Tracing the Colonial Legacy of UK Sugar

1st Dec 23 by Jessica Sinclair Taylor & Krysia Woroniecka

The UK sugar industry has a long and ignoble history of state-supported exploitation, racism and colonialism.

Recently the government committed a small act of sanity by deciding not to go ahead with granting the UK’s only sugar cane importer, Tate & Lyle, an  extra tariff-free quota of sugar cane. Effectively, this would have given Tate & Lyle a tax break to increase the UK’s sugar supply even further. The UK already has far too much sugar on the market – more than 2.5 times the amount needed to give everyone their recommended allowance.

How the government props up Big Sugar

A very brief history of sugar production reveals that sugar production has long been entwined with state support, with enormous impacts on the lives of people across the globe. Described as ‘White Gold’, sugar acted as the economic vehicle of hundreds of years of oppression and murder of enslaved Africans and Afro-Caribbeans.

The UK sugar industry has a long and ignoble history of state-supported exploitation, racism and colonialism, which continues to this day. Back in the 17th century, the British Crown applied protectionist taxation policies to support imports of semi-processed sugar grown by enslaved Africans in plantations in the Caribbean. Slavery – the backbone of the early sugar industry – was underwritten by state support from the very beginning. This stretches to the present day – it was only in 2015 that British taxpayers finished ‘paying off’ a massive debt incurred by the government to compensate slave owners when slavery was abolished in 1835. Meanwhile, reparations and compensation to those who were enslaved remain firmly off the state’s agenda.

Plantation sugar was historically refined by many small refineries around the UK. Today the UK has only two sugar producers: Tate & Lyle Sugars (owned by American company ASR), which refines imported sugar cane; and British Sugar, which refines domestically grown sugar beet. This extraordinary duopoly has, and continues to, enjoy special treatment from the state – Tate & Lyle has access to tariff-free imports of sugar cane, and British Sugar, which received 11 years of subsidy in the 1930s and 1940s before eventually being nationalised, continues as a private corporation to benefit from agricultural subsidy of the production of beet.

One reason often given for ongoing subsidy of sugar imports in particular is that the UK has a historic responsibility to Caribbean sugar-producing nations to support this industry – an implicit and perhaps unconscious acknowledgement of the deep and abiding harm to not only the people brought to the Caribbean to work on sugar plantations, but also the land and economies of sugar-producing former colonies. Sugar plantations displaced Indigenous people, and destroyed the ecosystems upon which they depended. Today, this guilt-laced and ineffective logic no longer stands up – since Brexit liberalised our trade regime, the majority of UK sugar cane imports now come from Brazil, which is seen by ASR as offering ‘higher environmental and ethical standards’.

The reality is that sugar has always been monopolised to produce profits for the few and harms for the many. These harms disproportionately affect people of colour.

Sugar continues to damage black bodies today. Black people and people of colour are more likely to suffer from diet-related health impacts linked to overconsumption of highly sweetened foods, including Type 2 Diabetes. Childhood tooth decay, one of the biggest health impacts of overconsumption of sugar, is highest in Asian, Black and Mixed race children.

Colonialism and corporate greed – a recipe for our sugar addiction

In 1999, Harvard historian Walter Johnson wrote: “Much of the Atlantic trade was triangular: enslaved people from Africa; sugar from the West Indies and Brazil; money and manufactures from Europe… People were traded along the bottom of the triangle; profits would stick at the top.”

The same holds true today. As climate change drives fluctuations in sugar production and prices rise, neither farmers growing sugar beet in the UK, nor Black communities, benefit from the vast proceeds of this so-called ‘White Gold’. Associated British Foods, the holding company for British Sugar, brought in £162 million in profits in 2021/2022 from its worldwide sugar business. Meanwhile, Tate & Lyle’s UK sugar operations are now owned by American Sugar Refining Group, whose profits in Europe 2022 were EUR29.8 million. The sums are vast, and they continue to be made on the back of exploitation, whilst inaccurate narratives around guilt prevent us from pursuing justice: Money flows up the corporate pile, and the damage is left on the millions of bodies affected by this dangerous industry.

The history of ‘White Gold’ is a reminder that even the mundane things in our kitchen cupboards, snuck into our food, and passing through the tedious stages of government quota consultations, are deeply tied up in the threads of exploitation that run throughout our food system – those of the past and the ones we’re still untangling today.

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