Is regular sugar greener than high-fructose corn syrup?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
May 19 2009 11:59 AM

May Cause Earth Decay

Is regular sugar greener than high-fructose corn syrup?

A can of soda.
Is high-fructose corn syrup bad for the planet?

A colleague of yours recently debunked the idea that regular sugar is necessarily healthier than high-fructose corn syrup. But what about the health of the planet? Corn needs a lot of processing before it can sweeten my soda, but then again, sugar doesn't exactly sprinkle down from the skies. So which one is more environmentally friendly?

It's true: King Corn is as much a bogeyman for the eco-conscious as the health-conscious. The crop gets a bad rap because it's so ubiquitous—thanks to aggressive farm subsidies, 27 percent of America's farm acres (PDF) are currently devoted to corn, with soybeans and wheat running a close second and third. According to anti-corn crusader Michael Pollan, modern corn hybrids require more pesticides and more fertilizers than any other food crop; this not only requires major inputs of fossil fuels but also causes significant groundwater pollution.

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But it's not entirely fair to lay all of that at the sticky feet of high-fructose corn syrup, as the maligned sweetener accounts for only about 5 percent of America's total grain corn production. (That figure rises to about 7 percent when you count other corn sweeteners.) We use a whole lot more corn for fuel alcohol (36 percent in 2008) and animal feed (roughly 50 percent), so if you're concerned about the impact the metastasizing industry is having on the planet, HFCS in your soft drinks and cupcakes may not be the most effective target.

Of course, even at just 5 percent of the overall crop, we're still talking about a lot of farmland: Nearly 4 million acres' worth of grain corn became HFCS in 2008. Compare that with the 1 million acres planted with sugar beets and 872,000 with sugar cane, the two crops that produce the sucrose we generically refer to as "sugar."

Thanks to protectionist trade policies, most of the table sugar we eat in the United States is domestically produced. Organic sugar is an exception—most of that comes from Brazil, Argentina, or Paraguay. Depending on where you live, that could mean a significantly longer farm-to-table journey, even compared with domestic, Hawaiian-grown sugar cane.

Even local cane and beet productions don't have great reputations with environmentalists. First of all, like rice and cotton, sugar cane is a very thirsty crop; according to the World Wildlife Fund, it takes 750 to 5,000 gallons of water (PDF) to grow a single acre of sugar cane. The WWF also blames both beets and cane for significant soil erosion (PDF) problems.

In 2007, an Australian sugar cane industry group compared the environmental impacts of growing Australian cane, U.K. beets, and American corn. The study was designed to assess the crops' viability as ethanol feedstocks, but the findings shed some light on our sweetener quandary. The products analyzed were 1 kilogram of sugar, in clarified juice form, from both cane and beets, and 1 kilogram of simple sugar syrup from cornstarch.

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