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Love Lane Lives - the boys & girls from the whitestuff

Love Lane Lives

The history of sugar in Liverpool and the effects of the closure of the Tate & Lyle sugar refinery, Love Lane

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Beat the Beet, Keep the Cane

Written by Ron Noon at 14:18 on Friday, June 26th 2009

Beat the Beet, Keep the Cane


The picture above is the Frank Green painting that Julie Lyon-Taylor (John Maclean’s daughter) gave to me because she said that’s what her dad would have wanted. It is now proudly positioned in our hall and not above my computer, which would have restrict’ed its audience.

This is what the ETHICAL CONSUMER magazine wrote, not me!

Historian and sugar expert Ron Noon from Liverpool John Moores University unearths some uncomfortable truths about ‘capitalism’s favoured child’.

Whether it comes from the historic cane that sways in the exotic tropical Antilles or the ugly mangel wurzel sugar beet in wet Fenland England, the real story of sugar from a nutritional and ethical perspective, is Sweet FA! It is an ‘empty calorie’ shorn of any other nutrients, but achingly addictive and a perfectly legal drug for billions to be hooked on. The granules are manufactured in ‘temples of applied science’ and not in mother nature’s laboratories. The highly chemicalised refining process launders and purges the raw sugar to ensure that nearly all of the nutrients that accompany sucrose, 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 the sugar lobby ought to be warned about the ethics of describing its product as ‘natural’.


As humans have no biological need for the refined stuff, we could, and did, live without it for thousands of years. The bible described a land of milk and honey, not sugar and spice.  Despite the fact that it was millennia before our innate ‘sweet tooth’ 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, and globesity, the dissonance between tastiness and nutrition, renders those earlier instincts not only anachronistic but highly dangerous. Foods 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 quite content to risk their health for deliciousness, but even savoury foods have fallen prey to sugar’s embrace.

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”.1 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.”2 The so called diseases of affluence and overeating including the latest bitter sweet neologism, “globesity”, cannot 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 Columbus represented only “a mere pinch per head for the whole of that history”,3 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 US documentary film, The Price of Sugar, narrated by Paul Newman, focussed on the plight of Haitian migrant workers in the sugar 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.

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 behaviour 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 so often over here, de facto the reality is the same.


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 feed 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’.4 It is a wonderful social metaphor for a system of commodity production that prioritises want not need, wealth not health.  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”.5 It was, and is still in places like the Dominican Republic, 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”.6 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.


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’.

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 Euro 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 present minded history of sugar, there are a few glittering generalisations that can be made despite the labyrinthine complexity of its politics and the argument of French food writer Montignac who suggests “it should always be labelled will a skull and crossbones symbol since it is a dangerous product when consumed in large amounts”.7 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. It’s 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 consumer is to reverse the Napoleonic legacy and help to beat the beet and keep the cane.

1 W.A.Aykroyd Sweet Malefactor (1967) p.142
2 Brian McKenna in CBC documentary, Big Sugar 2005
3 Henry Hobhouse Seeds of Change: Six plants that transformed mankind (1999) p.54
4 Fernando Ortiz Cuban Counterpoint (1947) pps 267-82
5 W.A.Aykroyd Sweet Malefactor (1967) p.130
6 Hobhouse op cit. p.93
7 Michael Montignac, Dine out and lose weight: The French way to culinary ‘savoire vivre’  (1996) p.87