Sugar is big business

March 11th 2014

Duncan Williamson

Duncan Williamson

Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched new draft guidelines on sugars intake. Here, the WHO highlights the benefits of reducing sugar intake ‘to below 5% of total energy intake per day’. This is the equivalent of six teaspoons a day.

The statement is a welcome move by the WHO, especially at a time where sugar is becoming more and more ubiquitous – yet often hidden from the consumer.

Today, sugar is big business. It’s driving large-scale land acquisitions, although it’s a food we don’t need to grow or to add to our food. We no longer get our sweet fix from sugarcane or honey alone. Today, it comes from fruit and corn as well as other sources. It seems our ingenuity to find new ways to satisfy our so-called ‘sweet tooth’ is endless. We add it to our bread, our breakfast cereal, it’s in savoury ready meals and of course it’s added to our drinks. Sometimes it’s called sugar, or fructose, or corn syrup, or glucose or dehydrated cane juice. Some food and drink will have three or four varieties of sugar added. All this for a food that we eat too much off, we don’t need and is believed to cause ill-health.

Feeding this sugar habit takes a lot of resources, land, water, fertilizer and pesticides. Sugar is the second most grown commodity globally, only soy beats it. Palm oil uses half the amount of land that sugar does. Many large-scale land acquisitions involve commodities that are heavily used to produce both food and biofuels: sugar, soy, and palm oil. Collectively they use 150m hectares of land and have been linked to more than 380 large-scale land acquisitions since 2000.

©Simon Rawles Caption: Sugar beet from a Norfolk farm.

©Simon Rawles
Caption: Sugar beet from a Norfolk farm.

Sugar is a land-intensive crop and a key ingredient for the food industry, with 51 percent of all sugar produced being used in processed foods. Sugar is produced on 31m hectares of land globally – an area the size of Italy.

Between 1961 and 2009, global sugar and sweetener consumption more than doubled. This growth is a very recent phenomenon. It happened without us realising it, and at the same time as a growth in our waistlines – though it is not the sole cause of this. In the 80s we demonised fat. Fat represented everything that was wrong with our diets. The diet and health food industry took off. Fat was removed, replaced by sugar and sweeteners and we were all advised to do more exercise. Since then, people in the developed world have become fatter while eating more low-fat food and taking part in a huge variety of weight loss programs and diets. We are buying more cook books and diet books than ever before but still getting fatter and cooking less. Something is wrong.

Perhaps it’s time to look at our food and reduce the amount of sugar we’re eating.  The demand for sugar is set to rise by a further 25 percent by 2020. This will require more land, water and other resources to grow it. If that’s not achievable, we’ll need to stop growing other foods. There will be an additional pressure on our health, and society will have to foot the bill for the treatment.

For me the questions we all need to ask are:

Do we really want that much sugar added to our food?

Should so much land be turned over to growing cane, beet, corn etc, for a food we don’t need in our diet? We need to remember, putting land aside to grow sugar is a poor use of resources. In an increasingly resource constrained world isn’t this unacceptable? Isn’t growing sugar a waste of land?

We have an obesity problem throughout the world, and millions of people go hungry. Wouldn’t it be a better use of resources to grow food that is full of nutrients, provides an income and allows us to leave land for nature?

Diabetes and other diet related ill health is a major global problem and will cost billions to treat. Shouldn’t governments and people focus on reducing our sugar consumption and promote plant based eating? Is it time to look at a sugar tax? Or maybe excluding sugar based crops from agricultural subsidies?

These are not WWF policies, just questions that need asking. The first, simple step that we could all support is the move – recently recommended by Action on Sugar in the UK – for companies to reduce the amount of sugar in their foods by 30 percent. This will be a step in the right direction.

Sugar, like many things, is fine in moderation; we all love a toffee or a mug of sweet tea or a slice of cake. However do we really need it in our bread or added to our ready meals?

Duncan Williamson

Food Policy Manager – WWF-UK

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