As we all watch closely what will happen in Glasgow this week, even though, at least in my direct circle, no earth shattering results are anticipated. All too good, we know something has to happen, all too well, we are used to this rhetoric for a while now and goals have never been met, why would something different happen this time. Are we all numb? Is there hope, can we change our individual behaviors to collectively set a different direction in motion?

Friesland. When I returned from Finland a couple of weeks ago,  a number of changes happened in the land. The potatoes were harvested and maybe already on their way to Africa. Certain birds have left, others have come, some are in transit, while others may stay the winter. Apparently, changing temperatures have made this area a final destination instead of a stopover to their winter residencies. Geese. In some places, this has already caused problems for local farmers, but people are adapting to these new immigrants, some sparks of inspiration. The lapwing is also here in numbers but maybe they are just more visible in the now harvested, barren fields. But harvest season is still in full swing, sugar beets, the other major crop in the Netherlands.  Signs everywhere warning for mud splattered roads are part of the picture. Sugar? 

Our dependency on oil and gas is one thing, Sugar is a whole different ball-game, in a way.

Sugar in natural form as part of fruits, vegetables, and dairy is part of our diet, providing energy, Then there is refined sugar, the other white gold. Widely consumed. It is not a requirement in our diet at all, in fact, the oppositie can be argued to be true.* Added sugar in our diets causes many health problems and a debate continuous whether sugar should be considered to be toxic, or even an addictive drug, like say, cocaine. So, SUGAR, WHY on earth do we produce this?

And… Why is it that sugar is still produced in such quantities, even though it is known to be a major health risk. And why are markets growing, making even more people sugar dependent.  It is the wrong direction for anything that is advocated in official policies, notably from the World Health Organization. To top it off, the history of sugar production is a dirty one, and why should we continue by making more people ‘addicts’ of this unnecessary consumable.

Sugar beets are one of two major sources of refined sugar in the world today. Sugarcane, the dominant source is cultivated in the warmer regions. It has a long history and not so pretty, and fueled by slavery. Sugarcane, originally was chewed for its sweet energy. To produce sugar from this raw source, however, is not soo easy. I can even say from experience, since my first job in Okinawa, Japan was to cut sugarcane. The history as a global commodity is closely related to the history of slavery, sugarcane cultivation in the Southern United States especially., and the market is ever growing.  Sugar consumption, according to industry records, goes up 0.7% on average per year, and fast growing markets like Africa and Asia even increase from about 1.5 to 3% per year. This is attributed to rising populations, higher incomes, and changing diets.

Worldwide, many populations consume sugars at levels that exceed the WHO’s sugar guideline, such as Brazil, Canada, South Africa, the UK and the USA. Sugar consumption is growing, especially in low- and middle- income countries. The global consumption of sugar amounted to 172.6 in 2018/2019, and is projected to increase to about 171.8 million metric tons by 2020/2021. With the increase in world trade, better agricultural technology, among other reasons, sugar is cheaper and more widely available than ever. Almost three quarters of global sugar consumption each year takes place in developing countries. This overconsumption of sugar is taking place in the context of a cheap and abundant supply of sugar on the world market.

Even in wealthy countries as the Netherlands, where ‘healthy aging’ is high on the political agenda, it is estimated by the diabetes funds, that each adult sugar intake exceeds daily recommendation by 30%, for children this number is 80%. Approximately 60% of adults and 90% of the children do not comply with WHO guidelines. 

Although not the biggest player in the world sugar market (that one is reserved for sugarcane), the role of Sugar beets is structurally rising. This is also a result of a recent policy change.  In 2017 the EU abolished its sugar quotum; no more restrictions to the amount of sugar that can be produced in the EU. This also means that valuable agricultural land is used for sugar beet cultivation, a crop that is delivers no health benefits for humans, and depletes the soil. The economy the likely benefactor, even though this may pertain to a tiny segment of the population. For most of us, sugar is instant gratification with ill after effects.

Hopefully, COP26 will address our energy production and consumption in intelligent ways, Net Zero is high on the agenda, it is time, to include our other energy sources in this discussion as well, ones that are bad for our soils and bad for our health, Sugar is a big one.

As I commute on the train I pass the sugar factory, from field to table, I am in the midst of it, -sugar-high – bio desert, abstaining as best I can. Lucky for me I never had a sweet tooth.

* Now it has become known that early Harvard studies were paid by the sugar industry to blame fat for our health problems. https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/09/13/493739074/50-years-ago-sugar-industry-quietly-paid-scientists-to-point-blame-at-fat?t=1635862732160