In the 2019/2020 crop year, global sugar production was approximately 166.18 million metric tons, with 182 million metric tons expected for 2020/2021. Approximately 80% of the world's sugar is produced from sugar cane in tropical and subtropical climates. The remaining 20% comes from sugar beets, which are grown mostly in the temperate zones of the Northern Hemisphere. A total of over 120 countries produce sugar.

Key Takeaways

  • In the 2019–2020 crop year, global sugar production was approximately 166.18 million metric tons, with 182 million metric tons expected for 2020–2021.
  • The largest sugar-producing countries in 2019–2020 were Brazil, India, the EU, China, and Thailand.
  • Brazil was the single largest producer, with 29.93 million metric tons of sugar produced in 2019–2020.

The largest sugar-producing countries were as follows:

1. Brazil

Brazil regained its historical place as the world's largest sugar producer from India during the 2019–2020 crop year. The country produced 29.93 million metric tons of sugar. Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) forecasts that Brazil's sugar production will increase by over 40% to more than 42 million tons during 2020–2021.

This massive increase in sugar production will be achieved by shifting a substantial fraction of Brazil's sugar cane crop from ethanol production to sugar production. In addition to being the world's largest sugar producer, Brazil is second only to the United States in ethanol production. Since the mid-1990s, the volume of sugar cane harvested and processed in Brazil has almost tripled. That reflects the rising demand for sugar cane ethanol and renewable fuels in general. With no drop in food production over that time, Brazil has proved its viability as an effective and efficient ethanol powerhouse.

Countries with more land, warmer temperatures, and more rain tend to produce more sugar.

2. India

India fell back to second place in sugar production during 2019–2020, narrowly losing the top spot to Brazil. India's economy produced 28.9 million metric tons of sugar. That is about 17% of the world's total sugar production of 166.18 million metric tons. India's sugar production is down from 2018/2019. However, the country expects sugar production to rise by 17% for 2020/2021. What is more, domestic consumption of sugar in India is forecast to hit a new record of 28.5 million tons.

3. The EU

Although it is a political and economic collection of individual countries instead of a single nation, the European Union (EU) is the third-largest producer of sugar. In the 2019/2020 crop year, the EU produced 17.25 million metric tons of sugar. It is actually the world's largest producer of beet sugar, which makes up 20% of the world's total sugar production.

Beet sugar is primarily produced in northern Europe, including northern France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and Poland. Sugar production in the EU is projected to decline again during the 2020–2021 crop year, dropping to 16.1 million tons. Drought and the beet yellow virus disease contributed significantly to the decline of European sugar production.

4. China

China produced 10.2 million metric tons of sugar in 2019–2020. Although China is one of the world's largest sugar producers, it is a net importer of sugar. Its demand for sugar has grown significantly during the past few decades. Historically, there has been a large gap between domestic prices held high by the Chinese government to support farmers and falling international sugar prices.

The Chinese domestic sugar sector has had difficulty competing internationally. It has higher production costs for sugar than foreign competitors. China allows for 1.95 million tons of sugar imports a year at a tariff of 15% due to an agreement with the World Trade Organization. Imports beyond that amount are subject to higher tariffs of 50% and require extra permits.

In 2017 and several subsequent years, China added additional amounts to that 50%. In 2019–2020, the total tariff for imports over the allowed quota was 85% or even 95%. The tariffs expired in May 2020, and China did not renew them, so they returned to 50%.

5. Thailand

Sugar cane is one of Thailand's most important crops. The country produced almost 8.25 million metric tons of sugar during the 2019/2020 crop year. Not only is Thailand the fifth-largest sugar producer in the world, but it is also a large sugar exporter, with most of the nation's sugar going to exports.

For the 2020–2021 crop year, sugar production for Thailand is forecast to decline slightly to 7.9 million tons. Production is down primarily due to droughts. Domestic Thai sugar consumption is expected to increase, further reducing the country's export earnings from sugar.