Sustainable development

Mustafa is a Research Data Analyst at the Center on Food Security and the Environment, where he supports Marshall Burke's work on estimating the impacts of environmental degradation on social and health outcomes. He has previously led a research project investigating the impact of Cleft Lip and Palate and CLP surgeries on the life outcomes of adolescent patients in India. Most recently, he worked as a Data Analyst on projects surrounding Medicare delivery. He holds a BA in International Studies and an MS in International and Development Economics from the University of San Francisco.

Research Data Analyst

Jessica is a Research Data Analyst at the Center on Food Security and the Environment, where she supports Marshall Burke’s work on poverty and environmental issues using satellite imagery. She has previously worked as a Research Assistant at Columbia University and as a Health Equity Fellow at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She holds a BA in Economics from Sciences Po and a BA in Economics-Philosophy from Columbia University.

Research Data Analyst, Center on Food Security and the Environment
Danielle Torrent Tucker, Stanford School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences
News Type

Generations of political support for sugar cultivation have helped India become the second-largest producer of sugar worldwide. Now, the country’s commitment to renewable energy could create additional benefits, like conserving natural resources and providing better nutrition to the poor.

Stanford researchers conducted the first comprehensive analysis of India’s sugar industry and its impact on water, food and energy resources through the lens of its political economy – that is, how entrenched political interests in sugar production threaten food, water and energy security over time. The results show that a national biofuel policy encouraging production of ethanol made directly from sugarcane juice may make India’s water and energy resources more sustainable. Using sugarcane juice instead of molasses would also free up land and irrigation water for growing nutrient-rich foods. The research was published July 24 in Environmental Research Letters.

“There are spillover effects between sectors, unintended consequences,” said co-author Rosamond Naylor, a food security expert and the William Wrigley Professor in Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth). “It’s very instructive to think about the connection between food, water and energy because the solution may not be in the sector you’re focusing on.”

Moving toward renewables

Somewhat analogous to the corn industry in the U.S., which has shifted about 40 percent of its output to ethanol production in recent years, policymakers in India – many of whom benefit financially from the sugar industry – are currently exploring how to use sugarcane to increase energy independence and shift toward renewable energy use.

The Indian government has set a goal to increase the ethanol-to-gasoline blending rate from its current rate of about 6 percent to 20 percent by 2030 and introduced several policies to promote production of ethanol from sugarcane. The increased blending rate is a “desirable goal for improved energy security,” the researchers write. However, its effects on human health and the environment will largely depend on which sugar product ends up being the main feedstock: juice extracted from crushed sugarcane, or molasses, a by-product from sugar processing.

Figure showing irrigation water use of Indian sugar
Meeting E20 by 2030: additional sugarcane, water and land resources needed, and extra sugar produced. Meeting the 20% ethanol-to-gasoline blending rate by 2030 with ethanol produced from molasses would require additional water and land resources and produce extra sugar. In contrast, ethanol produced from sugarcane juice could meet the blending target without risking water and land resources and would reduce extra sugar. (Image credit: Lee et al. / Environmental Research Letters)

India’s national policy on biofuels only recently began allowing use of sugarcane juice in ethanol production, in addition to molasses.

“If the energy industry continues to use molasses as the bioethanol feedstock to meet its target, it would require additional water and land resources and result in the production of extra sugar,” said co-author Anjuli Jain Figueroa, a postdoctoral researcher in Earth system science. “In contrast, if the industry used the sugarcane juice to produce ethanol, the target could be met without requiring additional water and land beyond current levels.”

Using sugarcane juice to create ethanol could also help alleviate government spending to subsidize sugar and sell it below cost in its public distribution system.

Entrenched incentives

The public distribution system of sugar in India dates to the 1950s, when frequent famines plagued the country. Back then, sugar helped to meet basic calorie requirements. But today – with micronutrient deficiency leading to illness, disabilities and even death – the Indian government is more concerned with nutrition.

“In India right now, even poor populations have met their basic calorie needs,” said Naylor, who is also a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. “They have been able to buy sugar at subsidized prices, but meanwhile they don’t have access to adequate protein and micronutrients for cognitive growth and for physical well-being.”

Figure showing micronutrient content and calories of crops
Micronutrient content and calories of sugar and selected crops. Sugar provides empty calories with no nutritional value. (Image credit: Lee et al. / Environmental Research Letters)

Sugarcane cultivation in India has expanded in part because of policies that incentivize production, including a minimum price, guaranteed sales of sugarcane and public distribution of sugar. These regulations have become entrenched over many generations, making the crop highly profitable to the 6 million farmers in the country, but the empty-calorie crop reduces the amount of resources available for micronutrient-rich foods. 

“Using scarce natural resources to produce a crop that doesn’t fulfill nutritional needs for the second most populated country in the world can place pressure on the global food system if more and more food imports are required to meet the rising demand in India,” Naylor said.

Balancing act

The researchers focused their analysis on Maharashtra in western India, one of the country’s largest sugarcane-producing states. Sugarcane cultivation in Maharashtra has increased sevenfold in the past 50 years to become the dominant user of irrigation water. The study found that in 2010-11, sugarcane occupied only 4 percent of Maharashtra’s total cropped areas but used 61 percent of the state’s irrigation water. Meanwhile, irrigation for other nutritious food crops remained lower than the national averages.

Figure showing irrigation water use of major crops in Maharashtra
Irrigation water use by major crops or crop groups in Maharashtra from 1970–71 to 2010–11. In Maharashtra, irrigation water use by sugarcane has increased more rapidly than any other crop over time, and sugarcane has used the highest share of total irrigation water in all time periods. (Image credit: Lee et al. / Environmental Research Letters)

“Irrigation of sugarcane in our study region is about four times that of all other crops and has doubled from 2000 to 2010. This resulted in about a 50 percent reduction of river flow over that period,” said co-author Steven Gorelick, the Cyrus Fisher Tolman Professor at Stanford Earth. “Given that this region is susceptible to significant drought, future water management is likely to be quite challenging.”

As part of continued efforts to examine the Indian sugar industry and its impacts, lead author Ju Young Lee, a PhD student in Earth system science, also developed satellite imagery analyses to identify sugarcane from space.

“Despite the importance of sugarcane in the water, food and energy sectors in India, there are no reliable sugarcane maps for recent years and in time series,” Lee said. “Using remote sensing data, I am developing current time-series sugarcane maps in Maharashtra – an important step forward.”


The researchers worked with stakeholders in India, including NGOs, academics and government officials, to focus the goals of the project. The research is part of Food Water Energy for Urban Sustainable Environments (FUSE), an international consortium supported in part by the National Science Foundation through the Belmont Forum to address competition for scarce resources in stressed urban food-water-energy systems – including the impacts of climate variability.

Naylor is also a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and a professor, by courtesy, of economics. Gorelick is also lead principal investigator of FUSE and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

The research was supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation.

Lead author with a group of farmers in Indian sugar field
Lead study author Ju Young Lee, center, is pictured with local farmers and agricultural experts while visiting a sugarcane field in Maharashtra in western India in August 2018. (Image courtesy of Ju Young Lee)

All News button

Researchers analyzed the interconnected food, water and energy challenges that arise from the sugar industry in India – the second-largest producer of sugar worldwide – and how the political economy drives those challenges.


Join us for a talk with agricultural and development economist Christopher B. Barrett, this quarter’s visiting scholar with the Center on Food Security and the Environment. Barrett is the Stephen B. and Janice G. Ashley Professor of Applied Economics and Management and an International Professor of Agriculture with Cornell’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management.

Professor Barrett will discuss food systems advances over the past 50 years that have promoted unprecedented reduction globally in poverty and hunger, averted considerable deforestation, and broadly improved lives, livelihoods and environments in much of the world. He’ll share perspectives on the reasons why, despite those advances, those systems increasingly fail large communities in environmental, health, and increasingly in economic terms and appear ill-suited to cope with inevitable further changes in climate, incomes, and population over the coming 50 years. Barrett will explore the new generation of innovations underway that must overcome a host of scientific and socioeconomic obstacles.
Also a Professor of Economics in the Department of Economics, Barrett is co-editor in chief of the journal Food Policy, is a faculty fellow with David R. Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and serves as the director of the Stimulating Agriculture and Rural Transformation (StART) Initiative housed at the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development.

News Type

By monitoring crops through machine learning and satellite data, Stanford scientists have found farms that till the soil less can increase yields of corn and soybeans and improve the health of the soil – a win-win for meeting growing food needs worldwide.

Agriculture degrades over 24 million acres of fertile soil every year, raising concerns about meeting the rising global demand for food. But a simple farming practice born from the 1930’s Dust Bowl could provide a solution, according to new Stanford research. The study, published Dec. 6 in Environmental Research Letters, shows that Midwest farmers who reduced how much they overturned the soil – known as tilling – increased corn and soybean yields while also nurturing healthier soils and lowering production costs.

“Reduced tillage is a win-win for agriculture across the Corn Belt,” said study lead author Jillian Deines, a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford’s Center on Food Security and the Environment. “Worries that it can hurt crop yields have prevented some farmers from switching practices, but we found it typically leads to increased yields.”

The U.S. – the largest producer of corn and soybeans worldwide – grows a majority of these two crops in the Midwest. Farmers plucked about 367 million metric tons of corn and 108 million metric tons of soybeans from American soil this past growing season, providing key food, oil, feedstock, ethanol and export value.

Monitoring farming from space

Farmers generally till the soil prior to planting corn or soybeans – a practice known to control weeds, mix nutrients, break up compacted dirt and ultimately increase food production over the short term. However, over time this method degrades soil. A 2015 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations found that in the past 40 years the world has lost a third of food-producing land to diminished soil. The demise of once fertile land poses a serious challenge for food production, especially with mounting pressures on agriculture to feed a growing global population.

In contrast, reduced tillage – also known as conservation tillage – promotes healthier soil management, reduces erosion and runoff and improves water retention and drainage. It involves leaving the previous year’s crop residue (such as corn stalks) on the ground when planting the next crop, with little or no mechanical tillage. The practice is used globally on over 370 million acres, mostly in South America, Oceania and North America. However, many farmers fear the method could reduce yields and profits. Past studies of yield effects have been limited to local experiments, often at research stations, that don’t fully reflect production-scale practices.

The Stanford team turned to machine learning and satellite datasets to address this knowledge gap. First, they identified areas of reduced and conventional tilling from previously published data outlining annual U.S. practices for 2005 to 2016. Using satellite-based crop yield models – which take into account variables such as climate and crop life-cycles – they also reviewed corn and soybean yields during this time. To quantify the impact of reduced tillage on crop yields, the researchers trained a comput

(Image credit: Jillian Deines)
Average impacts on corn yields from conservation tillage across the U.S. Corn Belt from 2008 to 2017. Red colors indicate increased yields under conservation tillage, blue colors indicate yield declines.
er model to compare changes in yields based on tillage practice. They also recorded elements such as soil type and weather to help determine which conditions had a larger influence on harvests.

Improved yields

The researchers calculated corn yields improved an average of 3.3 percent and soybeans by 0.74 percent across fields managed with long-term conservation tillage practices in the nine states sampled. Yields from the additional tonnage rank in the top 15 worldwide for both crops. For corn, this totals approximately 11 million additional metric tons matching the 2018 country output of South Africa, Indonesia, Russia or Nigeria. For soybeans, the added 800,000 metric tons ranks in between Indonesia and South Africa’s country totals.

Some areas experienced up to an 8.1 percent increase for corn and 5.8 percent for soybeans. In other fields, negative yields of 1.3 percent for corn and 4.7 for soybeans occurred. Water within the soil and seasonal temperatures were the most influential factors in yield differences, especially in drier, warmer regions. Wet conditions were also found favorable to crops except during the early season where water-logged soils benefit from conventional tillage that in turn dries and aerates.

“Figuring out when and where reduced tillage works best could help maximize the benefits of the technology and guide farmers into the future,” said study senior author David Lobell, a professor of Earth system science in the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences and the Gloria and Richard Kushel Director of the Center on Food Security and the Environment.

It takes time to see the benefits from reduced tillage, as it works best under continuous implementation. According to the researchers’ calculations, corn farmers won’t see the full benefits for the first 11 years, and soybeans take twice as long for full yields to materialize. However, the approach also results in lower costs due to reduced need for labor, fuel and farming equipment while also sustaining fertile lands for continuous food production. The study does show a small positive gain even during the first year of implementation, with higher gains accruing over time as soil health improves. According to a 2017 Agricultural Censuses report, farmers appear to be getting on board with the long-term investment and close to 35 percent of cropland in the U.S. is now managed with reduced tillage.

“One of the big challenges in agriculture is achieving the best crop yields today without comprising future production. This research demonstrates that reduced tillage can be a solution for long-term crop productivity,” Deines said.

To read all stories about Stanford science, subscribe to the biweekly Stanford Science Digest.

David Lobell is also the William Wrigley Senior Fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy and Research. Graduate student Sherrie Wang is also a co-author. Research was funded by NASA Harvest.

All News button
Subscribe to Sustainable development