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Environmentalists Try Greening Cane Sugar

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica, Feb 2 (Reuters) - Environmental groups are working to set up labeling programs to certify green-friendly sugar in a bid to cut the pollution caused by this major cash crop.

Building on the success of certified coffee, bananas and other products, backers of certified sugar believe it will command higher prices from green-conscious consumers, offsetting higher production and shipping costs and possibly boosting earnings for farmers.

The common practice of burning cane fields before the harvest is the main target of environmentalists.

"The burning has to stop. It is an untenable practice," Chris Willie of the Rainforest Alliance in Costa Rica told Reuters last week.

Huge clouds of choking black smoke from burning canefields can be large enough to interfere with civil aviation in the region and in dry years, can reach the southern United States, triggering air quality alerts in major cities.

The Alliance is one of three nonprofit groups seeking to reduce cane-field burning by setting up a certified green sugar program, but farmers and laborers are reluctant to abandon the practice.

Cane growers deliberately set the fires to burn off the sugarcane's razor-sharp leaves that can slice through clothes and skin, before rural laborers enter the fields to cut down stalks with machetes.

Mechanizing sugar plantations would eliminate the need for the practice but at the cost of depriving thousands of rural workers of their livelihood.

"We know there are practical reasons for the burning and social repercussions when harvest machines replace workers. We need to fix one problem without creating another," Willie said.

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