Monday, 11 July 2011

Honey versus Sugar: What is More Environmentally Friendly?

This summer I decided to cook, as much as possible, with ingredients provided by local farmers. This goal required replacing some ingredients I have long treated as cooking staples. One of those is sugar. By sugar I mean ‘cane sugar’, which you might know as: granulated sugar, white sugar, brown sugar, or raw cane sugar, among other names. Although there are many alternatives to cane sugar, honey is a sure-fire find at North American farmers markets. This begs the question, how do the environmental impacts compare between sugar and honey production?
The Basics:
Honey available for purchase at the store or market is produced by bees.  These insects make honey after gathering flower nectar.
Cane sugar is produced from a large tropical grass called sugarcane.  This is the same plant that is used to produce molasses, rum, ethanol, and cacha├ža.

Environmental Costs of Production:
1) Travel Costs: Sugar out-travels honey. Although sugar may be refined in North America, we import most of our sugar from the tropics, primarily South and Central America, Australia, and the Caribbean (some exceptions may occur in the southern United States). Increased travel means increased energy expenditure, in particular fossil fuels. Although you’d have to ask your local farmer for information specific to you, the honey I purchased this week travelled only about 8 kilometers (5 miles). For those of you who can’t find a local honey farmer, make sure to check the label of the honey you purchase at the grocery store.  Most store-bought honey is a mixture of honey from many different countries and may have traveled more than you have!
2) Farming: Sugar production is labor intensive and sugarcane fields are a very inefficient way of using the tropical landscape. Sugarcane demands more pesticides, fertilizers and, most importantly, more water than most other crops. For example, in India’s Mararashtra State, sugarcane is cultivated on only 3% of the land but consumes 80% of the irrigation water used for all crops combined (Shiva 2002). And, India is one of the world’s largest producers of sugar. Farming local honey, on the other hand, requires little space and is also beneficial for surrounding ecosystems.  Honey is either a byproduct of our cultivated crops or comes from unmanaged wildflowers. For example, California almonds depend strictly on bees for pollination.  Interestingly, many Canadian farmers use bees that collect honey from alfalfa or clover plants. Because these wildflowers are also natural soil fertilizers, this means honey production can reduce the need for conventional fertilizers (which are derived from fossil-fuels). 
So far the score is Honey 2, Sugar 0.

3) Processing: Honey has no refining step. It is simply spun out of the frames on your right and then bottled. In comparison, sugarcane is cut (often manually), and transported to an extractor where sugar juice is squeezed out of the plant. At this point it goes through multiple refining steps, such as evaporation, boiling, bleaching (to get white sugar) etc. This processing requires large amounts of heated water and fossil fuels. This means the white granulated sugar on your table has probably originated in a farm in the south - such as Brazil or Cuba – has been sprayed with pesticides, drenched in water, harvested and processed (more water and fuel) and has travelled to a refinery in North America where it is processed again and bleached. All of this energy loss, and I haven’t yet touched upon where all the waste goes during this whole process. 

A superficial look at the environmental impacts of sweeteners shows that honey beats sugar hands down. In my quest to make the switch, I am pleased to report that there have been no failed recipes by replacing sugar with honey. Honey is sweeter than sugar, so my rule of thumb in cooking is to use half as much honey as you would sugar.
I acknowledge that honey is more expensive than refined sugar. But, if it is in your budget, I think it is well worth it to support talented farmers such as Ben, the 82 years-young Beekeeper that produced the honey I purchased last week. By buying local honey, not only are you supporting the few people dedicated to working with these amazing insects, you are also conserving water, reducing CO2 emissions, and preventing more pesticide use and land-clearing in the tropics.

This blog is only just the beginning of many questions related to sweeteners. I have only touched on the social, environmental, and health benefits of beekeeping or the reality of sugarcane expansion in the tropics. Also, I hope to provide some tips from my Winnipeg family, who were avid bee farmers. By the end, some of you may even be motivated to integrate bees into your farms or gardens!

From my time spent in Costa Rica, I must admit I have more experience talking about production of sugar from sugarcane than I do with honey. Although I’ve learned a great deal in my recent switch to local honey, I do welcome any additional comments!

Shiva, V. 2002. Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution and Profit. South End Press, Cambridge, MA. Pp. 10.


  1. Great blog! It got me to thinking...

    After reading this blog I decided to check the origin of my honey. I discovered that even though it comes from Superstore and is Presidents Choice Organic Brand, it comes from the land down under. Quite a far distance to travel to my granola and yogurt.

    I bought this brand because of the fancy new spout that is 'sticky honey mess free'. Funny enough I first noticed this type of lid in Australia when I was living there. I think it's humourous that all it took to convince me was a lid that I was in a way, "trained" to enjoy in Australia. Perhaps it's just a funny coincidence or a nostalgic thrill, but it still seems quite interesting to me. I mean, I know that President's Choice is copying the Australian model but did they have to go as far as putting Australian Honey in the bottle as well? When have copycats ever been so accurate?

    On a different note, I have recently heard that bumble bees are under threat due to environmental factors and (I think) another type of insect, maybe even a bee type is taking over. I'm not exactly sure about that last bit but one thing is for sure. If we lose the bumble bee, we are in big, big trouble. What do you think Liv? Have you heard anything about this topic?

  2. Thanks for your comment and question.

    It is surprising to think with all that Canadian honey out there we find ourselves confronted from products from Australia in the supermarket. Raw unprocessed honey (found at farmers markets) is thought to keep for a long period of time. So if you want to buy local, you may consider stalking up at the farmers market to last through the winter!

    What you are hearing about bumblebee declines is indeed startling. Understanding bumblebee declines in complicated and it is likely the result of multiple interacting factors. From what I’ve read, important factors include habitat loss, fragmentation, and/or land transformation. These changes have important consequences for bumblebees, such as: a decline of wildflowers, a decrease in suitable nesting sites, an increased exposure to pesticides, as well as exposure to disease and parasites, which may originate from exotic bees (often used in greenhouse pollination).

    Similarly, many of these factors are also affecting the honey bee. If you are interested in reading more, in an upcoming blog I’ll post more detailed info about the disappearance of the honey bee.

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