ENVIRONMENTAL PRESSURES, CHALLENGES AND STRATEGY FOR THE SUGAR GROWER IN SOUTH AFRICA AN OVERVIEW

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1 ENVIRONMENTAL PRESSURES, CHALLENGES AND STRATEGY FOR THE SUGAR GROWER IN SOUTH AFRICA AN OVERVIEW GW MAHER South African Sugar Association Experiment Station, Private bag X02, Mount Edgecombe, 4300, South Africa Abstract The cane growing industry in South Africa is coming under increasing pressure due to environmental issues, especially where cane fields border housing developments and prime tourist destinations. The common global negative impacts associated with the production of sugarcane are listed. The adverse effects of sugarcane growing on nature s ecology are highlighted, as well as the agricultural practices developed to help reduce these impacts. The environmental pressures recognised as being of greatest concern, including on-farm issues, non-farm issues and international issues, are identified and discussed. The major challenges facing the sugar industry are listed, and a possible environmental strategy for the sugar industry is described. Keywords: Bio-diversity, burning, cane spillage, degradation, impacts, natural resources, sustainability Introduction The South African sugar industry occupies about hectares of land, most of which is around popular holiday destinations along the coast of KwaZulu-Natal province. Sugarcane growing has numerous negative impacts on the environment. These can be magnified by the relatively large area over which the crop is grown, and are compounded by the generally erratic and fragmented manner in which environmental issues are at present addressed within the industry. Coupled with the local impacts is the pressure being exerted by the international community to improve environmental performance. The environmental pressures associated with the production of sugarcane in South Africa are similar to those of other sugar industries around the world. For this reason, perceptions regarding the negative environmental impacts of cane production are also similar the world over. Common negative impacts worldwide include: water availability and contamination cane burning reduction in soil quality use of fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides lack of bio-diversity. Cane growers should consider themselves as custodians of water, soil and air, and the ecosystems they sustain. Growers are required to manage these resources in such a way that 1

2 their use by others and by future generations is not compromised. Farms can no longer be managed in isolation, but rather as part of the catchment in which they are located. Constraints to land-use practices and water usage will be dictated by what the catchment can sustain and the competing needs for resources in the catchment. Impacts on the environment Various legislative Acts recognise sugarcane cultivation as a specific activity that impacts on the environment. This relates particularly to soil and water conservation, atmospheric pollution and practices that might affect the health and safety of labourers. If effective selfregulation is not achieved in theses areas, government will intervene directly. According to Hay, of the Institute of Natural Resources, cane growing in South Africa significantly affects nature s ecology in the following ways: Heterogeneous ecological systems containing a wide diversity of indigenous plants and animals are converted to homogeneous monocultural systems comprised of a single exotic crop. Natural links between ecosystems are severed, reducing available migration routes. Valuable habitats such as riverine areas, wetlands and floodplains are drained and converted to cultivated land. Cane burning is a nuisance, it is potentially hazardous and it impacts negatively on surrounding communities. Water flow characteristics in catchments are altered, and the speed of run-off is increased during and immediately after rainfall. Soil erosion increases, and persistent monoculture reduces soil fertility. Fertilisers alter the nutrient balance on cultivated land and also in downstream systems. Herbicides and pesticides regularly have an impact beyond their specific intended target, and affect indigenous plant and animal life. The proliferation of alien invader plant species is an ongoing problem that presents a threat to the indigenous vegetation. There are, however, a number of agricultural practices that have been developed to help reduce these impacts: Wetland, floodplain and indigenous bush areas are being conserved and/or rehabilitated. Cane planting is being set back from riverine areas and the establishment of indigenous vegetation in these areas encouraged. Minimum tillage, contour ridging, vetiver grass hedges and strip planting are reducing soil erosion. The use of fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides is being minimised. The trashing of cane instead of burning is being promoted. Labour is being protected from toxic chemicals and hazardous practices are being minimised. Alien invasive plants are being eradicated as a continuous part of the normal farming activities. In most instances, intervention to improve ecological performance on a cane farm also results in improved agricultural performance. 2

3 Environmental pressures Environmental pressures recognised as being of the greatest concern in the South African sugar industry have been identified, mainly through comments made by outside parties, local grower leaders and extension staff within the industry, as no formal environmental audit of the industry as a whole has taken place. The general consensus appears to be that environmental standards within the industry are improving, but at a very slow pace. However, there are a few grower groups in the industry that are leading the way with regard to environmental management. The majority of the sugar industry in South Africa is situated adjacent to sensitive areas, and the potential for negative environmental impacts from the production of sugarcane has in recent years caused increasing public concern. The environmental impacts recognised as being of greatest concern are related to on-farm water and land management issues. However, there are negative impacts associated with the milling operation as well. On-farm issues Land use planning Due to the nature of the topography in the industry, correct land use planning is essential for protection of the soils. Although the majority of the industry has had land use plans drafted, very few of these have been implemented on the ground. There are still many areas of the industry where soil conservation measures and general surface water management are not up to standard. Although outside expertise is available through consultants, the quality of the service provided varies and there is unfortunately no mechanism in place to check that the product is of the required standard. Cane burning The opposition to cane burning has gathered momentum over the past few years, with numerous complaints coming from residents in suburban areas that border cane farms. This is probably the area of most concern to the industry, as it is clearly visible and affects many individuals outside the industry. With the advent of the RV cane payment system there has been an increase in the frequency of cane burning. With more cane fires, there has been more smoke in the air and heavier black snow more often. Wetlands and watercourses The industry has in the past been guilty of having a negative impact on these areas. Although in recent years there have been positive moves towards re-establishing wetlands and riverine vegetation, the perception persists that the industry has no genuine regard for these areas and that they remain under threat due to ignorance and economic pressure. Cane spillage With urban encroachment leading to increased traffic on South Africa s roads, cane spillage is becoming more of an issue. Many growers are guilty of overloading and, unfortunately, many of these loads are not properly secured, resulting in fairly large bundles of cane being spilt on public roads. This has an environmental impact as well as being a safety hazard. Bio-diversity 3

4 Sugarcane has replaced large areas of indigenous subtropical vegetation along the coastal belt of KwaZulu-Natal, bushveld in the lowveld of Mpumalanga and grassland in the KwaZulu- Natal Midlands. Bio-diversity fulfils many roles with respect to ecosystem performance: essential habitat and food resources for wildlife corridors for movement of wildlife wildlife diversity stream bank stability filter mechanisms to limit sediment and other contaminants aesthetic and recreational benefits. Many cane farms lack bio-diversity, and indigenous vegetation has often been removed indiscriminately from marginal areas, wetlands, flood plains and rivers. Soil degradation Existing sugarcane production systems have caused soil degradation in a number of ways, but mainly through lack of adequate soil conservation measures, increased mechanisation causing compaction and the loss of soil fertility by depleting the organic matter in the soil. Non-farm issues The majority of sugar mills in South Africa are in the fortunate position of being away from built-up areas and not being situated in a formal industrial site. Despite this, the mill still needs to be aware of the negative impacts it generates on the environment. The magnitude of these impacts differs from area to area, and are associated with: discharge from the mill noise air pollution odours waste management cane spillage vehicle movement to and from the mill. International issues Environmental legislation around the world is developing fast, and is focusing on international conventions and legislation that encompasses all aspects of growing, producing and selling the product. The world s most popular definition of sustainable development is, development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations to meet their own needs. Concern for the environment is growing internationally and is affecting the way business is carried out. There is international consensus to implement principles and rules that halt degradation of the environment and encourage conservation of existing natural resources. Pressure to enforce environmental legislation is growing, with international focus regarding environmental issues being on: air pollution cane burning genetically modified organisms labour issues 4

5 fresh water use and contamination soil degradation. Challenges and strategy Acknowledgement of the environmental issues affecting the industry and taking the appropriate action to rectify the situation is all part of the challenge to continually improve and ensure ecologically sustainable development throughout the sugar industry. The major challenges facing the industry are: to ensure that partnerships exist between the miller and growers to promote a sustainable, profitable, environmentally aware industry to develop and implement sound environmental best practices for all aspects of the industry the upliftment and development of the small grower to become world leaders in environmental management for sugarcane and sugar production. The sugar industry needs to embark on a strategy that will promote positive environmental trends in sugarcane and sugar production. The strategy should include: the development of environmental expertise within the industry the development and implementation of an internationally recognised environment management system for sugarcane the compilation of an environmentally orientated publication promoting all aspects of sugarcane and sugar production including the growing, harvesting, processing and marketing of sugar promoting the positive impacts sugarcane has on the environment in publications outside the industry promoting environmental awareness in schools within the sugar belt development of recognised environmental education programmes for all levels of employees within the sugar industry sponsoring of education grants and bursaries in the environmental field. Summary Understanding how nature operates is fascinating and also very important, since the sugar industry s existence depends on nature running smoothly. When managed properly, sugarcane is an environmentally friendly crop in numerous ways. Many innovations are currently emerging in the sugar industry in terms of crop production, and it is an absolute necessity that the environmental effects of these practices are taken into account to avoid any degradation, be it miniscule. That the environment is under threat is a reality and it is just a matter of time before immense pressure is placed on the industry to comply with strict environmental regulations. Countless industries in the world are reacting positively to the environmental challenges they face and have developed, or are currently in the process of developing, strategies regarding environmental issues. 5

6 It is essential that the South African sugar industry takes note of current developments that are taking place globally in other industries, so that it may start implementing these environmental awareness farming challenges now. The sugar industry is one of South Africa s most important agriculture-based industries and it is therefore important that it reviews its past, examines the present and considers its future. It makes good business sense. The sugar industry, as a whole, needs to acknowledge the challenges it faces regarding environmental issues. As the end product is sugar, the miller needs to address these issues just as much as the grower, and they should be united in their approach. Bibliography Taylor J and Brodie J (2000). Environmental pressures and challenges for the sugar industry. Environmental short course for sustainable sugar production course manual. Co-operative Research Centre for Sustainable Sugar Production, Townsville, Australia. Sugar Cane Growers Co-operative of Florida (2000). General publication. Belle Glade, Florida, USA. Ireton KM (1999). International trends in environmental policy, legislation and regulations and the impact on the sugar industry. Proceedings of XXIII International Society of Sugar Cane Technologists, New Delhi, India. Hay D (1999). Trashing cane. A strategic and critical review of environmental management as it is practiced by the South African Cane Growers Association. Institute of Natural Resources Investigational Report IR 194. Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. Hay D (2000). Sowing the seed. South African Cane Growers Association environmental management programme Phase 1. Institute of Natural Resources Investigational Report IR 216. Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. 6

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