By Diane Huntrods, AgMRC, Iowa State University, and Vikram Koundinya, graduate student, Iowa State University.
Updated August 2018.
Sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum) is a tropical grass native to Asia where it has been grown for over 4,000 years. By 400 BC, methods for manufacturing sugar from sugarcane had been developed in India. Europeans were introduced to sugar during the Crusades. By the 11th century AD, sugar was being imported throughout Europe. Christopher Columbus likely brought the plant to the West Indies. Today, over 75 percent of the world's sugar comes from sugarcane.
Sugarcane was one of the first "cash crops" of early colonial America. It grew plentifully in the southern states and was a major source of income for many plantations. High labor costs in the United States led to the industry's rapid conversion to mechanical harvesting in the early 1990s.
Sugarcane is grown primarily in the tropics and subtropics. In the United States, sugarcane is grown commercially in Florida, Louisiana, Hawaii and Texas. Cane for sugar was 31.1 million tons in 2017. In 2016, cane for sugar was valued at more than $960 million (NASS).
Florida, the top producing state, produced more than 16.9 million tons of sugarcane for sugar in 2016. That same year, Louisiana produced more than 12.4 million tons of sugarcane. Texas and Hawaii also produce more than one million tons annually. (NASS)
Consumption and Industrial Use
After peaking in 1972 at 102 pounds per person, the use of sugar (both cane and beet) in domestic food and beverage industries had declined to a low of 60 pounds per person by 1986. In following years, per person sugar use by these industries fluctuated between 61 and 66 pounds. By 2016, according to USDA sources, Americans consumed 69.7 pounds of refined sugar per person. In contrast, Americans consumed 41.4 pounds of corn-derived sweeteners (ERS).
Sugar deliveries to food manufacturers generally constitute a major portion of refined sugar deliveries. Of those industries, baking and cereal industries are generally the largest end users of sugar followed by confectionery makers.
The process of separating sugar from the sugarcane plant is accomplished through two steps: sugar mill crushing and sugar refinery extraction. Sugarcane is initially processed into raw sugar at mills near the cane fields. Because cane is bulky and relatively expensive to transport, it must be processed as soon as possible to minimize sugar deterioration. The raw sugar is then shipped to refineries to produce refined sugar. The final products of refining include powdered, granulated and brown sugar, which is sugar that contains some molasses.
The number of sugarcane mills has steadily declined. In 2005, 21 cane sugar millers remained in business, with a combined milling capacity of 293,930 tons daily. With 13 mills, Louisiana had a daily milling capacity of 164,630 tons. Florida had five operating mills, Hawaii had two mills and Texas had one.
As of 2005, eight sugarcane refineries operated in the United States, dominated by the Domino Sugar Corporation and the Imperial Sugar Company. Dominos' three plants are located in Louisiana, Maryland and New York. Imperial operates plants in Georgia and in Louisiana. Florida's sugarcane is refined by two companies: U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals Corporation. The other refinery, located in California, is C&H, which has the largest capacity of any U.S. sugarcane refinery. It can process 3,400 tons of raw sugar each day. Four refineries have closed in the last decade. Thirty years ago, there were over twenty in operation.
The type of sugar produced by sugarcane is called sucrose. It is used as a sweetening agent for foods and in the manufacture of cakes, candies, preservatives, soft drinks, alcohol and numerous other foods.
This thick, dark liquid remains when the sugar has been removed from the boiled cane juice. It is used primarily as animal feed but can also be sold as syrup, to flavor rum and other foods or as an additive for ethyl alcohol.
Bagasse (baa gas)
After the juice has been extracted from the sugarcane stalk, this plant material remains. While generally burned as fuel for the mills, it could be used as a feedstock for ethanol production.
The increased demand for ethanol has generated interest in using U.S. sugarcane as a feedstock for producing the fuel. Sugarcane, which produces a large amount of biomass per acre in the form of bagasse and cane stalks and leaves, would be a viable feedstock for the cellulosic conversion of biomass into ethanol. Instead of having to first convert the sugarcane to sugar juice, ethanol could be produced by processing the entire plant.
With unique transportation circumstances and a declining sugarcane industry, Hawaii is aiming to become the first state with a sizable sugar ethanol industry. Hawaii state law now requires that at least 10 percent of all gasoline sold in the state be blended with ethanol.
In the United States, the Clewiston Sugar Factory in Clewiston, Florida, is powered by bagasse. In Brazil, sugar and ethanol plants produce electricity by burning bagasse and cane straw in boilers to produce steam that generates power. Currently, the plants generate about 1,800 megawatts in surplus electricity, or about 3 percent of the country’s overall needs. According to UNICA (the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association), the sugarcane industry could generate an average of 15,000 megawatts by 2020, or enough to supply up to 15 percent of Brazil’s total electricity needs.
U.S. sugar processors and producers face increasing import competition. No duties or restraints remain in effect for either Mexican sugar shipments to the United States or U.S. high-fructose corn syrup shipments to Mexico. In addition, Mexico's over-quota tariff on U.S. sugar was eliminated, as required by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Sugar imports will likely increase as a result of other free trade agreements, such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement/Dominican Republic (CAFTA/DR), which like NAFTA, allows sugar to enter the United States duty free.
Analysis by the Sugar and Sweeteners Team of USDA’s Economic Research Service suggests that the U.S. market will continue to depend on refined sugar imports from Mexico and Central America to meet demand.
Crop Production Annual Summary, National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), USDA.
The Economic Feasibility of Ethanol Production from Sugar in the United States, USDA and Louisiana State University, 2006.
Sugar and Sweeteners Outlook, Economic Research Service (ERS), USDA.
Sugar and Sweeteners Yearbook Tables, ERS, USDA.
Sugar Backgrounder, ERS, USDA, 2007.
Developed June 2008. Updated August 2018.