Hydro-social and environmental impacts of sugarcane production on land use and food security

Lead Research Organisation: Cranfield University
Department Name: School of Water, Energy and Environment


Globally, the area of sugarcane is rising in response to growing demand for bioethanol and increased demand for sugar for domestic consumption due to increased prosperity and socio-economic development. In some countries, these changes in land use are happening through conversion of existing agricultural land used for subsistence; whilst in other areas there has been extensive displacement of native vegetation for new cane cultivation. In both cases, this trend towards large-scale industrial mono-cropping is likely to have major impacts on land-use, agro-ecology, food security and ecosystem services. There are also concerns regarding the impact of climate change on land use and food security with rainfall variability putting increased pressure on yields; it is also likely to create greater uncertainty on the viability of rainfed cane production and thus increase water demand for irrigation.

The aim of this project is to launch an international programme to foster trans-disciplinary science, networking and community building. The focus will be on understanding the hydro-social and environmental impacts, benefits and trade-offs that arise through the continued expansion of cane production, and its broader consequences global food security. The project will focus on Brazil, India and South Africa, where agriculture is an important cornerstone of the economy, a basis of economic growth and a significant source of livelihood. It is also a sector under pressure to improve resource efficiency and increase resilience to future climate uncertainty.

The project involves researchers from the UK, the USA, India, Brazil, South Africa and Australia and will encourage a more trans-disciplinary and holistic approach integrating agronomic, climatic, environmental and socio-economic knowledge. The consortium has expertise in agricultural systems, land use modelling, social science, climate impact assessment, rural resource economics, GIS, remote sensing and spatial modeling for decision-making.

Planned Impact

We recognise the importance of maximising research impact and the need to embrace a range of innovative measures for knowledge transfer. The THESIS project will have an impact plan to maximise the dissemination and uptake of its outputs to the international research community, as well as to stakeholders, including policy makers involved in agricultural development and the impacts of sugarcane expansion on land use change and food security. The community and capacity building activities will be targeted to specific countries where sugarcane production constitutes a significant component of land use; where agricultural and development pressures on natural resources (land and water) are acute; and where opportunities for supporting knowledge transfer, building research capacity and strengthening the research skills base exist. The principal aim of this project is to bring together a group of researchers, with industry, NGO's and other stakeholders to foster closer multi- and trans-disciplinary subject integration. The relatively short timeframe for this networking and community building activity means that effective user engagement from the outset will be paramount.

The project partners are already well connected with a number of nationally and internationally important organisations, including CGIAR; the Future Agricultures Consortium a DFID-funded initiative supporting an Africa-based alliance of research organisations to improve agricultural policy and practice in Africa; FACCE JPI MACSUR Knowledge Hub, a JPI initiative on Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change committed to building an integrated European research area to address the interconnected challenges of sustainable agriculture, food security and impacts of climate change; CCAFS, a research program that aims to address the challenges of global warming and food security on agricultural practices, policies and measures through a strategic collaboration between all CGIAR research centres and Future Earth; and other national scale institutions including, for example, the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association (UNICA) and Bon Sucro who will be invaluable for end-user engagement. All these will provide a double role - offering important links for end user engagement and providing an effective route for output dissemination.

The project will also use innovative approaches including blogs with each work package committing to produce 2 or 3 blogs. Other channels for dissemination include webcasts on the project website. There will also be a variety of opportunities for delivering technical meeting and/or conference presentations, and for writing science papers for submission to relevant journals, including Open Access journals.

Beneficiaries of the community building project:
In addition to building an international researcher network, the project will impact on two groups of non-academic beneficiaries (i) local partners and organisations in each region (Brazil, India, S. Africa) and (ii) other regional and national organisations with interests in land use and food security. Local partners should benefit enormously from this community building project via direct involvement in the stakeholder workshop, but also from the inevitable raising of awareness that will accrue as a result regarding knowledge of the issues facing sugarcane expansion on land use and food security. The stakeholder workshop will provide a mechanism for discussing and capturing the issues from key informants, and sharing experiences from other regions nationally and internationally. Although the project is focused on Brazil, India and S. Africa, the agricultural and socio-economic landscapes represented by these countries are considered representative of other regions globally where cane is grown. This project will therefore provide valuable new insights, evidence and approaches of much wider relevance to a range of regional and national and international organisations and/or businesses.


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Description Globally, the area of sugarcane is rising rapidly in response to growing demands for bioethanol and increased sugar demand for human consumption. Despite considerable diversity in production systems and contexts, sugarcane is a particularly "high impact" crop with significant positive and negative environmental and socio-economic impacts. Our analysis is focused on Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), which is a critical region for continued expansion, due to its high production potential, low cost of production and proximity, and access, to European markets. Drawing on a systematic review of scientific evidence, combined with information from key informants, stakeholders and a research-industry workshop, we critically assess the impacts of sugarcane development on water, soil and air quality, employment, food security and human health. Our analysis shows that sugarcane production is, in general, neither explicitly good nor bad, sustainable nor unsustainable. The impacts of expansion of sugarcane production on the environment and society depend on the local context, quality of scheme, nature of the production system and farm management. Despite threats from climate change and forthcoming changes in the trade relationship with the European Union, agricultural development policies are driving national and international interest and investment in sugarcane in SSA, with expansion likely to play an important role in sustainable development in the region. Our findings will help guide researchers and policy makers with new insights in understanding the situated environmental and social impacts associated with alternative sugar economy models, production technologies and qualities of management.
Exploitation Route Land use planning in Africa.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Communities and Social Services/Policy,Environment

Description Belmont Forum showcase event 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact The showcase connected Belmont Forum researchers to UK government MPs, stakeholders and chief scientific advisors to celebrate the impacts of funded activities in addressing environmental and climate change issues. THESIS was one of a few shortlisted projects that are of particular interest to UK government officials in showcasing the connectivity between science, policy and society.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description What does the future hold for sustainability in the sugarcane sector in India? 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Third sector organisations
Results and Impact A multi-stakeholder policy consultation webinar to discuss and deliberate on the opportunities and challenges facing the sustainable sugarcane sector transformation in India held on 29 January 2021.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021