Too Much of a Bad Thing

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Soil degradation may be largely irreversible: it takes thousands of years to create an inch of topsoil. With the UK losing some 3 million tonnes of topsoil annually, ways to halt this loss must be imagined and implemented, urgently. The question of how we grow, and what we grow, must be addressed. In doing so, we must examine the UK’s sugar industry.

Sugar beets are especially pernicious for soil health compared with other crops. Harvesting sugar beet causes approximately 9.1 ton of soil loss per hectare (excluding soil loss from water run-off ). While all root crops cause some soil loss during harvesting, beet is particularly bad because it is harvested in autumn, often in wet conditions, which is more damaging to the soil structure. A literature review of soil loss from harvest data measured in Europe revealed average soil loss due to crop harvesting values for sugar beet to be four times greater than for potatoes.

Farmers supplying British Sugar, a monopoly controlling the UK’s sugar beet harvest, extract 300,000 tonnes of topsoil from Britain’s most fertile fields during the course of the beet harvest. This suggests sugar cultivation could be responsible for a whopping 10% of the UK’s annual topsoil loss. Shockingly, British Sugar than sells this topsoil to the construction and landscaping industries under the brand TOPSOIL. In fact, this side-business makes British Sugar the largest supplier of topsoil in the UK. British Sugar is effectively converting some of the ‘best agricultural soils in the country’ into the likes of golf courses, and in the process removing them from the food system. Worryingly, British Sugar plans further growth of its TOPSOIL business.

What makes the environmental damage wreaked by British Sugar particularly troubling is that it results from growing a crop that the public, especially children, would be better off without. High sugar content in our foods is widely recognised as a leading cause of obesity and diet-related ill health. Getting more than 10% of your daily calorie intake from sugar (about 10 teaspoons) increases the risk of being overweight, obesity and tooth decay. It is worth noting that even before the removal of the EU sugar production quotas in October 2017 we were already growing and importing more than three times as much sugar as the World Health Organisation recommends. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs supported the removal of these production quotas; a policy which will lead to more and cheaper sugar adding to the 1.4 million tonnes already produced each year. This risks undermining efforts by the Department of Health and the Treasury to reduce sugar consumption with the introduction of the tax on sugary drinks. Indeed, sugar beet hectarage increased by 30% last year while British Sugar see potential to increase output by 50% now that the quota has been lifted, and there are talks of a new Yorkshire refinery that will double UK production.The USA has seen an increase in consumption of high fructose corn syrup of 1000% while corn farmers continue to receive subsidies. We must prevent the same thing from happening in the UK. Obesity is predicted to cost the NHS £9.7 billion per year by 2050, with wider costs to society and business projected to reach £49.9 billion per year. Meanwhile type II diabetes costs the British taxpayer £8.8 billion annually, while British Sugar corporate tax paid over the past five years comes to only £200 million, 0.04% of this figure.

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