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Sugar High: The Dark History and Nasty Methods Used to Feed Our Sweet Tooth

Sugar is now 20 percent of the American diet, but it's not just our health that suffers from its pervasiveness.
 
 
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Americans think an awful lot about sucrose -- table sugar -- but only in certain ways. We crave it and dream up novel ways to combine it with other ingredients to produce delectable foods; and we worry that we eat too much of it and that it is making us unhealthy or fat. But how often do Americans think about where sugar actually comes from or the people who produce it? As a tropical crop, sugarcane cannot grow in most U.S. states. Most of us do not smell the foul odors coming from sugar refineries, look out over vast expanses of nothing but sugarcane, or speak to those who perform the hard labor required to grow and harvest sugarcane.

Of course, sugar can be made from beets, a temperate crop, and more than half of sugar produced in the United States is. But globally, most of the story of sugar, past and present, centers around sugarcane, not beets, and as biofuels become more common, it is sugarcane that is cultivated for ethanol. What's more, some conscious eaters avoid beet sugar as most of it is now made from genetically modified sugar beets.

While I do not fool myself that sugar is "healthy," if I am going to satisfy my sweet tooth, I prefer cane sugar, maple syrup, agave nectar, or honey over the other choices: beet sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and artificial sweeteners. Of the bunch, most Americans can find only honey and perhaps maple syrup sustainably and locally produced, but cane sugar is often the most versatile product for baking.

As a major consumer of cane sugar, I was disturbed to learn the realities of cane sugar production when I visited a sugarcane-producing area in Bolivia.

Sugarcane grew as far as the eye could see on the degraded soils of the deforested industrial agricultural area in Bolivia's lowlands. At one point, the van I was riding in got stuck in a traffic jam of enormous trucks, each full of sugarcane, delivering their loads to a refinery. The area around the refinery smelled terrible, and the locals told us the smell came from oxidizing ponds that hold the refinery's wastewater. When the refineries are washed out, typically once a year, the wastewater is dumped into local waterways, resulting in fish kills. This spurred me to learn more about how sugar is made, both in the U.S. and around the world, and how it impacts the land and the people who produce it. Sadly, the story of sugar is also the story of the African slave trade. Today, sugar production still uses exploitative labor practices and can cause serious environmental problems.

Sugar's Rotten History

Nobody alive today remembers a day when sugar was not a cheap, ubiquitous food in our diets, but historically speaking, it's actually a relatively recent addition to the European diet, one very tightly intertwined with the African slave trade. As Sidney W. Mintz chronicles in his book Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, when cane sugar first appeared in England in the 12th century, only royalty could afford it, and even then, only in small quantities. This is hardly surprising, considering the journey sugar made to reach England.

Sugarcane, a fast-growing tropical grass that reaches 12 to 15 feet high at maturity, was domesticated around 8000 B.C.E. in New Guinea and was carried to India, the Philippines, and perhaps Indonesia some 2,000 years later. By 500 C.E., Indians were making sugar, a process that involves pressing the two-inch-thick cane to extract a dark green juice, rich with nutrients as well as sucrose, then boiling it down to remove liquid and crystalize the sugar. Various processes can be used to refine the sugar so that it is anywhere from a brown color to the chemically pure, white crystal we know today. Of course, until relatively recently, sugar refiners were never able to achieve a mass-produced commodity product so pure that it was completely white.

Europeans have the Arabs to thank for their introduction to sugar. Although the Spanish had nothing nice to say about the Moorish occupation of their land, it was the Arabs who introduced sugar production to the European mainland in the seventh and eighth centuries. Arab sugar production likely involved some slave labor, but never on the scale that European sugar production did. European crusaders discovered and took over Arab sugar plantations in the Middle Ages, and from that point forward, sugar production was a job done mostly by slaves.

As Europeans figured out more cost-effective ways to mass-produce sugar and transport it to their countries, sugar became within reach of the nobility and then later, within reach of the common people. Mintz tells how three bitter stimulants, each consumed with sugar, reached England at roughly the same time, in the third quarter of the 17th century: tea from Asia, coffee from Africa, and cacao from the Americas. "The success of tea... was also the success of sugar," writes Mintz, "That it was a bitter stimulant, that it was taken hot, and that it was capable of carrying large quantities of palatable sweet calories told importantly in its success."

On the production side, the sugar industry briefly moved to the Atlantic islands of Spain and Portugal, and it was here that the use of African slaves was firmly integrated into the business model. In the two decades before Columbus stumbled into the Caribbean, sugarcane production grew by a factor of more than 1,000 on the island of Madeira. There, sugar was produced with slaves.

But it was on the island of Sao Tome off the Western coast of central Africa, which harbors mosquitoes carrying both malaria and yellow fever, that resulted in the use of specifically African slaves (as opposed to slaves of other origins). Europeans who came to Sao Tome usually died quickly. And the land was divided into large plantations instead of small parcels. This solidified the model for sugar plantations that was then transferred in the New World and applied to other crops.

Columbus brought sugarcane to the Caribbean in 1493, and it was not long before Caribbean islands and Brazil produced sugarcane for export back to Europe -- with African slaves, of course. In 1619, the British brought both slaves and sugarcane to their colony in Jamestown, but sugarcane would not grow in Virginia. Determined to satisfy their sweet tooth with their own colony for sugar, the British took over Barbados soon thereafter.

These were also the years of England's industrial revolution, when much of the population transitioned from a peasant diet of eating what they grew to an urban diet of eating what was convenient and cheap, namely bread, accompanied by tea with sugar. Sugar dropped in price during the 18th century and lost its status as a luxury good. Sugar was eaten in tea or in pastries. And, by the 1870s, jam became an important food for the working classes. Between the 15th and 19th centuries, desserts were first introduced to the nobility and then gradually became standard as a sweet course at the end of the meal.

All in all, cane sugar consumption grew from an estimated 2 percent of the British diet in 1800 to an estimated 14 percent a century later. Sugar now makes up 20 percent of the American diet. Today most Americans see sugar as a necessity, but most of our ancestors lived entirely without it.

Legalized slavery is now long in the past, but sugarcane is still almost universally produced with unjust labor conditions, including modern-day slavery. In Brazil, a study found that, "Modern-day slavery ... is short in duration; the victims are treated as though they were commodities; total power is exercised over the victim, although only temporarily." In 2007, half of Brazil's 5,877 workers freed from slavery -- many of them indigenous -- worked in sugarcane cultivation. Harvesting sugarcane is so arduous that workers can become physically broken after just 10 or 12 years.

Whereas modern-day slavery might be the exception, backbreaking work with long hours, low pay, and few benefits (if any) is still the rule. When I visited San Mariano, Isabela, a sugarcane-growing area in the Philippines, the workers were paid as little as one-tenth minimum wage (for weeding) and as much as half of minimum wage for harvesting sugarcane, with a six-day work week and no overtime pay. One worker I met had been injured on the job with no worker's comp for his injury. At that time, he had been out of work and unable to walk for several months without any disability pay. Workers also complained of being compensated for harvesting only if they also loaded the sugarcane into a truck. Occasionally, no truck showed up when the harvest was done, and the workers were never paid for that day's work.

Globally, sugarcane covers an area larger than the state of Minnesota, and much of it is harvested manually, even though mechanized harvesting is possible. Sugarcane is a perennial, and plantations typically replant it every four or five harvests, as production declines after each harvest. Mechanical harvesting reduces future yields even further, so when cheap labor is available, it is often more cost-effective than a machine.

America Gets Its Fix

An overwhelming percent of world sugar production occurs in Brazil and India, but if you are an American, your sugar fix is likely satisfied by U.S. sugar, whether cane or beet. The U.S. has long had policies that limit sugar imports, keeping the U.S. price of sugar well above the world price -- often double or more. By setting a high tariff on all sugar imports over a set quota, the U.S. protects its own sugar industry (both cane sugar and beet sugar). Producers of high fructose corn syrup also support this system as it allows them to price their product below the cost of sugar, making it attractive as a cheaper alternative.

The U.S. can only produce it in a few states, mostly growing it in Florida and Louisiana, with a little bit in Hawaii and Texas. (Hawaii used to grow more before the high real estate prices drove most sugar out of the state.) Together, those four states produce sugarcane on an area just smaller than Rhode Island. Measured by area, this makes up just 1.5 percent of global sugarcane cultivation. Yet, as any discussion with Floridians familiar with the industry will reveal, the area impacted by sugarcane is far larger than just the land planted with the crop. The list of Floridians' complaints usually centers more around the Everglades than around labor issues. (Louisiana's sugar industry is not immune from environmental problems either, but lacks the national outcry to protect the Everglades that shines a spotlight on sugar in Florida.)

Sugar in Florida owes its existence to the draining of a large area of the Everglades. As recently as the 1800s, South Florida was dominated by a freshwater wetland the size of Delaware, much of it in the form of a 50-mile-wide shallow, slow-moving river. While it was first considered "wasteland," its agricultural potential was realized in the late 1800s, and humanity set to work draining areas using levees, canals and dams. But destructive and deadly storms in the first decades of the 20th century proved that more work was needed if this area was to be safely settled and put to "productive" uses. The Army Corps of Engineers set to work building even more levees, canals and dams to control the water.

Thus, by the 1940s, the original Everglades was divided into four areas: the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA), Water Conservation Areas, Big Cypress National Preserve, and Everglades National Park. The Everglades Agricultural Area is home to Florida's sugar industry, and it sits between Lake Okeechobee (the largest freshwater lake in the U.S. after the Great Lakes and the source of the water in the Everglades) and Everglades National Park. Anything that goes into the water in the EAA then flows into Everglades National Park and ultimately into the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. Most consequential is phosphorus fertilizer, which is needed to produce sugar but toxic to the Everglades ecosystem.

Americans, especially Floridians, are impacted by sugarcane production by the elevated sugar prices Americans pay, the taxes paid to drain the land and manage the water to meet the industry's needs, the taxes paid to clean up the industry's pollution, and by suffering the consequences of pollution that is not cleaned up at all. John Adornato, regional director of the Sun Coast Region of the National Parks Conservation Association, describes the combined impact of government intervention and the pollution by the sugar industry by saying, "Americans' waistlines are growing due to sugar but their pocketbooks are shrinking."

Interestingly, reducing the impacts of sugar production is a cause that both treehuggers and those motivated by economic self-interest can get behind together. Florida's economy revolves around tourism, and tourists flock to Florida because of its natural environment -- but environmental destruction from the sugar industry threatens that.

"People who live on the east and west coasts of Florida who live on a canal where there are regularly dead fish that surface... how do you sell your house?" asks Adornato. "How do you entice someone to come? How do you entice a retiree who wants to go fishing to come live on a canal where all they can smell and see are dead fish? You go to the beach on your vacation and the red tide on the west coast of Florida produces a stench -- the algae events that happen over there -- no one wants to go over there. You're destroying your fishery, you're killing off coral reefs. You're harming your water supply.

"These are direct economic effects at every level," he continues. "Over 6 million people, one-third of Floridians, get their water supply from the Everglades. If it's not clean, we are going to have to spend more money to clean it up. Those are the kinds of impacts that we need to deal with. Our economy is a tourism-based economy. If people don't want to come and sit in the beach or they don't want to go fishing, we have seriously harmed our future."

Sugar is not the only culprit in harming the Everglades ecosystem or the coastal ecosystems where water from the Everglades drains into the ocean, but it is a major cause of the area's problems along with the cattle and dairy industries situated north of Lake Okeechobee. Fortunately for the Everglades' wading birds whose populations have declined by 90 percent in the last century and a half, Floridians love the Everglades. Activist Tom Sadler noted that even Florida's Republican governor Rick Scott made an appearance at the recent Everglades Coalition Conference, "and he's not the type of person who would go out and hug a tree."

His appearance there denotes the political importance of Everglades conservation, if not Scott's commitment to actually achieving it. Sadler said Scott spoke at the conference, "professing his undying commitment to the Everglades although that didn't manifest in any money for the Everglades." That could be because of the enormous influence the industry has on politics. Virginia Chamblee of the Florida Independent reported that, "Big Sugar gave more than $4.2 million to federal candidates and party committees during the 2008 election cycle alone, 63 percent of which went to Democrats."

Chamblee writes about Florida Crystals, a subsidiary of sugar giant Flo-Sun: "Companies with ties to Florida Crystals (which has contributed nearly $4.5 million to campaigns since 1991) gave at least $100,000 to now-Gov. Rick Scott's gubernatorial campaign. The head of Florida Crystals also hosted a large campaign fundraiser for Scott only four weeks after he blasted the company's rival -- U.S. Sugar -- over its role in a planned Everglades restoration project."

Flo-Sun is owned by the Fanjul family, called the "First Family of Corporate Welfare" by CNN in 1998. The four Fanjul brothers use a failproof strategy for getting their way from politicians: playing both sides. Alfonso is a major contributor to the Democratic Party, and his influence earned him a role as co-chairman of Bill Clinton's Florida campaign in 1992. Meanwhile, Pepe Fanjul does the same for the Republicans. It cannot hurt that they are strategically positioned in Florida, one of the most crucial swing states in presidential elections.

But even the Fanjul's influence cannot dull the nation's love for the Everglades entirely. In 2000, Everglades restoration became a national cause, with the signing of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) by President Clinton. According to its official Web site, "The goal of CERP is to capture fresh water that now flows unused to the ocean and the gulf and redirect it to areas that need it most. The majority of the water will be devoted to environmental restoration, reviving a dying ecosystem. The remaining water will benefit cities and farmers by enhancing water supplies for the south Florida economy."

Naturally, the Everglades experiences a very wet rainy season from about May to November, and a very dry season during the rest of the year. In the wet season, wildlife like deer take refuge on "tree islands" to stay above the water; in the dry season, fish and other aquatic animals are concentrated into holes dug by alligators that retain water, providing a veritable feast for any predator looking for a meal. The Everglades needs these natural cycles, but the people of Florida need water year-round. With its drained agricultural land, the Everglades system now holds less water overall than it used to, sending any excess water out to tide. And since Florida lacks deep aquifers, the plentiful rainfall received in the rainy season is mostly not stored for use during the dry season.

Adornato feels that CERP is spending extra money on risky projects in order to store water without harming the sugar industry. He is critical of the plans to use Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) wells, which entail injecting water deep into the ground during the rainy season for use during the dry season. He prefers the approach of former Republican Governor Charlie Crist who, he says, "pretty much expended all of his political capital," in an effort to acquire the land of U.S. Sugar Corporation to use it for water storage and cleanup, delivering clean water to the Everglades.

Crist's plan, first announced in 2008, initially proposed purchasing 187,000 acres for $1.75 billion. By 2010, the area was reduced to 26,800 acres, or 14 percent of the original area, and the cost was down to $197 million. However, a 2010 New York Times article revealed that the deal might have helped U.S. Sugar Corporation as much or more as it helped the Everglades: "United States Sugar dictated many of the terms of the deal as state officials repeatedly made decisions against the immediate needs of the Everglades and the interests of taxpayers."

The initial deal would have put U.S. Sugar, which was mired in debt, out of business by purchasing all of its land, but the downsized deal leaves it in business but sells off its citrus groves, which were not profitable for citrus anymore (and some say are useless for restoration) due to a plant disease epidemic. U.S. Sugar was represented in the deal's negotiations by Gunster, a law firm whose chairman, George LeMieux, was Governor Crist's chief of staff.

Understanding how various restoration schemes will affect both the Everglades and Florida's sugar industry (which enjoys a symbiotic relationship with both major American political parties) is complex, but even those who care deeply for the Everglades understand the issue in the context of believing sugar is a necessity. Adornato says that he does not simply have a sweet tooth, he has "sweet teeth," and sugar has to come from somewhere. "The bottom line is that sugar grown in Florida does not pay the consequences for its impact."

Sadler, who unsuccessfully campaigned to assess a penny per pound "polluter pays" fee on sugar companies, agrees, noting that if sugar is not grown in Florida, where we have some environmental and worker protections, it will be grown elsewhere in the world where conditions may be worse.

While sugar consumption is not a necessity, production is going up, not down, given the popularity of biofuels and the relative efficiency of sugarcane compared to other feedstocks. But perhaps the answer is not giving up sugar but reducing our intake to reduce its ecological footprint as well. Sugar ranks alongside factory farmed animal products as unsustainably produced foods that Americans eat in quantities greater than are healthy.

Likewise, both foods benefit from lax federal environmental standards that stick taxpayers with the bill to clean up pollution or simply force citizens to live with a mess that is never cleaned up, and producers of both foods benefit from federal commodity policies that make their products more profitable. Most of all, both tell of a broken political process in which the needs of the majority are overlooked as long as a powerful and wealthy few finance the political campaigns of both Democrats and Republicans.  

Jill Richardson is the founder of the blog La Vida Locavore and a member of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board. She is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It..
 
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