The market environment for Fairtrade sugar has been difficult following the abolition of EU sugar quotas, and increased competition from beet sugar produced in the European Union. Despite this, sales of Fairtrade certified sugar continued to grow during 2015-2016 reaching a total of 166,560 MT. Thanks to this sustained growth, Fairtrade sugar farmers reaped over €9.7 million (or US$10.7 million) in Fairtrade Premium funds in 2016.
But the challenges for Fairtrade sugar persist and new strategies are needed so that sugarcane farmers can continue to benefit from their participation in Fairtrade.
At the end of 2016, there were 101 Fairtrade-certified sugar producer organizations in 19 countries across three continents. In many – particularly island states like Fiji, Mauritius and Jamaica, as well as Belize in Central America – sugar is the backbone of the economy and provides large-scale employment. Fairtrade helps bring stability to the sugarcane sector by supporting the relationship between farmers and millers, and through sales made under Fairtrade conditions.
Through its Standards and strategic Premium projects, Fairtrade is recognized as an agent for change by producers and the sugar industry itself. Both elements enable farmer organizations to produce more sugar cane more efficiently and – crucially – more sustainably.
Fiji is a good example of how sugar farmers are investing their Premium to improve competitiveness. Since Fairtrade certification in 2011, covering all sugarcane growers in the country, sugarcane yields (MT/ha) have risen by 27.5 percent, while the land under sugarcane cultivation has fallen by almost 10 percent. Producers have replanted sugarcane fields; bought mechanical harvesters, improved roads and set up a fertilizer subsidy programme among other initiatives.
Fairtrade has also made changes to the Cane Sugar Standard. Now producers must report on indicators like yield, use of inputs, and water management. (A manual explains how those figures can support their efforts to be more competitive). Already, producers from Paraguay have been able to show how they’ve used such data to make more strategic decisions on sustainable cane sugar production in their country.
Fairtrade Premium funds are also used for social purposes in the wider community. In Malawi, cooperatives have invested in drinking water boreholes; a clinic and a maize mill, and brought electricity to a number of villages.
Environmental protection projects are another area of focus. In Costa Rica, the CoopeAgri sugar and coffee producer organization has been managing the Peñas Blancas River basin protection programme with Fairtrade Premium funds since 2006. Other initiatives include the reforestation of 342 hectares; the planting of 200,000 trees along the river, and the production of 93,000 quintals of organic fertilizer from the by-products of sugar cane and coffee.
The EU decision to abolish quotas on beet sugar production from October 2017 is leading to rising competition between cane sugar producers in developing countries and beet sugar producers in the EU. The market for Fairtrade sugar must keep growing so that sugar farmers can continue to invest in their future.
We’re looking at tapping into emerging markets such as India and South Africa and into local and regional markets in the South. In addition, the Fairtrade Sourced Ingredients (FSI) framework for sugar is expected to encourage more commercial partners to source Fairtrade sugar on a long-term basis.
Ferrero is one of the first companies to source sugar under FSI conditions. This framework enables Fairtrade, in collaboration with companies, to develop tailor-made field programmes, which take into account the challenges and needs of producers and the sector.
We’re also studying diversification options for Fairtrade sugarcane farmers. These include a new partnership with the Roundtable for Sustainable Biomaterials. It’s assessing the potential for sugarcane farmers to access by-product supply chains such as sustainable bio-fuels, bio-plastics and bio-chemicals.
Top image: Workers weeding out the sugar cane field at Fairtrade certified CoopeAgri cooperative, Costa Rica. Image © James Rodriguez
 European Commission, ‘The end of EU sugar production quotas’. Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/agriculture/sugar/doc/factsheet-end-sugar-quota_en.pdf.
 Fairtrade International (2015, October 1), Fairtrade Standard to Cane Sugar, Available at: https://www.fairtrade.net/fileadmin/user_upload/content/2009/standards/documents/Cane_Sugar_SPO_EN.pdf.