Sugar can be produced from two different raw materials, sugar beet and sugar cane. In Europe, sugar is manufactured from both, and the two models have co-existed since the early 1800s. A competing sweetener, isogulcose, manufactured from cereals, now also plays a role in the European sugar market.
Sugarcane is a giant grass which stores sugar in its stalk, predominantly growing in tropical and subtropical regions due to its need for sufficient sunlight and rainfall. In contrast, sugar beet predominantly grows in colder regions.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), sugarcane is the world's largest crop. In 2012 it was cultivated across roughly 26.0 million hectares, in more than 90 countries, with a worldwide harvest of 1.83 billion tons. Brazil is the largest producer of sugarcane in the world followed by India, China, Thailand, Pakistan and Mexico.
Sugarcane accounts for 80% of the sugar produced in the world; the majority of the remaining 20% is made from sugar beet. In Europe, however, the situation is the opposite: currently, cane sugar accounts for 15-20% of the supply whilst beet sugar production covers 80-85%.
Since raw sugarcane cannot be produced in the EU, it is always imported from third countries in the framework of preferential trading relationships. Raw sugarcane is processed by refineries in Europe contributing to the EU’s sugar production mix.