using it to steal power from our bodies. I find this to be an especially pressing issue every time there is a food crisis and the “food or fuel” debate comes up in the context of food security, against a backdrop of skyrocketing Type 2. I wonder: if people all around the world stopped eating sugarcane, how much land would be available for both cleaner fuel and other types of (more nutritious) food: and how can we add this nuanced calculation to the perceived ‘ food vs. fuel’ trade off?