Geography of Sugar

Sugar is produced in over 120 countries from either sugar cane or sugar beet. Approximately 80% of sugar is produced from sugar cane, and the remaining from sugar beet. These two sources require different climatic conditions and grow best in different areas throughout the world. The granulated sugar extracted from either cane or beets however is the exact same: pure sucrose. 

  • Growing Sugar Cane. Sugar cane is a tropical type of grass, grown in countries near the equator.
  • Growing Sugar Beets. Sugar beets are a root crop grown in more moderate climates.

Growing Sugar Cane

Map of average regional sugarcane output

Sugar cane is a tropical plant, and can only be cultivated in countries near the equator or in areas where there are average temperatures of 24°C (75°F), combined with strong sunshine and either heavy seasonal rainfall or plentiful supplies of water for irrigation. Major cane sugar regions include Brazil, India, China, Thailand, Australia, South Africa, Mexico and Guatemala.

Sugar cane is a type of grass with a bamboo-like jointed stem that grows up to five metres in height and five centimetres in diameter. Sugar cane is cultivated on large farms called plantations. In general, sugar cane is harvested in the cooler months in each hemisphere. Sugar cane cannot be stored after harvest, and must therefore be transported quickly to nearby processing mills to minimize deterioration.

Sugar cane field

When cane is harvested, it has a sugar content of approximately 14% by weight, depending on variety of cane and geographical location. Sugar content also varies from season to season.

Growing Sugar Beets

Map of average regional sugar beet output

Sugar beets are a root crop, which are successfully grown in many areas of the world, including Asia, Europe, and North America. They are able to be grown in these moderate climates due to their ability to tolerate frost. Although sugar beets have previously been grown in Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba, the only remaining producers of sugar beets in Canada are in Alberta and Ontario. In Canada, sugar beet seeds are typically planted at the end of April and the root is harvested in September of the same year.

Cultivation techniques and material inputs must be adapted to the climate and soil types of the region. For example,

  • The land must have little stone content.
  • Maximum yields are obtained only when spacing between rows and seeds are optimized.
  • Sugar beets require approximately 50 centimetres of water over the growing season and are very sensitive to moisture levels. Irrigating crops too much can reduce the sugar content of the beets, and under irrigating can result in a lower harvest.
  • It is also important that the correct types of fertilizers be applied at an appropriate rate to ensure good yields.

When mature, a sugar beet is an off-white colour, and looks similar to a turnip. In southern Alberta, the sucrose content is almost 19% by weight, depending on the variety. Like sugar cane, sugar content can also vary from year to year and in different geographical locations. For example, sucrose content of sugar beets in Europe is closer to 18% due to climate differences.

Sugar beets being harvested in the field

For more information, additional resources include: