Did you know that sugar, one of the most commonly used ingredient in most meals today plays an important role in history?
As quoted by Richard H. Robbins, in Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, (Allyn and Bacon, 1999), p.208, “The first sweetened cup of hot tea to be drunk by an English worker was a significant historical event, because it prefigured the transformation of an entire society, a total remaking of its economic and social basis. We must struggle to understand fully the consequences of that and kindred events for upon them was erected an entirely different conception of the relationship between producers and consumers, of the meaning of work, of the definition of self, of the nature of things.” 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.
Initially, sugar was a luxury item as around 1000 years ago, sugar was used in a variety of ways, such as: medicinal purposes (because it can be beneficial in limited quantities), as a preservative, as a spice and 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.
As 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. However, such benefits were also accompanied by detrimental effects. One such cost was slavery. The slave trade was a major factor in the expansion of the sugar industries. Coupled with the growing demand for and production of sugar created the plantation economy in the New World and was largely responsible for the expansion of the Atlantic slave trade in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. From 1701 to 1810 almost one million slaves were brought to Barbados and Jamaica to work the sugar plantations.
However, sugar was turned into a necessity as consumption rose tremendously than other basic food necessities such as bread, meat and dairy products. It became one of the most important ingredients in preparing meals in the past. Furthermore, 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. Moreover, it was used as a sweetener in other substances such as tea, coffee and cocoa. In addition, 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. Most importantly, 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.
On a side note, sugar has affected the environment in many disastrous ways - Forests must be cleared to plant sugar, wood or fossil fuel is needed in processing steps, waste products from processing affect the environment and parallel consumption of other items related to sugar, including coffee, tea, chocolate, etc all collectively put additional resource requirements on the environment.
Most importantly, sugar has greatly influenced our preferences for food. As an example, consider the following, about Coca Cola: “If the cultural, health and economic problems with Coke’s colonization of Latin America weren’t bad enough, it also has a labor record that puts even most other multinational companies to shame. In Guatemala and Colombia, there is strong evidence that the Coca-Cola company actively supported the murders of union activists by paramilitary members at bottling plants run by its subsidiaries and contractors over the years. In Mexico, El Salvador and other countries there have also been ample allegations of the company using paramilitary strength to prevent unionizing and keep employees in line.
In 2001, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the United Auto Workers (UAW) filed a lawsuit against Coke for the murder of union activist Isidro Gil Segundo and an ongoing campaign of intimidation, terror, murder and paramilitary activity against union members and leaders. Across the board, Coke and its Latin American bottling partners, including Panamco and Bebidas y Alimentos, have waged vicious anti-union campaigns and been accused of rampant illegal labor practices, intimidation techniques, unfair firings and physical attacks.
Today, Coca-Cola plainly stands as an unvarnished symbol of neoliberalism and modern corporate mercantilism. It is, plainly said, a multinational corporation exploiting cheap labor and “emerging markets,” that employs an array of illegal and criminal business “strategies,” and utilizes powerful public relations, marketing and lobbying powers to avoid accountability and fatten the company’s profits just as its product fattens its consumers.” This was quoted by — Kari Lydersen, Sugar and Blood: Coke in Latin America, Lip Magazine, 28 May 2002.
Moreover, In 1978, the typical teenage boy in the United States drank about seven ounces of soda every day; today he drinks nearly three times that amount, deriving 9 percent of his daily caloric intake from soft drinks. Soda consumption among teenage girls has doubled within the same period, reaching an average of twelve ounces a day. A significant number of teenage boys are now drinking five or more cans of soda every day as claimed by Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation; The Dark Side of the All-American Meal.
As such, we see that a food industry is highly influenced by consumerism and that during this process, exploitation has continued. From slavery, it has moved to consumers and children (albeit in another form), while the environment continues to suffer.