Global Market Report: Sugar cane prices and sustainability

This report explores recent market trends in the sugar cane sector, what these trends mean for producers in developing countries, and what sustainability standards, governments, and private sector actors can do to improve farmers' incomes. 

By Vivek Voora, Steffany Bermúdez, Han Le, Cristina Larrea, Erika Luna on September 12, 2023
  • Cultivating and processing sugar cane provides livelihoods for over 100 million people in 120 countries, particularly in Brazil, Thailand, India, and South Africa. But, many sugar cane farmers live in poverty.

  • In 2019, at least 136 million tonnes of sugar cane produced by >37,000 farmers complied with sustainability standards such as @Bonsucro or @FAIRTRADE-representing ~8% of global production.

  • In 2019, sugar cane producers in Brazil, India, and Thailand who complied with @FAIRTRADE may have received prices up to 13% higher when receiving premiums—rising to 20% higher when also Organic certified.

Sugar cane is an ancient agricultural commodity that has been sustaining sugar cravings across the globe for thousands of years. Today, over 80% of sugar cane is converted into cane sugar and used as a sweetener for a wide variety of food and drinks. The remaining 20% is converted into biofuel, as it’s one of the most efficient crops at converting sunlight into energy.

Sugar cane is considered one of the most valuable agricultural commodities in the world. As a result, cultivating and processing sugar cane provides livelihoods for more than 100 million people in 120 countries. However, the value of sugar is much higher than the value of the cane from which it is produced. Low farm gate prices, coupled with high production costs and intense competition, mean that many smallholder farmers in developing countries live in poverty.

These farmers must also grapple with various sustainability challenges, including crop losses caused by climate change, pests and diseases, biodiversity loss, and water depletion. In recent years, they have had to cope with additional challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing global economic uncertainty, such as drops in demand and soaring fertilizer and labour costs.

Voluntary sustainability standards (VSSs) such as Bonsucro and ProTerra Foundation have been working to overcome some of these challenges in the sugar cane sector for more than 10 years. These VSSs set sustainability requirements for sugar cane farmers and mills to meet in exchange for certifying their product as VSS-compliant and gaining market recognition. Today, nearly 8% of sugar cane produced complies with one of these VSSs.

However, it is unclear whether VSSs in the sugar cane sector have a significant impact on farmers’ incomes and livelihoods. There is some evidence to suggest that VSS-compliant farmers may receive higher prices when they receive premiums for their produce, but a lack of demand for sustainable cane sugar means that often, VSS-compliant sugar is not sold as such—and, thus, without a premium.

Heavy regulations in major producing and consuming countries and the complexity of the sugar cane value chain make it difficult for industry stakeholders acting alone to have a meaningful impact. This report provides recommendations for how governments, private sector actors, and standard-setting bodies can work together to make sugar cane production fairer and more sustainable.