Too Much of a Bad Thing
Just a Spoonful of Sugar Depletes our Soils and the NHS Budget in the Most Delightful Way (for the Weston family and their foundation)
Feedback’s Executive Director Carina Millstone explains why growing sugar in the UK is causing catastrophic soil degradation and how the industry is lining the pockets of one wealthy family and their foundation.
If you’re after evidence that we urgently need to change how we produce and consume our food, look no further than the sugar beet. Sugar beet could be considered the ‘poster crop’ for pretty much everything that is wrong with our globalised, corporatised food system.
Despite the UK’s modest size, it is the 11th largest producer of sugar beet worldwide, behind giants in the top 10 such as Russia, the United States or China. This gives our nation the dubious honour of having the largest proportion of our land devoted to sugar beets of all countries. No wonder Brits have such a sweet tooth – and spiralling rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
Whilst the disastrous health impacts of sugar are well-known – thanks to the superb work of Action on Sugar, Sugar Smart and others – yet we are only beginning to understand the catastrophic effects of sugar beets on the environment and food security.
No sugar coating
For evidence of what sugar beet is doing to the environment, two seminal reports released in the last few months come to mind. Firstly, the determinedly optimistic report from the EAT-Lancet Commission and secondly the truly terrifying This is a Crisis report from the IPPR. The former makes it very clear that sugar consumption in countries such as the UK must be reduced by at least 50% if we are to secure healthy diets for all without catastrophic biodiversity loss and climate change. The latter reminds us that global and British soils are now so depleted as to affect our future ability to grow food. Some of the most affected soils are in East Anglia, the very heart of the century-old sugar beet industry.
So why are we still growing and eating sugar when it’s quite clearly a disaster for both our health and planet? To answer this question, I asked myself who’s making money from the stuff? Some cursory googling revealed some truly startling answers.
Who really are British Sugar?
British Sugar is the sole processor of sugar beet in the UK – if you’re a sugar beet farmer wanting to bring your product to market, there’s no escaping the company. Its name may make it sound like a quaint throwback to the era of public ownership, but don’t be fooled. The monopoly is in fact a subsidiary of AB Sugar, itself part of Associated British Foods or ABF, a ‘diversified’ business whose brands include Ryvita, Twinings and, incongruously, Primark.
ABF is listed on the London Stock Exchange, but the corporation is majority owned by holding company Wittington Investments Ltd, which is itself 20% owned by the Canadian Weston family and 80% owned by the Garfield Weston Foundation. The Foundation is one of the largest grant giving foundations around, who, with no discernible trace of irony, give funds to a range of health and environmental causes in the UK (including, historically, and for full disclosure, to Feedback).
Who benefits from UK sugar production?
Put another way: British Sugar exists to line the pockets of a wealthy family, and, to give the Westons credit where it’s due, their undoubtedly generous philanthropic activities. And yet the enrichment of the Westons and of their foundation comes at a terrible cost to our soils, climate and health, which no amount of charitable donations can put right.
The true cost
Whist the environmental costs of British Sugar’s activities are hard to quantify, the cost to the NHS are all-too known. In fact, our fondness (or perhaps addiction) to sugar is one of the great threats to our healthcare system. Shocking fact: the NHS spends more on treating obesity and diabetes than is spent by the government on the police, the fire service and the judicial system combined.
Not only is the public paying for the health ‘externalities’ of British Sugar, it is also subsidising the production of beets in the first place. In fact, a recent study has shown that some 3,500 British sugar beet farmers are currently receiving public subsidies to the tune of €29 million a year to grow their beets (which is, at the same study points out, and in a somewhat pleasingly unfortunate coincidence, the same amount spent by NHS England extracting children’s rotten teeth under general anaesthetic.)
30% of the world’s arable land has become unproductive due to erosion.
Institute for Public Policy Research
British Sugar is a remarkable case of private profit generation at massive socialised health and environmental loss. I was truly shocked and angry when I realised this, and as a parent trying to limit my children’s sugar intake, still am.
Ending the sugar rush
If the government wishes to improve health in the UK, the sugary drinks tax may be a good start but will ultimately not cut it. How can we expect sugar consumption to reduce when the industry is fighting decaying tooth-and-nail to grow? What we need instead is a structured government programme. We need to both reduce sugar consumption and production: the agricultural policies need to work with health policies, not against them.
In the coming months, Feedback will be launching our Too Much of a Bad Thing campaign calling the government to support farmers to move away from growing sugar beets. Instead, support them to grow crops and manage their land to provide good nutrition. We want to see support for re-wilding or afforestation for carbon dioxide removal (possibly throwing in a few sycamore trees for our sweetness fix), in line with Mr Gove’s oft-quoted ‘public money for public goods’ principle.
Stay tuned for updates. In the meantime, British Sugar are asking us to #BackBritishSugar. I would suggest #BackOffBritishSugar is a more apt alternative for a product that is bad for us and bad for the Planet.
Image: David Wright / Sugar Beet Crop on the Saxby to Barton Road
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