Sugar and its Relationship in History

Sugar consumption and its place in history gives great insight into economics, human rights, slavery, environmental issues, health, and consumption.

Initially sugar, as was salt, was considered a luxury item

Around 1000 years ago, sugar was primarily used for things like:

  • Medicinal purposes
  • as a Preservative
  • as a Spice
  • as a Sweetener, naturally.

Yet up to the seventeenth century, it was an expensive luxury item. Early on, however, manufacturers has something else in mind. Money!

In order for this luxury to be consumed by the masses, and make them extremely wealthy, sugar had to be turned into a necessity.

Colonialism, Slavery and Sugar Plantations

Sugar was a lucrative trade in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Merchants and farmers soon learned that the cane grown in Spain and Portugal's would grow better in the tropics of the Caribbean and parts of South America. From there, it would be shipped back to places like Lisbon for refining.

But where would they get the workforce needed to farm the sugar plantations? Enter "slavery".

Modern economists like to talk about the spin-off effects of certain commodities, that is the extent to which their production results in the development of subsidiary industries. ... Sugar production also produced subsidiary economic activities; these included slavery, the provisioning of the sugar producers, shipping, refining, storage, and wholesale and retail trade.

... The slave trade was a major factor in the expansion of the sugar industries. ... The growing demand for and production of sugar created the plantation economy in the New World and was largely responsible for the expansion of the Atlantic slave trade in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. From 1701 to 1810 almost one million slaves were brought to Barbados and Jamaica to work the sugar plantations.

... [S]ugar became the focus of an industry, a sugar complex that combined the sugar plantations, the slave trade, long-distance shipping, wholesale and retail trade, and investment finance.

— Richard Robbins, Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, (Allyn and Bacon, 1999), pp. 215-216

Slave children were also used on sugar plantations.

Then Sugar was Turned into a Necessity

As Robbins continues to point out, sugar consumption increased in the late seventeenth century in Europe. In England and Wales, from 1663 to 1775 “consumption increased twentyfold” and “rose more rapidly than bread, meat, and dairy products in the eighteenth century.” (p.216).

Why did this happen?

Summarizing from Robbins (pp. 216 - 217), there were numerous reasons, including:

  • Increased sugar production led to decrease in price. Hence, what was once confined to the upper classes was more widely affordable to the middle classes as well. (For a while, prices were still high due to tariffs and political influence of the powerful plantation owners etc.)
  • Benefits of sugar were widely touted by various authorities and heavily promoted in many aspects of people's lives.
  • It was used as a sweetener in other substances such as tea, coffee and cocoa.
  • Sugar's reputation as a luxury good inspired the middle class to use it to emulate the wealthy. Sugar was a sign of status! As the price of sugar declined further, even the poorer classes were able to consume for this and the other reasons.
  • Government increases in purchase of sugar and sugar products led to further use as well. The capture of Jamaica from the French led to more sugar plantations being captured and creating rum rations for the British Navy.

It gets better; “sugar production and consumption increased, as did the amount of land devoted to its production, and the number of sugar mills and refineries, distilleries producing rum, and slaves employed in the whole process. Most important, the profits generated by the sugar trade increased dramatically.” (p.217)

As historians McKendrick, Brewer and Plumb also point out, consumerism in general was rising. Creative selling and cross-selling ideas evolved. This included selling sugar for a loss to help sell other products in the shops:

Even the humble eighteenth-century shopkeeper can be shown to have been the master of methods of boosting sales which are, all too often, confidently attributed to the ingenuity of twentieth-century commerce. The concept of the loss leader, for example, was well established amongst eighteenth-century shopkeepers. As Campbell wrote in 1747 [citing The London Tradesman, 1747, pp. 188-9] “A custom has prevailed amongst Grocers to sell Sugars for the Prime Cost, and [they] are out of Pocket by the Sale”. The losses were not inconsiderable [but the] intention (as it still is today) was to attract customers with this loss leader and then induce them to buy “other Commodities” (thereby boosting the shop keeper's turnover) on which they would have to “pay extravagant Prices” (thereby boosting the shop keeper's turnover).

— Neil McKendrik, John Brewer, J.H. Plumb, The Birth of a Consumer Society, (Hutchinson, 1983), pp. 93-94

And Robbins continues (p.218), that further changes by the British government enabled more mass consumption of sugar:

  • Removing tariffs on imports allowed of foreign sugar allowed more competition and a lowering of prices so that nearly all levels of British society could afford sugar.
  • Abolishment of slavery in the early 1830s after abolishing the trade itself in 1807, led to the need for technological improvements that further lowered the price.

How Productive was all this Labor?

With increased use in tea combined with the rise in production of preserves and chocolate, etc, sugar production and consumption further increased. Given the rise in consumption of other sweet foods, such as jams, sugar in bread, and later, in soda drinks and other confectioneries, candies, sweets and fast foods etc, the amount of land to produce sugar, refine it, and support the industry had also increased. That is, even more resources have been expended.

So sugar does affect the environment:

  • Forests must be cleared to plant sugar
  • Wood or fossil fuel is needed in processing steps
  • Waste products from processing affect the environment
  • Parallel consumption of other items related to sugar, including coffee, tea, chocolate, etc all collectively put additional resource requirements on the environment
  • Numerous “hidden” or “external” costs include (and this is a very limited set of examples):
    • To create, maintain and support the office buildings where people work in these industries
    • To support the marketing
    • To support efforts in creating demands as well as meeting real and resulting demands
    • To distribute and sell
    • To create new ideas and products
    • To create, maintain and support factories to make the actual products
    • To create the materials for packaging
    • To deal with the waste/disposal of these packages
    • To deal with resulting health problems and the resources used to deal with them
    • To pay and support lobbyists to help governments and regulation agencies see their perspectives
    • and so on.

In addition, some of the related industries continue to have additional political impacts, which further take up resources, or have additional costs for other segments of society to deal with. As an example, consider the following, about Coca Cola:

If the cultural, health and economic problems with Coke's colonization of Latin America weren't bad enough, it also has a labor record that puts even most other multinational companies to shame. In Guatemala and Colombia, there is strong evidence that the Coca-Cola company actively supported the murders of union activists by paramilitary members at bottling plants run by its subsidiaries and contractors over the years. In Mexico, El Salvador and other countries there have also been ample allegations of the company using paramilitary strength to prevent unionizing and keep employees in line.

In 2001, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the United Auto Workers (UAW) filed a lawsuit against Coke for the murder of union activist Isidro Gil Segundo and an ongoing campaign of intimidation, terror, murder and paramilitary activity against union members and leaders. Across the board, Coke and its Latin American bottling partners, including Panamco and Bebidas y Alimentos, have waged vicious anti-union campaigns and been accused of rampant illegal labor practices, intimidation techniques, unfair firings and physical attacks.

... Today, Coca-Cola plainly stands as an unvarnished symbol of neoliberalism and modern corporate mercantilism. It is, plainly said, a multinational corporation exploiting cheap labor and "emerging markets," that employs an array of illegal and criminal business "strategies," and utilizes powerful public relations, marketing and lobbying powers to avoid accountability and fatten the company's profits just as its product fattens its consumers.

— Kari Lydersen, Sugar and Blood: Coke in Latin America, Lip Magazine, 28 May 2002

Some could easily point out that a luxury-turned-necessity product consumed en masse produced many negative side effects. Yet it is claimed as productive or desired because many jobs are said to be supported and therefore it has created wealth for those in this industry (though from the above, we see also that not all who work in this industry have necessarily benefitted).

In April 2003, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released a detailed report on diet, nutrition and the prevention of chronic diseases. Among many other things, the report highlighted that the burden of chronic diseases is rapidly increasing. In 2001, for example, they contributed approximately 59 percent of the 56.5 million total reported deaths in the world and 46 percent of the global burden of disease. The report concluded that a diet low in saturated fats, sugars and salt, and high in vegetables and fruits, together with regular physical activity, will have a major impact on combatting this high toll of death and disease.

But the suggestion of reducing sugar intakes angered the sugar industry:

  • A U.S. lobby group, The Sugar Association threatened to ask Congress to withdraw the U.S.'s annual $400 million contribution to the World Health Organization, as pointed out by the Guardian (April 21, 2003)
  • They also tried to block the release of the report. (See previous link).
  • “The threat is being described by WHO insiders as tantamount to blackmail and worse than any pressure exerted by the tobacco lobby,” the Guardian also added. (For impacts of the tobacco lobby, see this site's section on causes of hunger.)

The Prime Market for Sugar - Children

The increasing consumption of sugar and related products has, of course, been directed towards children and Eric Schlosser, author of New York Times bestseller, Fast Food Nation, is worth quoting:

“Liquid Candy,” a 1999 study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, describes who is not benefiting from the beverage industry's latest marketing efforts: the [United States's] children.

  • In 1978, the typical teenage boy in the United States drank about seven ounces of soda every day; today he drinks nearly three times that amount, deriving 9 percent of his daily caloric intake from soft drinks.
  • Soda consumption among teenage girls has doubled within the same period, reaching an average of twelve ounces a day.
  • A significant number of teenage boys are now drinking five or more cans of soda every day.

Each can contains the equivalent of about ten teaspoons of sugar. Coke, Pepsi, Mountain Dew, and Dr Pepper also contain caffeine. These sodas provide empty calories and have replaced far more nutritious beverages in the American diet.

  • Excessive soda consumption in childhood can lead to calcium deficiencies and a greater likelihood of bone fractures.
  • About twenty years ago, teenage boys in the United States drank twice as much milk as soda; now they drink twice as much soda as milk.

Soft-drink consumption has also become commonplace among American toddlers.

  • About one-fifth of the nation's one- and two-year olds now drink soda.
  • “In one of the most despicable marketing gambits,” Michael Jacobson, the author of “Liquid Candy” reports, “Pepsi, Dr Pepper and Seven-Up encourage feeding soft drinks to babies by licensing their logos to a major maker of baby bottles, Munchkin Bottling, Inc.”
  • A 1997 study published in the Journal of Dentistry for Children found that many infants were indeed being fed soda in those bottles.

— Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation; The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001), p.54 (Bullet formatting added for clarity, but text remains unchanged)

So, we have seen that

  • With the rise in consumerism, there has been a rise in sugar use.
  • With the increasing work demands, partly a result of rising consumerism, there has been a rise in convenience and fast foods
  • This implies more sugar!
  • Exploitation has continued. From slavery, it has moved to consumers and children (albeit in another form), while the environment continues to suffer.
  • An entire fast food industry has arisen due to consumerism.

"The first sweetened cup of hot tea to be drunk by an English worker was a significant historical event, because it prefigured the transformation of an entire society, a total remaking of its economic and social basis. We must struggle to understand fully the consequences of that and kindred events for upon them was erected an entirely different conception of the relationship between producers and consumers, of the meaning of work, of the definition of self, of the nature of things."

— Sydney Mintz, Sweetness and Power, quoted by Richard H. Robbins, in Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, (Allyn and Bacon, 1999), p.208.

From GlobalIssues.org - by Anup Shah


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