Making Sugar Sustainable: A Round Peg in a Square Hole?

How can the sugar industry be made more sustainable? That was the question attended to by delegates gathered at the Sustainable Sugar Forum in London and by academics at the UK’s Food Research Collaboration. Both offered some radical proposals, suggesting that the task is somewhat akin to hammering a round peg in a square hole. Not to say this characterisation wrong, of course. The deep-seated economic, environmental and social ills associated with sugar are enough to shake any observer from the complacency that things can simply carry on as normal.

Ecuador cane farm

Small-scale sugar farms: a thing of the past?

At the Sustainable Sugar Forum (which took place under the Chatham House rule, meaning that I can report what was said but not who said it) one thread of discussion was the amount of non-sugar commodities now being produced from the sugar beet and sugar cane crops. This included Medium Density Fibreboard, animal feed and ethanol fuel for home cookers. For some delegates this suggested that long-term financial viability lay in becoming more flexible and diversified producers, not least because the world sugar price has steadily declined over the last four years. Others were more cautious about the importance of these products. One person cited the manager of a sugar cane company in Brazil who said of his mill’s portfolio: ‘ethanol may be my lover but sugar is my wife’. (Just as an aside, since we are talking about women, it was noticeable that the gendered relations of sugar production were barely commented upon at all.)

Contrasting perspectives were also offered on how best to reduce the environmental costs of sugar production and renew the ecological vitality on which it depends. The representative of a farmers’ cooperative reported how they had restored degraded land through biological pest control and organic fertiliser derived from their coffee, sugar and livestock operations. Conversely, a scientist at a major beet research institute reported how his organisation was collaborating in a university project to map the root structure of plants using CT scans, which would enable them to improve water uptake by using cover crops like chicory to create new holes in the soil for the beet’s roots to follow.

Framing environmentalism as a question of production efficiency can give the impression that sustainability is simply a matter of harnessing technological improvement. That said, some political questions were asked. These included whether there was significant government and industry funding for this kind of applied research, to what extent farmers themselves are included in the direction and production of research, and what importance state legislation had in ‘greening’ production. For instance, one person said of the recent reforms to the EU Common Agricultural Policy that while the requirement to have a three crop rotation was not a problem for sugar beet farmers, the set-aside of ‘ecologically sensitive land’ was.

The real controversy for me was what sustainability meant for labour. There were many examples given of ways in which farmers and workers are being better supported – from ownership options for mill workers in Latin America to the $51m of sales premium transferred to smallholder associations through the Fairtrade system over the last five years. However, the representative of one NGO noted that for many small-scale farmers, sugar did not offer them the economic opportunities to become part of their country’s middle class. He therefore asked provocatively: “Do we want six hectare growers to be around in 20 years’ time?”

A useful reminder of the mass redundancies and retrenchment that have characterised the recent experience of the European sugar beet industry was also provided. Over the last decade this has seen its number of workers halve and its number of growers more than half – over 150,000 farmers no longer growing beet. This left me wondering: should an industry which employs fewer and fewer people be considered sustainable?

A similar proposition was put forward by the academics Tim Lang and Victoria Schoen, albeit for different reasons, in their two papers ‘Should the UK be concerned about sugar?’ and ‘Does sugar pass the environmental and social test?’. The answer to these titles was ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Essentially they take as their starting point the necessity of reducing sugar consumption for reasons of public health and then try to square this with some of the interests behind its continued production, not least of which are the livelihoods it provides for the poor people in rural areas the world over.

As far as the UK is concerned, then, one option hinted at would be to concentrate the sugar supply on imports of Fairtrade sugar and either shift the beet produced in East England into non-sugar markets or shift the beet farms themselves into growing healthier foods like vegetables. Whilst the authors ultimately demur on a concrete plan of action, they are clear in rejecting the assumption that more sugar must be produced simply because there is a demand for it and propose instead that the real task for making sugar sustainable is to plan for its phased reduction.