It’s a big deal when you get the Minister of Finance, the person holding the purse strings for the entire country, to open a meeting. It’s an even bigger deal to have him announce that the country’s sugar industry, the backbone of the national economy, will thrive if it switches to producing organic sugar.
Thirty-four stakeholders gathered on April 12 and 13 to discuss the potential of the greening of Fiji’s sugar industry. The meeting, organized and hosted by The Fiji Organic Project and Sugar Research Institute of Fiji, and sponsored by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, was a landmark occasion in the history of sugar industry deliberations, as it brought together the most diverse array of constituents that has ever convened to discuss the future of Fiji’s sugar industry. Those constituents included environmentalists, tourism officials, NGO leaders, cane farmers, researchers, trade commissioners, academics, students, businesspeople, marine scientists, engineers, economists, doctors, and marketing specialists.
Fiji’s sugar industry is at a turning point in its century-long lifespan. Whereas Fiji used to enjoy preferential market access and subsidized prices for decades due to the Lome Convention and Cotonou Agreement, the industry will soon be forced to compete with the likes of Brazil and Australia, as the World Trade Organization has deemed the preferential prices are unlawful under the rules of free trade. Given its small land mass and lack of mechanization, Fiji will simply not be able to compete on the world market if it is forced to sell its sugar conventionally. What Fiji needs is a niche market.
Organic sugar cane production would promote environmental, cultural, and social sustainability for Fiji.
Organic can be that niche. As an industry with a growth rate averaging 20 percent since the 1990s, the demand for organic foods has expanded beyond most food manufacturers’ wildest dreams. In fact, there is such great demand for processed organic foods that companies often cannot source enough organic raw ingredients to make their finished products. Food processors hate it when that happens, because it means they can’t use the word “organic” on the label and are no longer able to fetch a premium price. With sugar a major ingredient of a large variety of products, from breakfast cereals to chocolate bars, there is an increasing demand for a plentiful supply of organic cane sugar.
What The Fiji Organic Project stresses is that transitioning to organic production would mean much more to Fiji than economic gain, though it would certainly bring that as well. Organic sugar cane production would also promote environmental, cultural, and social sustainability for Fiji.
Sugar has shaped Fiji’s history and remains a primary source of income for more than one-third of the rural population. The sugar cane industry dates back to the 1800s, when Indians were brought to Fiji as indentured laborers. The history of Fiji’s sugar industry created its present-day demography: nearly half of Fiji’s population are Indo-Fijians, Fiji Islanders of Indian descent. Family and social life has been built around the small cane farms. The social and cultural fabric of Fiji’s countryside is intricately interwoven with cane farming. If the sugar industry in Fiji crashes (as has been predicted if it stays on its current path), farmers will lose their land, their livelihoods, and their way of life.
At the two-day stakeholders’ meeting, Randy Thaman, professor of Pacific Island Biogeography, stressed that the sugar industry is worth much more to Fiji than the income it generates. Cane farming not only provides livelihoods, it also provides housing and food for much of Fiji’s rural community. Sugar cane is not the only thing grown on the farms that is vital to people’s health and livelihood, Thaman notes. Family gardens are filled with other crops and trees that are grown for food, medicine, religious practices, and aesthetic beauty. Take sugar cane out of the equation, and the people will no longer be able to stay on the land. Without the sugar cane industry in Fiji, there would not only be a large poverty and unemployment problem, there would also be a major housing crisis.
Thaman stressed the need to shift to sustainable methods of production to maintain the ecological balance of Fiji’s delicate island ecosystems. Fiji is a small island nation, so issues of water scarcity and marine pollution are of paramount importance. Run-off of synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides from agricultural areas into nearby rivers and streams presents serious environmental and public health problems and monocultural cultivation (i.e. growing a single crop, rather than a diversified cropping system) creates soil erosion and decreases biodiversity.
The environmental consequences of sugar cane production are not confined to the actual growing of the cane. Milling the sugar is one of the greatest contributors to environmental degradation in cane-growing areas. Due to the lack of environmental legislation in Fiji, sugar mills dump large quantities of wastewater into nearby waterways. These nitrogen-rich waste byproducts have been blamed for causing algal blooms that have triggered fish kills in rivers where the wastewater is discharged. Research Officer Rupeni Tamanikaiyaroi of the Sugar Research Institute of Fiji explained to constituents how mill mud, bagasse, and other mill waste byproducts could be used as fertilizer for the cane fields. In an organic production system, off-farm inputs are minimized, and waste is used productively as a source of fertility, mimicking nature’s cycles.
Manoa Malani, sustainable development officer at the Ministry of Tourism, had the difficult task of demonstrating the interconnectedness between sugar and tourism, two industries that have a history of competing with each other. While tourism now generates a greater percentage of Fiji’s GDP, more of “the sugar dollar” stays in Fiji, rather than ending up in the pockets of foreign investors and resort owners. Malani was able to show what sugar and tourism have in common, and the fact that the future of the tourism industry relies on the sugar industry changing its practices to become more sustainable.
Inia Valemei, a public health lecturer at the Fiji School of Medicine, highlighted the consequences of agrochemical usage on human health. While very little research has been done in Fiji to assess the effects of chemical pesticides, Valemei was able to point to one study in which research demonstrated that cane farmers who use agrochemicals have significantly higher rates of eye, skin, and respiratory problems than non-users. This presentation in particular was “news” to sugar industry officials, who were mostly unaware of this link between their agricultural practices and human health.
The overwhelmingly positive response to the meeting has created a sense of urgency with regards to pursuing the organic option for Fiji’s sugar. A task force of stakeholders has been commissioned to work with The Fiji Organic Project to create a strategic action plan for a transition to organic growing. The first phase will consist of implementing on-farm research trials of organic sugar cane production, and carrying out a feasibility study for a transition to organic.
Hemraj Mangal, officer-in-charge at the Sugar Research Institute of Fiji, concluded the meeting with these remarks: “I think we have all seen that there is both great potential and great need for Fiji’s sugar industry to go organic. It is time, then, to move forward with this initiative. We must create a sustainable future for Fiji.”
— Molly Rockamann is the founding director of The Fiji Organic Project.
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