How do you define green? Every act by humankind has an impact on the Earth, including every plot cultivated in the 10,000-year history of agriculture. However, in the years after World War II, chemical fertilizers, made from nonrenewable petroleum and pesticides came into wide use to cultivate single crops on the same land — monoculture. It’s a farming practice that depletes soil nutrients and leaves chemical residue in the field, which spreads to watersheds through agricultural runoff. Some crops require intensive irrigation, depleting water resources. Insect, bird and animal habitats are destroyed.
In the 1990s and in this decade, genetically modified crops became more widespread. Environmentalsts argue that GMO crops present at least two problems: Their pollen may escape the fields, contaminating other non-GMO crops, and the cultivation of GMO crops engineered to tolerate herbicide may create super weeds. GMO advocates say the genetic modification allows them to use a smaller amount of pesticides on their crops, which they consider a net environmental gain.
When it comes to sweeteners, processing and transportation also use resources and cause pollution. Here is how sweeteners stack up:
Hands down, honey is the most eco-friendy. As Bruce Boynton, CEO of the National Honey Board in Firestone puts it: “Each jar is the product of million of hardworking bees. They gather nectar from the flowers, bring it back to the hive and make it into honey.” How big a role do hu´ mans play? An extremely minor one, says Craig Gerbore, president of Madhava in Longmont. “The only process is straining out extraneous parts, a little wax. Sometimes a couple bees get in there.” Honey bonus: bees play a crucial role as pollinators. Up to three-quarters of staple crops are bee-pollinated. Buy local honey raw and unfiltered to cut transport costs.
Maple syrup comes from a natural, renewable source. Energy is used in heating the sap of sugar maple trees to form a syrup and in bottling, but the process is simple and without artificial chemicals. For those of us who don’t live in New England, shipping the syrup is a resources issue.
Agave nectar is often used in natural foods restaurants and stores, yet it is a manufactured product, as are all sweeteners with the exception of honey. Energy is required in the manufacturing process.
“(Agave) is a product made by man and not by bees,” says Craig Gerbore, president of Madhava, which bottles and distributes agave nationwide.
By law, agave nectar is required to have only 55 percent agave, so the rest may be corn syrup, with the potential eco-complications of corn (see entry on high fructose corn syrup) Madhava’s agave nectar is 100 percent agave and certified organic, as are some others, which means pesticides are not used in growing.
Blue agave, which is also used in tequila production, is farmed in Mexico. It takes seven to eight years for an agave plant to mature. Gerbore says the plants send up shoots or “babies,” which smaller farming operations leave to grow into a new plant. Larger operations cultivate agave by planting rows of seedlings.
Ryan Zinn, the national campaign coordinator for the Organic Consumers Association, a nonprofit that advocates on health and sustainability issues, says agave’s long maturity calls into question its renewability, especially if agave were to be harvested on large scale as a sweetener.
“(The harvesting) of agave is a one-shot deal. It can have a high impact,” Zinn says.
Gerbore says agave can grow on different types of lands and has been grown for many years. Madhava’s agave is manufactured in Mexico and shipped here. The boosts the local economy in Mexico, but the transport from Mexico uses resources. Buying organic assures pesticides will not be used.
Organic cane sugar
All sugars are refined to some extent, requiring the use of resources. Several raw sugars are made from evaporating the juice of sugar cane using a heat process, after slaked lime has been added to help clarify the cane juice.
Zinn of the Organic Consumers Association describes all sugar as “a highly mechanized crop.”
However, organic sugar is raised without pesticides, making it less damaging to sensitive habitats. Several organic sugars are also certified as Fair Trade, which means they’re more likely to use smaller-scale growers lessening habitat damage. Some companies do not burn their sugar cane after harvest, a common practice in conventional sugar cane growing.
However, Zinn says, even organically grown sugar cane is generally still a mono-crop, which depletes soils, even if they are organically enhanced rather than with chemical fertilizers. Some growers are working on creating polyculture environments for growing sugar, but that is not widespread, Zinn says.
Most organic sugar cane is grown in other countries such as Costa Rica or Brazil, meaning that the sugar must be transported.
Still, Zinn says, “It’s great that we’re seeing an alternative (to conventional sugar.)”