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Water-Food-Energy Challenges under the Political Economy of the Sugar Industry in India

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Ju Young Lee, Stanford, CA, United States, Rosamond Lee Naylor, Stanford Earth Sciences, Stanford, CA, United States and Steven M. Gorelick, Stanford Univ, Stanford, CA, United States

December 2019 American Geophysical Union meeting, San Francisco, California 

India’s 2019 devastating drought brings into focus Maharashtra, the leading sugar producing state. Sugarcane is the state’s biggest water user and plays a major role in the food and energy sectors. Analyzing official government data and existing literature from various disciplines, we assess the water-food-energy challenges stemming from the sugar industry. These particular challenges have a long history owing to political support for the sugar industry dating back to the 1930s. For decades, the sugar industry has benefitted from economic supports to producers and consumers. Here we discuss four consequences of Maharashtra’s sugar support policies for water-food-energy security in the state and nation. First, as sugarcane has become the most profitable and secure crop for farmers in Maharashtra, sugarcane area has expanded and irrigation water use for sugarcane has increased. This has intensified competition for water within the agricultural sector and between the agricultural and domestic sectors in the state. Second, while more nutritious crops are left under-irrigated, sugarcane provides high income to farmers producing “empty- calorie” white sugar with consequences for human health. Specifically, sugar consumption negatively fuels India’s current food security challenges of micronutrient deficiency and the country’s emerging epidemic of diabetes. Third, low-nutrition white sugar has been historically subsidized by the government to boost sugar demand of the nation’s poor. Fourth, recently sugarcane-based ethanol production has tied together the food and energy economies by reducing surplus sugar and providing extra revenue to sugar mills. Ultimately the growth of sugarcane-based ethanol production could further stress water and land resources in Maharashtra. Together these and other considerations of political economy in Maharashtra provide major constraints on the ability of future policies to improve sustainability of the coupled water-food-energy system.