Sugar has infiltrated society to become one of the most socially acceptable forms of addiction. Before we are able to rationalise the benefits of delayed gratification, we form early dependencies on sweet treats. Through its use in celebration, reward and even its denial, we have been psychologically engineered to seek comfort in the chemical indulgence sugar can provide. But what is really going on behind the scenes of corporate agenda? When we watch advertisements telling us to “take a break”, or why an ice-cold glass of cola will cure a day of frantic escapades, we are fooled into believing that these products are harmless, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
The production of sugar
Sugarcane is usually produced in socially vulnerable, tropical environments. WWF estimates that approximately 145 million tons of sugar, from 121 countries, is being produced every year.
Sugarcane is water-intensive and usually grown in a monoculture. This demands large scale destruction of natural habitats and their biodiversity. The effluent produced by sugar farming usually contains harmful pesticides and fertilisers that find their way into water sources. This causes soil degradation, poisoning of ecosystems and even pollutes our air. The chemicals leached from Australia’s sugar industry are finding their way into the already vulnerable Great Barrier Reef and have even been termed a “significant threat”. Irrigation practices in Andalucía, for sugar beet, are reducing water levels in wetlands that support many different bird species. The list of victims is so long that the detrimental effects of sugar farming need to be considered with greater attention and care.
Wait… haven’t we heard this before? Isn’t this an issue with many agricultural projects, such as palm oil, almonds, avocados…?
Sadly, the answer is yes. The environmental problems aren’t massively specific to sugar itself, but as such a huge international commodity, it’s earned its place as one of our biggest agricultural disasters, especially when considering the deleterious effects on biodiversity.
However, something that sets sugar apart from many of our problematic crops, is the numerous cases of human rights violations within the industry. Deemed by the UN “a gross violation of a range of human rights”, sugar plantations are the source of forced evictions in numerous provinces of Cambodia. It is also evident from the International Labour Organisation that sugar farming is bloody with the use of dangerous child labour.
A closer look at corporations
As a child, my biggest addiction was the soft drink. I would guzzle down a glass of coca cola in a restaurant before the food had arrived and would instantly try to wheedle myself another. In my teen years, I established I had a problem. I would crave fizzy drinks on a daily basis. One day, after I had decided to give them up, I was about to crack. I needed some inspiration and decided to do some research. I was horrified at what I discovered, and from that day on, giving them up has been easy.
The Coca Cola corporation has become so influential that it has literally changed the colour of Christmas. But a closer look at their company values would definitely make us feel less festive. Of course, it would be unfair to damn the title of complete environmental corruption upon their brand, as they do take some responsibility with regards to packaging and climate change. But we cannot ignore their involvement in extreme animal cruelty through the sponsorship of rodeos, where animals are abused and killed. They are also large consumers of unethically produced palm oil and have engaged in political agendas to support dictatorships that reduce the rights of their workers, by attacking the formation of democratic trade unions.
This inspired further investigation into all the sugar-dependent corporations I could think of. I am sure you are not surprised to read that most sugar is farmed irresponsibly and used irresponsibly, by companies who love to present themselves as comforting reliefs from day to day madness. We need to break free of this automated consumerism and see that these companies, be it Fanta, Pepsi or Mars, do not care about you. They do not care about your health, and they certainly do not care about this planet. When the ethics of sugar sourcing are already so complex, should we really be placing our trust in tax-evading, greedy corporations that show so much disregard for nature?
The Bright side
Ok… now let’s look at the silver lining! Sugar is undoubtedly important, and we need it. Sugar is one of the most energy efficient sources of ethanol and can be used to create biofuels and bioplastics, which are necessary for environmental progress. It is hard for us, as consumers, to change the way it is being farmed, but we can be selective over the organisations we give our money too.
1. Unrefined sugar
A lot of human rights violations take place in the refining processes of sugar. The process also involves unnecessary energy-consuming manufacturing that removes all of the remaining nutrition sugar has to offer. In general, the less processing, the better. So, choose an unrefined sugar next time you decide to bake.
Choose organic to reduce the multi-faceted impacts of agrochemicals.
3. Fair trade!
“This is the 21st century” is a boast that I hear far too often; it even escapes my own lips. But seriously, how is it we can continue to be so ignorant all of the time? We know when we buy a cheap brand of coffee, or a post-class “feel better” bar of chocolate, that there is something missing. Please, please, I beg of us to truly strive to be as progressive as we claim to be, and to stop making excuses. When it comes to the imported products of less economically developed countries, that little blue, green and black logo is so important. Of course, I don’t dispute that the Fairtrade Foundation has some complexities, and I encourage us to improve the flaws, but we need to be moving forward for such improvements to be made. So, start by supporting the initiative.
What are your favourite sugary brands? I highly recommend googling their company ethics before you continue to support them. A good source of information on branding is ethical consumer’s user guides: https://www.ethicalconsumer.org/food-drink. Or have a look at this link for a table of sugar brand ethics: https://thegoodshoppingguide.com/ethical-sugar
5. Seasonal fruit, not artificial sweeteners
From an ethical stand point, replacing sugar with sweeteners is not much better when it comes to the violations of human rights. It is also worth remembering that sugar is necessary for a balanced diet. Try to renew a love for fruit and treat it as your primary sugar source. There are a number of recipes that use fruit compotes for sweetening, so try these alternatives.
6. Cut back
Cutting back on processed sugar will improve your health, but it will also save you money!