An old map of the world with a pair of classes on top of it

History of sugar

History of sugar cane and sugar beet

Sugar Cane

Humans have been using sugar cane for over 10,000 years (1). However, sugar cane did not make its way to the Americas until 1492 with Christopher Columbus (1;2). Once there, settlers realised the potential to cultivate sugar cane in the better climatic conditions of the New World. Spanish colonisers joined suit and grew sugar cane across the Caribbean. By the 16th century, sugar cane had made it to Madeira, an Atlantic Island colonised by Portugal. It was here that sugar cane was first cultivated explicitly for large-scale refinement and trade. Later, the Portuguese moved their efforts to Brazil, due to its ideal climate for growing sugar cane. Not long after, sugar cane was taken to other countries such as Barbados and Haiti, by the French and British colonisers, and soon, refined sugar appeared in the diets of people in Western Europe.

Sugar Cane

Sugar Beet

Sugar beet’s usage as a food crop is more recent. It was not until the 18th century that German chemist Andreas Marggraf discovered that, like sugar cane, sugar beet roots contained a high percentage of sucrose (3). Just a few years later, Marggraf and his apprentice, opened the world’s first sugar beet factory in what is now Poland. At the time, sugar beets were less than 6% sucrose. Over many years of careful selective breeding by farmers, sugar beets have developed into the important energy-providing crop they are today, with over 18% sucrose.

sugar beet
Sugar cane and beet

Did you know?

Today, around 120 countries produce sugar from sugar cane or sugar beet (4). Sugar cane accounts for approximately 80% of global sugar production (5), whilst sugar beet accounts for around 20% of production (6).


  1. Hancock, J. Sugar & the Rise of the Plantation System. 2021.
  2. USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service Puerto Rico Field Office. History of Sugar Cane. 2019.
  3. Pathak, A.D., Srivastava, S., Misra, V., Mall, A.K., Srivastava, S. Evolution and History of Sugar Beet in the World: An Overview. In: Misra, V., Srivastava, S., Mall, A.K. (eds) Sugar Beet Cultivation, Management and Processing. 2022. Springer, Singapore. 
  4. FAO STAT. 2024. 
  5. OECD FAO. Agricultural Outlook 2023-2032. 2023. 
  6. European Commission. Crop Productions and Plant Based Products – Sugar. 2019.