Guest essay: Sugar- “Capitalism’s Favoured Child”

Guest essay: Sugar- “Capitalism’s Favoured Child”

In this guest essay historian and sugar expert (and Chair of our recent conferenceRon Noon unearths some uncomfortable truths about “capitalism’s favourite child”…

The real story of sugar from a nutritional and ethical perspective, whether it comes from the historic cane that sways in the exotic Antillees or the ugly mangel wurzel sugar beet in wet Fenland England, is Sweet FA! It is an “empty calorie” shorn of any other nutrients, but achingly addictive and a perfectly legal drug for millions to be hooked on. The granules are manufactured in “temples of applied science” and not in mother nature’s laboratories, which photosynthesise using solar energy to combine carbon dioxide and water into sugar stored as starch. The highly chemicalised refining process launders and purges the raw sugar to ensure that nearly all of the nutrients that accompany sucrose, (the technical term for this simple carbohydrate), are lost or taken out, leaving nothing but calories. This is a salutary warning to health conscious consumers who mistakenly think that raw or brown sugar is much more nutritious and healthy than the white stuff! Raw for retail is a misnomer because it has also been refined and as there have been no sightings of granules or cubes on plant leaves, the sugar lobby ought to be warned about the ethics of describing their product as “natural” and suggesting that the history of this pure chemical goes back to the origins of the biosphere.


Metaphorically at least sugar provides wonderful food for thought although the success story of Brazil producing ethanol from sugar to power flex-fuel car engines clearly goes beyond metaphoric non-food uses for cane. That said as we have no biological need for the refined stuff, we could and did live without it for millennia. The bible was a land of milk and honey, not sugar and spice and sweetness ought not to be conflated with sugar. The former was found in many other sources, appealingly available long before sugar commercially eclipsed honey and became the new kid on the sweetener block. That said and despite the fact that it was millennia before our innate “sweet tooth” and organoleptic senses became acquainted with what I brand as “industrial sugar”, our ancestors associated sweet with good and bitter with bad!

In today’s “naughty but nice” era of processed profits, palatable junk food, globesity and even “fair trade sugar”, the dissonance between tastiness and nutrition, renders those earlier instincts not only anachronistic but highly dangerous. Food packed with refined sugar are chock-full of calories and are always likely to give trouble because they help to overcome the finite limits of the stomach. We are always prone to finding room for something sweet and not only do some sweetened foods taste so good that consumers are content to risk their health for deliciousness but even savoury foods have fallen prey to sugar’s embrace. When French food writer Maguelonne Tousaint Samat, keenly aware of the evils of sugar and slavery, wrote that “so many tears were shed for sugar that by rights it ought to have lost its sweetness” she had not anticipated the soaring sugar content of many of today’s prepared and processed foods that do not taste sweet.

Revealingly in a 1967 book entitled, Sweet Malefactor, the author, a former World Health Organisation doctor, declared that “there is no single food which has rivalled sugar in its influence on human affairs”. It was of course the quintessential slave crop, a label which is tragically not just historic. “Sugar slavery is back more powerful than ever, and now sugar is not only devastating for those who harvest it, but deadly for those who consume too much”. The so called diseases of affluence and overeating including the latest bitter sweet neologism, “globesity”, can not be understood without examining the politics of food and health and particularly the pimp like product which along with fat is a key foundation food of capitalism.

Napoleon and subsidies

The history of sucrose, before the Columban era represented only “a mere pinch per head for the whole of that history”, but then according to deposed Haitian leader, Jean Bertrand Aristide, it was premised on millions of African sisters and brothers being “exported like merchandise”, their blood “changed into bitter sugar”. A recent documentary film The Price of Sugar narrated by Paul Newman, focused on the plight of Haitian migrant workers in the bateyes of the Dominican Republic, and dramatically reminded all those who talk about packaging and marketing ethical sugar, that slavery is not just about the past. The Haitian migrants and their children are of the same blood and lineage as Toussaint L’Ouverture, the “Black Jacobin” who led a magnificent slave revolt against the mighty French Empire at the beginning of the nineteenth century, burying, albeit temporarily their chains. This momentous event had a seismic impact on the hopes and aspirations of slaves demanding freedom, liberty, equality and fraternity which makes it all the more tragic that L’Ouverture’s descendants today are stateless and living in abject conditions in the bateyes of the Dominican Republic.

The Haitian revolt and the British navy’s stifling of French trade encouraged Napoleon to champion the sugar beet which not only symbolised the temperate world’s seizure of what had hitherto been the husbandry of the tropical world but the rigging of the international sugar trade against nature’s most efficient collector of solar energy, the tropical cane. The subsequent dirigisme of many European governments in the form of “continental bounties” and subsidies for beet production has led inexorably to the European Union’s egregious Common Agricultural Policy which has worked very much to the detriment of cane growers in the developing world. Despite recent reforms which were forced on the EU by the World Trade Organisation, designed to help free up trade, the transitional period of adjustment and compensation for lower prices has been very much skewed in favour of the European Beet Boys and the big refiners.

The ubiquity of industrial sugar today (two thirds of our intake is indirect), is based on this nefarious history of cane and beet, and a present day “Big Sugar” lobby that increasingly makes the chicaneries of Big Tobacco seem old-fashioned. It is called “big” in the US because of its disproportionate political clout and although the adjective is not used here so often here, de facto the reality is the same. So for ethical shoppers the real price of this intensely political product, now in its seventh century of global expansion and making the products of Bill Gates seem pre-pubescent, is obfuscated by the labels written in the industry’s invisible ink and camouflaged on the shelves of supermarkets groaning under the beet and cane packets of Silver Spoon “homegrown sugar”, and Tate & Lyle “fair trade” sugar. The history and current affairs lessons are not advertised by the sugar refiners misinformation packs and their buddies in the fast food and soft drinks industry.


It is so ordinary a product today that it is difficult for many to conceive that by the 16th century this addictive drug was a main marker and emulator of wealth and conspicuous consumption and that it would later become known as “white gold”, the basis of one of the first truly international industries. The “Sugar Revolution” in Barbados and the Caribbean in the middle of the seventeenth century and the “proto-agri-business” of plantation production, increased output and reduced costs and prices to satiate the Old World’s seemingly insatiable demand for a product that rapidly moved along the value added chain, from medicine, spice and condiment, to decorative substance, preservative, sweetener and eventually the food that changed the world of diet!
It sweetened trades in other exotic tropical beverages, such as tea, coffee and chocolate, and proved in the drive towards modernity and mass consumption to be “Capitalism’s favoured child”.  It is a wonderful social metaphor for a system of commodity production that prioritises want not need, wealth not health. No spud or tomato can rival that and no other plant can justify the term revolution. Hobhouse argues that “although it did not create negro slavery” it was “the gigantic scale of the transatlantic slave trade and its maintenance for several centuries” that fed upon “the demand for sugar in Europe and North America”.

It was, and is still in places like the DR, the most exacting of all tropical taskmasters and Hobhouse reminds us that “because sugar cane was a labour intensive crop, the ratio of slaves/sugar always remained at least ten times greater than the ratio of slaves/tobacco, or slaves/cotton, or any other crop grown in servitude”.  The remorseless demand of addicted consumers four thousand miles away rationalised the de-humanising logic of slave labour, integral to the Sugar Revolution and the rapid Africanisation of the Caribbean which cravings for sweetness brought about.


My own city Liverpool, a sleepy insignificant fishing village at the end of the 17th century was jolted into transatlantic takeoff in the eighteenth century by sugar and slaves, and a drunken actor by the name of George Cooke booed by the Liverpool merchants at the Theatre Royal when the abolitionist movement was in full swing, accused the “wretched” audience of living in a town where there was hardly a stone that had not been tainted by the blood of an African slave.
After Parliament’s rejection of a bill to abolish the slave trade in 1791 hundreds of thousands of people developed the tactic of boycotting sugar from the West Indies, and for those who abjured self denial because of their incurable sweet tooth, the ethical thing to do was to eat sugar from India. Thomas Clarkson one of the greatest of all the abolitionists, such was his unstinting fervour, energy and determination to remove the abomination of slavery, was delighted unlike Wilberforce who was wary of stirring up popular protest, that the boycotters, had found “a remedy which the people…were taking into their own hands”.

The fact that Indian sugar was untainted by the blood of African slaves did not mean it was produced by “free labour” but the boycott methods and shift of demand to East India sugar was a broadside against the hitherto all powerful West Indies sugar lobby.
Today it is not the British West Indies lobby which stirs up the potential for popular protest on behalf of developing countries, but the EU and “Big Sugar” in America. The former have not only heavily subsidised beet but for over thirty years dumped surpluses onto world markets forcing prices down and exacerbating the problems of developing countries where cane has remained the “hunger crop”. (Tate and Lyle under the CAP secured adjustment aid conceived as a means of rectifying imbalances between beet and cane refining margins, but also claimed to provide a vital bridge under preferential arrangements for quotas from African, Pacific and Carribean cane growers.)  America only allows 15% of sugar supplies to be sourced from imports and “nowhere is there a larger gap between the U.S. government’s free trade rhetoric and its protectionist policies than in the sugar program”.
In March 2004 there was a report from the World Bank which concluded that sugar was the “most policy-distorted of all commodities” and argued how multilateral reform of sugar policy could produce global welfare gains of 4.7bn dollars (£2.5bn or 3.7bn euros at that time). By increasing imports to the most protected countries, US, EU and Japan, it could create work for 1m workers in developing countries which once again revealed how more so than any other commodity it brings the interests of developing country sugar cane exporters most into conflict with those of developed country sugar beet growers and the cane growers in America who benefit from the protectionist Sugar Program.

Moral obligations?

So to conclude this presentminded history of sugar there are a few glittering generalisations that can be made despite the labrynthine complexity of its politics and the argument of French food writer Montignac who suggests “it should always be labelled with a skull and crossbones symbol since it is a dangerous product when consumed in large amounts”.

Firstly, apart from the existence of a few rich cane-producing countries such as heavily protected America and far more efficient and free trade oriented Australia, the divide between tropical cane and temperate beet coincides directly with the division between rich and poor countries. Secondly sugar cane is nature’s most efficient collector of solar energy and if production costs are compared by looking at what the land and labour used in each country could produce if they were put to their most profitable other uses, or what the economist defines as “opportunity cost”, then beet production, because of the far greater opportunities available to resources in rich countries is substantially more costly.
Thirdly and of the greatest significance because it relates to our moral obligations towards the poorest of the poor is the conclusion reached by the World Development Movement over 30 years ago that “a rich country’s sugar policy, from whom it buys its sugar and by what means it pays for it is a vital litmus test of its proclaimed benevolence towards the poor world. Its policy indicates directly whether or not it is willing to stifle one of the developing world’s few real opportunities to increase its exchange earnings”.

Gloomily the egregious and self interested sugar programmes on both sides of the Atlantic, highlight how there is nothing economically or ethically rational about the world of sugar and that sadly the colonies that were exploited in the days of slavery are still denied one of their few opportunities to develop via   trade not aid. The maxim of the ethical and public health conscious consumer is to reverse the Napoleonic legacy and help to beat the beet and keep the cane.

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