Love Lane Lives

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

Blog Home > Beyond The Lane

The New York Times on Big Sugar Five years ago!

Written by Ron Noon at 12:51 on Saturday, November 29th 2008

NEW YORK TIMES, NOVEMBER 29TH 2003
Why am I blogging on a Saturday morning when other sentient human beings are relaxing and re-charging their batteries for the week ahead? Well family and friends know my addiction and others soon realize that when bitter sweet thoughts cross my mind I can’t rely on memory. I have to jot them down. Now that we have a web site I can share them with other people…
Exactly five years ago today the New York Times had a headline about “harvesting poverty” and then below that an essay on “America’s Sugar Daddies” and the egregious American sugar “program”. Without going into all the complexities, (some would say labrynthine complexities), of “Big Sugar” in America, (“Big” because it exercises disproportionate political clout), there are a couple of glittering generalizations about why the American consumer has never fully woken up to the real price of the white and brown stuff on their breakfast tables. The American Sugar Program is based on restrictive quotas, (the biggest is for the Dominican Republic), while the benefits are concentrated on a relatively few home growers. The costs of this program are diffused by ensuring that the consumer picks up the tab at the checkout counter by paying 2 to 3 times the world price. It has not stopped them from buying Sports Utility Vehicles but it has, as I discovered in Colorado Springs four years ago, prevented them from knowing much about the Cuban American family that dominate the politics of the “Sunshine State” of Florida. Alfy and Pepi Fanjul have been below the radar for far too long. I only discovered them in 2001 when I found out about Tate & Lyle selling off their Domino sugar refineries, (including the flagship Brooklyn refinery overlooking the most expensive real estate in the Cosmos), to an American Sugar Company company dominated by the West Palm beach family. 
I know from my own “sucrose” teaching experiences that the names of the powerful “sugar barons” are not well known and in Detroit last month I had the same blank response when I asked conference delegates (at a Labor history event) whether they knew who the Fanjuls were. Did they know (I know they can’t spell labour) that a film called SUGARLAND meant to star Robert de Niro and Jody Foster had been shelved indefinitely? Did they know that it was to have been based around “class action” cases taken out against Big Sugar by public interest lawyers for their abject treatment of H2 migrant workers, (largely from the Caribbean), in the sugar cane fields of the Everglades Agricultural Area in the 1980s and 1990s? Answer: No. Anyway, at least they were able to view our Love Lane Lives film.
This was the concluding paragraph in the NYT exactly five years ago today:
“The strength of the protectionist sugar lobby in Washington — which unites Southeastern cane growers and Midwestern beet farmers — was apparent in the success of Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana last year in bashing Nafta’s modest sugar provision during her re-election bid. If the sugar trade were liberalized, world prices would start creeping up and domestic prices would fall, which would benefit both the developing world and the American economy. The industry itself cites “alarming” studies that if the United States imported an additional two million metric tons — roughly the amount Central America exports — domestic prices would be cut in half. But that is no argument for opposing trade liberalization. That is an argument for the handful of individuals who control the sugar business in this country to start thinking about a new line of work, and be grateful for the long run they had.”

They’re still there though.
Finally I thought I’d leave you with this extract from a book which is remarkable for examining “non-human” influences on our history. (Sugar Cane: The grass that changed the world and my life!) Perhaps we spend too much time looking at each other and forgetting, (especially in this era of peak oil and global warming), how nature has so often been blighted by commerce.
“Sugar is a substance which we now know that we can well do without, even today when it is cheap and freely available. Why, when its use caused so much death, cruelty, and misery, did sugar move from a luxury afforded and used by a few in 1600, to a necessity for many two hundred years later? For every ton consumed in 1600, 10 tons were consumed in England in 1700 and 150 tons in 1800. In 1600, little of the sugar was slave grown and none came from the West Indies directly to England. In 1800 nearly every ton of sugar imported into England was grown and harvested by slaves, and the ratio was one black man’s life to 2 tons of sugar. In 1801 the population of England was about 9 million, and sugar consumption about 17 pounds per head per year. This gives a total consumption in England of over 70,000 tons of sugar in that year. That was equivalent to twice the number (35,000-plus) of black slaves consumed in the islands in the production of sugar. On average for every 250 English men, women, and children, a black died every year.
That is the central social problem. Why did a relatively advanced society become so dependent on sugar as to allow such slaughterous addiction? The sugar addiction in 1801, wherever it existed, killed proportionately more people than the drug trade does today. The drug trade differs, of course, in that it kills those hooked on the product, while the sugar trade killed mostly slaves.
Sugar, then, is the most notable addiction in history that killed not the consumer but the producer. Every ton represented a life. Every teaspoonful represented six days of a slave’s life. Put that way would anyone in eighteenth century England have touched sugar? But of course few people in the eighteenth century did put the problem quite like that.”  Henry Hobhouse: Seeds of Change, Six Plants that transformed mankind (1985) Page 77 & 78