Cane, beet and the power of the sugar lobby

Sugar is one of the most valuable agricultural commodities. In 2016, it was the second most cultivated raw material in the world. On average, a Belgian ate about 95 grams of sugar a day, the equivalent of 27 cubes! It is clear that a lot of products contain sugar, including those you wouldn’t expect, such as pasta and bread. Therefore it is essential that its production is carried out in a social and ecological way.

The sugar you find in our stores is made from sugarcane or sugar beet. Sugar beet is cultivated in colder climates, so it mainly grows in the northern hemisphere. Sugarcane, on the other hand, is cultivated in tropical countries, such as Paraguay, Malawi, Brazil, Colombia, India and Mozambique. Due to the ideal climate in the Global South and the small-scale agriculture, it is possible to cultivate the plant in an environmentally friendly and efficient way.

Yet we still see that the trade rules are written to suit the large-scale, industrial monoculture from Europe and North-America (which damages the environment and climate worldwide) and that small-scale farmers are denied opportunities. Small farmers have very little influence on the complex and extensive worldwide sugar industry. They have to compete with countries that can devote more financial resources to sugar production and have more political power to promote and subsidize their sugar industry.

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Furthermore, the farmers who cultivate sugarcane struggle to survive on their income. The price they get for selling their cane to sugar refineries is often not enough to cover their production costs. As a result, they end up in a debt trap, with new debts being incurred to pay off older ones. There is very little money to invest in their farm, making it difficult for them to react to the challenges of the changes on the market, such as newer and better technologies. All this has consequences for the entire community. Sugar cane producers often depend on help from their families. As a result, people have fewer opportunities for education, and the cycle of poverty is perpetuated.

To improve the position of those small-scale sugar cane farmers and the communities dependent on the crop, Fairtrade sugar was first launched in the nineties. The farmers gain better access to international markets and acquire skills to better compete in the world market through Fairtrade certification and the collaboration with sugarcane producers. The Fairtrade premium allows farmers to invest in in things they need, leading to a more ecological and sustainable production.

And it is precisely that sustainable agricultural model that should take precedence over the large-scale, industrial monoculture, if we ultimately want to reduce our global impact on the environment. It is important to give the sustainably grown cane sugar from the South a fair chance and to provide space for it on store shelves, alongside sustainably grown cane sugar from the North.

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