I recently read this article on FoodPrint.org called "Searching for Ethical Sugar." It's a look into the source and sustainability of the sugars we use in drinks.
There is a lot of good information in it, so I encourage you to read it. I've pasted some highlights below, but the short answer is that it's a good idea to buy Fairtrade and/or Organic sugar.
Unlike these other crops, though, sugar — the stand-alone product as well as the ingredient — is lacking in traceability.
Even sugar that claims it was made in the USA may not have been grown within our borders; rather, it may have been imported in the form of raw cane sugar and merely refined here.
Thanks to this knowledge vacuum, you might never realize that the sugar you’re eating came from Brazil, for example, where some large-scale operations may clear-cut forest to make way for sugarcane plantations, displacing both indigenous people and wildlife.
This dearth of knowing “continues to put sugar farmers at risk for worse working conditions,” says Lew, because consumers might be unaware that these issues exist in the first place, let alone understand the need to advocate for ethical sugar.
Sugar that originates in the US — 70 percent of what we consume — is derived mostly from “Roundup Ready” GMO sugar beets, which are grown on large-scale, highly mechanized commodity operations in the Upper Midwest and on the West Coast. A slightly smaller amount (45 percent) comes from sugarcane plantations in Florida, Louisiana and, to a lesser degree, Texas. Most American-grown sugar turns up as an ingredient in commodity foods (cookies, cereals, soda, yogurt), as opposed to bags and boxes of granulated sugar.
Bjork advises scanning products to see if a brand mentions sourcing on its packaging: “Does it talk about origins, or what it’s doing with farmers to reduce impacts and support livelihoods?”
The Fairtrade label means that you’ll be eating sugar and sugar-containing products that are non-GMO — again, for the moment, that means cane sugar.
There are a number of organic bag sugar brands on the market: from Kirkland, Wholesome, even Florida Crystals. But even though soil health benefits here, laborers don’t necessarily, since the USDA organic standard does not include standards for workers. To that end, both Trader Joe’s and Tate and Lyle offer Fairtrade third-party-certified organic sugar that provides assurances of fair working conditions.
Let's try to remember this next time we shop for sugar to make our syrups!