Sustainable Tobacco Production

Published
, 13 minute read

Quick summary: Explore the world of Sustainable Tobacco Production in our insightful blog. Learn about challenges, technological solutions, and best practices that pave the way for environmentally conscious and socially responsible tobacco cultivation. Delve into the complexities of sustainable agriculture in the tobacco industry.

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In the realm of agriculture, the discourse on sustainability has extended its roots to unexpected crops, and one such notable contender is tobacco. Sustainable tobacco production represents a paradigm shift in an industry often associated with environmental concerns. This evolving approach strives to balance the economic interests of tobacco farmers with the imperative of preserving ecosystems and promoting ethical practices.  

The resources and land needed to grow tobacco relies on the use of scarce land and the clearing of forests. Research found that the global production of six trillion cigarettes in 2014 used 4 million hectares of arable land. 

As the agricultural landscape undergoes transformation, exploring sustainable alternatives for traditionally contentious crops becomes imperative, and sustainable tobacco cultivation emerges as a crucial focal point in this global conversation. This exploration delves into the principles, practices, and implications of sustainable tobacco cultivation, shedding light on the industry’s journey toward a more environmentally conscious and socially responsible future. 

What is Sustainable Tobacco Production? 

Sustainable Tobacco Production is the efficient production of quality tobacco under conditions that limit the negative impact to the environment, in a way that improves the socio-economic conditions of the people and their communities. This is initiative developed in collaboration with other manufacturers to bring together the best practices from across the industry and drive continuous improvement. 

The importance of sustainable practices in tobacco cultivation lies in mitigating environmental impact, promoting ethical farming, and ensuring economic viability. Sustainable approaches, such as agroforestry and organic farming, reduce soil degradation and chemical usage, safeguarding ecosystems. Ethical considerations involve fair labor practices, improving working conditions, and supporting local communities. Economically, sustainable practices contribute to the long-term resilience of the tobacco industry by fostering efficiency and meeting evolving consumer demands for responsibly sourced products. 

The global tobacco industry is a significant economic sector characterized by the cultivation, manufacturing, and distribution of tobacco products. Dominated by a few major multinational corporations, it faces challenges due to shifting consumer preferences, increasing health awareness, and regulatory measures aimed at curbing tobacco use.  

The Brundtland report stated “Sustainable Development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The three pillars being: 

  • Environment: No exploitation of Nature 
  • Economy: Society should not live beyond its resources. 
  • Society: Social, gender and generational Justice 

Tobacco is a good example to show how the different goals are interlinked and that their achievement needs a holistic approach. 

Environmental Impact of Tobacco Farming 

The use of limited land and forest clearing are necessary to provide the land and resources required to cultivate tobacco. 

Worldwide an estimated 1.5 billion hectares of tropical forests have been lost worldwide since the 1970s, contributing to 20 % of annual greenhouse gas increases. 

Most of this tobacco is shipped after being grown on limited land in nations where there is a shortage of food. To cure the tobacco leaves, a lot of wood is also used. “Flu” curing is a quick method of curing tobacco leaves by heating the air with wood or coal burning. For this reason, an estimated 50 million trees are felled each year. Even though there are more cost-effective ways to cure tobacco leaves, growers might not be able to afford to use them. 

In addition to the health hazards associated with pesticide use, tobacco producers are vulnerable to a condition known as green tobacco sickness (GTS). When someone comes into contact with wet tobacco leaves, their skin absorbs nicotine, which causes Generalized Toxin Syndrome (GTS). Headaches, nausea, vomiting, weakness, light-headedness, and cramping are some of the symptoms. The sickness affected 8% to 89% of tobacco farmers on a seasonal basis. Children whose labour is heavily utilized in tobacco cultivation are more likely to be affected by 14 GTS because, in addition to their smaller stature, they do not yet have the necessary nicotine resistance to shield them from these adverse effects. 

A tobacco worker who plants, cultivates, and harvests tobacco may absorb as much nicotine as found in 50 cigarettes per day, the World Health Organization states. When tobacco is grown, exposure to moist tobacco leaves can result in nicotine poisoning, commonly referred to as green tobacco sickness. The use of pesticides and other agrochemicals poses a risk to workers growing tobacco. Researchers discovered that symptoms of pesticide toxicity were present in 66% of tobacco workers. 

Sustainable Agricultural Techniques 

Organic farming practices prioritize sustainable and environmentally friendly cultivation methods. These include avoiding synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, promoting crop rotation, and emphasizing soil health through composting and cover cropping. Organic farming aims to reduce environmental impact, enhance biodiversity, and produce food in a more ecologically responsible manner. 

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is a holistic approach to pest control that combines biological, cultural, mechanical, and chemical strategies. It aims to minimize the impact of pests while ensuring sustainable and environmentally friendly agriculture. IPM involves monitoring and identifying pests, using natural predators, implementing crop rotation, and applying pesticides only when necessary. This approach promotes ecological balance, reduces reliance on chemical inputs, and helps farmers manage pests in a more integrated and effective manner. 

Crop rotation and diversification are agricultural practices that involve alternating or varying the types of crops grown on a particular piece of land. Crop rotation helps improve soil health, prevent pest and disease buildup, and enhance nutrient cycling. Diversification involves growing different crops in the same area to mitigate risks associated with a single crop, promote biodiversity, and improve resilience to environmental changes. These practices contribute to sustainable agriculture by promoting soil fertility, reducing reliance on chemical inputs, and fostering a more balanced and resilient farming system. 

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Social Responsibility in Tobacco Farming: 

Labor practices and fair wages in agriculture are essential components of ethical and sustainable farming. Ensuring humane working conditions, fair compensation, and adherence to labor laws contribute to the well-being of farmworkers. Ethical considerations involve addressing issues such as child labor, discrimination, and providing workers with proper safety measures. Fair wages not only improve the livelihoods of agricultural workers but also contribute to the overall sustainability of the farming industry by fostering social equity and supporting local communities. 

Community engagement and empowerment in agriculture involve fostering collaboration, providing resources, and ensuring the active participation of local communities. This approach promotes sustainable development by addressing community needs, integrating local knowledge into decision-making, and supporting initiatives that enhance social and economic well-being. In agriculture, community engagement ensures that farming practices are culturally sensitive, environmentally sound, and contribute to the overall resilience and prosperity of the community. 

Post-consumer waste: 

With 4.5 trillion thrown each year, cigarette butts are the most littered item on Earth. They usually make up between 30% and 40% of the items gathered during yearly coastal or urban clean-ups, making them the second most commonly littered item on beaches and in waterways worldwide. They contaminate the environment by leaching substances like nicotine, ethyl phenol, and even heavy metals in water. When people leave their spent cigarette butts on sidewalks, streets, and the surrounding environment, they might not think about how the non-biodegradable plastic filters they use could contaminate rivers, oceans, and beaches—that is, if wildlife doesn’t consume them first.  Cigarette butts can poison or strangle animals when they ingest them and contaminate water. Even one cigarette butt per litre of water can be lethal to fish.  

Research published by the Truth Initiative shows that the chemicals that leached from a single cigarette butt (soaked for 24 hours in a litre of water) released enough toxins to kill 50% of the saltwater and freshwater fish exposed to it for 96 hours. 

About British American Tobacco (BAT) 

In the sphere of agriculture, supply chains face a multitude of challenges, and the tobacco industry is no stranger to these complexities. At BAT (British American Tobacco), commitment to sustainability extends beyond our products to the very core of our supply chain – the farmers. Collaborating directly with farmers globally, BAT has cultivated a rich history of advancing agricultural practices. This not only ensures the quality of the tobacco leaf but also contributes to the well-being and success of farmers. BAT’s focus revolves around two pivotal programs: the Sustainable Tobacco Programme, which rigorously assesses suppliers against international standards, and Thrive, a holistic initiative addressing long-term challenges for enhanced farmer livelihoods and sustainable agriculture. BAT believes in forging multi-stakeholder solutions, aligning with international standards, and nurturing collaborative approaches to secure the future of the tobacco supply chain and uplift farming communities. 

Challenges for Sustainable Tobacco Production 

  • Sustainable tobacco production faces several challenges that demand strategic solutions to address environmental, social, and economic concerns. One major challenge revolves around the environmental impact of traditional tobacco farming practices, including deforestation, heavy pesticide use, and soil degradation. Balancing the demand for tobacco with preserving biodiversity and ecosystem health poses a significant hurdle. 
  • Social challenges involve issues such as child labor, as the tobacco industry has historically faced criticism for exploitative practices in some regions. Ensuring fair labor practices, workers’ rights, and community development become critical aspects of sustainable tobacco production. 
  • Economically, farmers may face challenges in transitioning from conventional to sustainable practices, which often require upfront investments. Securing access to sustainable farming inputs, adopting eco-friendly technologies, and coping with potential yield variations during the transition can be hurdles. 

Adopting innovative and sustainable agricultural practices, engaging in fair labor initiatives, and providing support for farmers during the transition are essential steps to overcome these challenges and establish a more sustainable tobacco production model. 

Technology Solutions for Sustainable Tobacco Production 

In sustainable tobacco production, technological solutions play a pivotal role in addressing challenges and fostering environmentally friendly and socially responsible practices. These solutions encompass various aspects of the tobacco cultivation process, aiming to enhance efficiency, reduce environmental impact, and improve the well-being of farming communities. Advanced precision agriculture technologies, including data-driven decision-making tools, IoT (Internet of Things) sensors, and drones, empower farmers to optimize resource use, monitor crop health, and respond promptly to potential issues. Sustainable practices are further supported by innovations such as eco-friendly pest control methods, water conservation technologies, and alternative curing processes. Additionally, blockchain and traceability technologies contribute to transparency in the supply chain, ensuring the provenance of sustainably produced tobacco. By embracing these technological solutions, the tobacco industry can align with sustainability goals, mitigate environmental impact, and promote the well-being of both farmers and the planet. 

Digital tools for monitoring and reporting in agriculture involve the use of technology to track and analyze various aspects of farm operations. These tools include sensor-based systems, satellite imagery, and mobile applications. Farmers can monitor crop health, weather conditions, and resource usage in real-time, enabling informed decision-making. Additionally, these digital tools facilitate accurate reporting for compliance, certifications, and supply chain transparency. By enhancing data-driven insights, these technologies contribute to more efficient, sustainable, and transparent agricultural practices. 

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Certification Programs and Standards: 

Sustainable certification for tobacco involves adherence to environmentally and socially responsible practices in the tobacco industry. Certification programs, such as the Sustainable Tobacco Program (STP), focus on criteria related to soil management, water use, biodiversity conservation, and fair labor practices. These certifications aim to promote sustainable farming, reduce environmental impact, and ensure ethical standards in tobacco cultivation, processing, and distribution. Certified sustainable tobacco reflects a commitment to responsible practices within an industry that faces increasing scrutiny for its environmental and health impacts. 

Compliance with global sustainability standards is imperative for industries seeking to address environmental and social concerns. These standards, such as those set by organizations like the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) or the Rainforest Alliance, provide guidelines for responsible business practices. Adherence to these standards ensures that companies meet environmental, social, and governance criteria, fostering transparency and accountability. It not only aligns businesses with global sustainability goals but also enhances their reputation, attracts environmentally conscious consumers, and contributes to a more sustainable and ethical global economy. 

TraceX Solutions 

TraceX’s blockchain-powered traceability solutions provide a comprehensive toolkit to monitor, verify, and promote sustainable practices in the tobacco supply chain, addressing environmental, social, and economic challenges. Blockchain ensures end-to-end traceability, allowing every stage of tobacco production to be recorded transparently and securely. This helps in identifying and verifying the origin of tobacco products. By utilizing blockchain, TraceX enables the recording of labor practices, ensuring that social compliance standards are met. This helps in preventing and addressing issues like child labor. It allows for the monitoring of sustainable agricultural practices, ensuring that farmers adhere to environmentally friendly methods. This includes tracking the use of pesticides, deforestation, and soil health. The real-time monitoring capabilities of TraceX enhance supply chain efficiency, reducing delays and ensuring that sustainable products reach the market promptly. The immutability of blockchain records ensures the integrity and security of data. This builds trust among stakeholders, including consumers, regarding the authenticity of sustainable tobacco products. Blockchain enables consumers to access detailed information about the tobacco products they purchase, empowering them to make informed choices that align with sustainability values.

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Future Outlook 

Emerging trends in sustainable tobacco cultivation include a focus on agroecological practices, reducing chemical inputs, and promoting biodiversity. Sustainable certifications, like the Sustainable Tobacco Program (STP), emphasize environmental conservation, water management, and fair labor standards. There is a growing awareness within the tobacco industry about the need for responsible cultivation methods that address environmental concerns and align with changing consumer preferences for sustainably sourced products. These trends signal a shift towards more environmentally friendly and socially responsible practices in tobacco farming. 

Stakeholders play a crucial role in shaping the industry’s sustainable future by influencing policies, fostering collaboration, and driving consumer awareness. Governments can implement regulations promoting sustainable practices, businesses can adopt eco-friendly approaches, and consumers can make choices that prioritize ethical products. NGOs and industry associations facilitate dialogue and initiatives for sustainable development. The collective efforts of all stakeholders contribute to a more responsible and resilient industry, aligning economic prosperity with environmental and social responsibility. 

Conclusion 

In conclusion, achieving sustainability in agriculture demands collaborative efforts from farmers, governments, businesses, and consumers. Implementing eco-friendly practices, adopting technology, and promoting ethical standards are essential for a resilient and responsible industry. Balancing economic interests with environmental and social considerations is key to ensuring a sustainable future for agriculture, benefiting both current and future generations. 

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