by Anup Shah
The consumption of sugar and its history gives a great insight into various inter-related issues, such as economics, human rights, slavery, environmental issues, health, consumerism issues and so on. We also see a hint at the
hidden costs and impacts to society.
On this page:
Initially sugar was a luxury item
Historically, around 1000 years ago, sugar was used in a variety of ways, such as:
- For medicinal purposes (because it can be beneficial in limited quantities)
- As a preservative
- As a spice
- As a sweetener, of course.
Yet up to the seventeenth century, it was an expensive luxury item. To be consumed by the masses, this luxury had to be turned into a necessity and be available in abundance to drive prices down.
Colonialism, slavery and sugar plantations
Sugar was a lucrative trade in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The growing of Spain and Portugal’s sugarcane was expanded into the Caribbean and parts of South America. From there, it would be shipped to places like Lisbon for refining.
While this led to an industry growing from this, it also came with some costs. One such cost was slavery.
Slave children were also used on sugar plantations.
Sugar then 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:
- An increased production of sugar led to a 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.
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 pointed out, as consumerism was rising in general, innovative selling and cross-selling ideas were being used. This included selling sugar for a loss to help sell other products in the shops:
As Robbins also continues (p.218) 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.
An enormous employer of labor, capital and resources. But is it productive?
Sugar production and consumption increased. For example, it was used in greater quantities in tea and preserves and chocolate increased in popularity. 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 has also increased. That is, even more resources have been expended.
Sugar affects the environment in numerous ways:
- 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
externalcosts 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.
Furthermore, some of the industries involved in sugar (or sugar related products) have caused some problems that other segments of society have to deal with. As an example, consider the following, about Coca Cola:
Note here how a luxury-turned-necessity product consumed en masse has produced so 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 also see that not all who work in this industry have necessarily benefitted).
It is, as a result, of some political sensitivity to even suggest that something like almost the entire sugar industry (and all the things dependent on it, such as soda drinks and confectioneries, candies, etc) wastes many resources and that the true costs (economic, political, social, health, environmental etc) are not accounted for by the industry. After all, the way economic progress is measured today, through things like growth rates, GDP, GNP etc, all these industries contribute to those measures. On paper therefore, it looks like the economy is doing well!
Such a suggestion in the mainstream that this in fact is an enormous waste would lead to much opposition. Hence, this is an example of how wasted capital leads to wasted labor and wasted resources.
That it is not even discussed in the mainstream of economics, media, politics, etc, is of no surprise, as much of today’s numerous industries are built off such
externalized costs and effects. To criticize the core would be to shake one of the foundations of prosperity in many wealthy nations of today.
If many such industries were to shed waste in this way there would be a lot of unemployement! Yet, as J.W. Smith suggests in his book, World’s Wasted Wealth, the way to deal with this is to share the remaining productive jobs (through a reduction in the work week). This is quite desirable not from a lets-all-be-lazy perspective, but because as many health professionals have long said, many people in developing and developed nations alike all work excessively unhealthy hours. These saved hours would allow parents more time with their children and families, as well. Of course, this is a complex issue and not as simple as that. More on this larger and deeper notion of waste and wealth is discussed a bit later on in the waste page.
Children — that ultimate
The increasing consumption of sugar and related products has of course also been directed towards children and Eric Schlosser, author of New York Times bestseller, Fast Food Nation, is worth quoting:
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.
Another central pillar of the fast food industry has been the rise of beef consumption, another luxury turned
necessity. We turn to the issue of beef consumption in the next page.