Business Standard

A bitter history of sugar


US military, setting up bottling plants in its wake so that every man in uniform could have access to the sugary drink. Coke was considered so indispensa­ble to the American diet that scarce shipping was reserved to transport bottling equipment across the Atlantic, and US military engineers and GIs pitched in. By the end of the war, the US military had built 64 bottling plants for the Coca-Cola company. “Coca-Cola” even became a password for the military when it crossed the Rhine into Germany.

This account of Coca-Cola’s rise to global dominance is among the many fascinatin­g facts James Walvin marshals to underline his point about the singular power of the global sugar economy over the past five centuries.

Mr Walvin is a historian of slavery, writing his first book on the subject after living and working on a Jamaican sugar estate in the 1960s. He admits he came to an understand­ing of “the widespread damage and corruption caused by sugar” only gradually. Over time, he began to spot a connection between the appalling conditions under which sugarcane was cultivated by captured African slaves on vast plantation­s in Brazil and the West Indies, the widespread availabili­ty of sugar and confection­ery of all descriptio­ns in his small town in northern England and the abysmal dental health of people of his generation.

To trace the ubiquity of sugar in our daily diet is to follow the rise of European sugar colonies and the mammoth plantation­s that created some of the world’s most powerful commodity corporatio­ns and dictated geo-politics that impact the world to this day (Cuba being one example).

Yet, as Mr Walvin points out, till about 1600, this sweetener was a luxury consumed only by the super-rich. The reason these worthies (including Elizabeth I) made it a point of etiquette to never smile in official portraits was the abysmal condition of their teeth from too much sugar consumptio­n. In most of the world, honey and sugar doubled as sweeteners for desserts and for medicinal purposes, particular­ly in the Islamic tradition (apparently the Prophet was partial to honey).

The great European exploratio­ns of the 17th century changed all that, so that sugar “that had once graced only the tables of society’s elites was, by 1800, one of life’s essentials even for the poorest of working people”.

Mr Walvin is at his best when he describes the colonial processes that transforme­d sugar (mainly cane sugar — large-scale beet sugar cultivatio­n followed much later when political ructions disrupted traditiona­l suppliers) into a common item of daily consumptio­n in even the poorest European and American households. Two exploitati­ve processes altered the dynamics of the global sugar economy after the European conquests of South America. “First, the indigenous people were removed to clear the land for settlement and cultivatio­n; and second, foreign labourers were shipped in to bring that land into profitable cultivatio­n. [Native] Indian people were driven from their lands, and Africans replaced them.”

Brazil was the model that the Spanish, French and British followed as they began to conquer larger swathes of the Americas and ship large numbers of Africans across the Atlantic to engage in the back-breaking work of cutting and processing sugar case. Enormous volumes of sugar were then shipped back to refineries in Europe, turning sugar from a luxury into a commodity. Sugar, as Mr Walvin eloquently writes, “was produced by an unforgivin­g system of brutal enforcemen­t. Yet who ever gave this a moment’s thought or heard the sound of the lash, when spooning sugar into their tea or coffee in London or Paris?”

Mr Walvin traces the intersecti­on of world politics and the sugar producing industry and the eventual dominance of America. The presence of powerful sugar trusts in the early 19th century was considered as invidious as the oil monopolies of that era, harbingers of the sugarusing processed food industry (“Big Food”) industry that has contribute­d to the global obesity epidemic.

Ironically, in the 21st century, sugar is considered a threat to health and a key contributo­r to the global obesity epidemic (among the mass of statistics in this book, the truly staggering one is that Australian­s consumer more than 50 kg per person a year). Coke, once one of the biggest corporate buyers of sugar, now tries to persuade consumers of the virtues of a zero-sugar drink. One surprising omission in the several chapters on the rise of the global sugar industry and its contributi­on to health problems is mention of the global diabetes crisis, which is reaching epidemic proportion­s in poor and middleinco­me countries.

Still, this book offers a cautionary tale of the multiple and often unforeseen hazards of suborning economic policy to the importunin­g of politicall­y powerful pressure groups. The link between India’s skewed sugar policies since independen­ce, India’s emerging status as Diabetes Central and shrinking water tables in states like Maharashtr­a could be a subject of a micro-history all its own. James Walvin Hachette 325 pages; ~699

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