Sam Maphumulo

Pre-harvest burning has become problematic for surrounding communities where ash from cane burning has not only become a nuisance, but has purported to worsen respiratory problems during the cane burning season, according to some residents. 

The South African sugar industry burns approximately 90% of its crop at harvest while 10% of the industry practices green-cane harvesting. The industry receives cane burning complaints annually, however, these complaints have now been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, a respiratory syndrome that is known to affect the respiratory system.

Why does industry burns most of its sugarcane? It is easier and cheaper to harvest, appears to increase cane quality, reduces transport costs and increases efficiency at the mills. However, cane burning should be reduced where possible because of significant yield and other benefits such as improved soil protection and soil health associated with harvesting greencane. The industry implements measures to mitigate the impact of cane burning on its surrounding areas as described in the Codes of Burning Practice. 

The Codes of Burning Practice provide a way for growers to comply with legislation that regulates burning namely, the National Veld and Forest Fire Act, No. 101 of 1998 and the Conservation of Agricultural Resources Act, No. 43 of 1983. These codes differ by region but all have the same goal of minimising atmospheric pollution, preventing runaway fires and ensuring that farmers are well equipped in the event of such, minimising smut deposits from cane fires in residential or otherwise sensitive areas, and preventing heat and smoke from being blown across public roads or affecting power lines.

Guidelines from the South African Sugarcane Research Institute (SASRI) are also available to encourage responsible burning or to assist with decisions on whether to burn or green cane harvest. These are available as Information Sheets 4.7 and 4.8 from the knowledge hub on the SASRI website –

Adhering to the Codes of Burning Practice reduces the impact of cane burning, reducing complaints from surrounding communities, thereby avoiding the likelihood that the regulatory authorities might apply even more stringent measures on cane burning.

Sam Maphumulo is a Sustainability Officer at SASA