Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business


sugar cane sector decides to lay down ground rules

June 2007

Sugar cane growers, processors and food companies are to draw up social and environmental ‘principles and criteria’ with a view to reducing the industry’s impact.

The move has partly been driven by the prospect of sugar cane becoming a key source of biofuel, potentially leading to a large increase in production and significant social impacts.

The principles have already been stated in ‘illustrative’ form by the Better Sugarcane Initiative, an alliance of companies, non-governmental organizations and other interested parties. British Sugar, Cadbury Schweppes, Cargill, Coca-Cola and Tate & Lyle are among companies involved, with wage levels, labour standards, child labour, pesticide use, habitat protection and accident reduction listed as priority areas.

The draft principles, which also stress the need for joint action to restore degraded land and support local communities, will be developed by technical working teams and will lead to social and environmental performance indicators for use by companies and investors ‘as sourcing and investment screens’ and by producers to improve their business practices. Members will consult with interested parties before agreeing the principles.

Robert Quirk, chairman of the initiative’s steering committee, said: ‘The proposed performance levels will be what many producers are already doing in key production areas such as southern Brazil, Australia and parts of Africa. The goal is not to exclude or leave producers behind but to find ways to help and encourage them to reduce their impacts while improving their overall profitability.’

Sugar industry veteran David Willers was appointed program manager last month to move things forward. Willers, formerly the overseas representative of the South African Sugar Association, takes over from Richard Perkins of the environment network WWF, who had been co-ordinating efforts on a part-time basis.

Causes of concern about the environmental impact of sugar cane production include its large demand for water and the effect of monoculture on flora and fauna. On the social side, jobs in sugar cane production are among the most hazardous in agriculture, and there are worries about lack of worker representation, working conditions on some plantations, and, in some countries, child labour. Human Rights Watch says that child labour is ‘pervasive’ on sugar cane plantations in El Salvador, and has also been found on farms in the Philippines.

Most of the problems are at field level, but the 2000 mills and distilleries around the world are also seen as ‘a pivotal point of engagement’, because processors, who buy sugar cane from the fields, can influence the behaviour of sugar cane farmers.

BP and Shell, both interested in the potential of biofuels, have participated in some meetings of the initiative, although they are not members. Others involved include WWF, which has provided the main administrative support, and the International Finance Corporation.

Sugar cane is the source of over three-quarters of the world’s sugar and more and more of it is also being grown for bioethanol.

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