Bitter Crop

Now that high-fructose corn syrup is on the hot seat, people are happily turning back to good old-fashioned sugar. But a fascinating piece on Bay Area Bites reminds us that sugar comes with its own price. A new film, The Price of Sugar, documents the lives of Haitian workers in the cane fields of the Dominican Republic. The laborers work for slave wages and are kept on starvation rations. They are locked in run-down barracks surrounded with barbed wire and armed guards. They have almost no access to medical care or education. And some are children.

Thy Tran, who wrote the Bay Area Bites blog entry, acknowledges the burnout potential here:

I know, you’re already rolling your eyes or reaching for your mouse. Who wants to add sugar to the growing list of politicized food? Chocolate, coffee, corn, every fish and fowl and four-legged creature under the sun, and now this? Is nothing safe for the conscientious eater to enjoy?

Tran then goes on to give a history of how the early slave trade in the UK and the United States was linked to sugar production.

In 1791, abolitionists in the United Kingdom declared a boycott on sugar from the West Indies, where sugar plantations flourished with the help of the burgeoning slave economy. Diaries from the period mention how troublesome it was to entertain guests who were boycotting sugar, while Punch cartoonists poked fun at ‘anti-saccharrite’ families that refused to offer sugar at teatime. There were valiant attempts to hold awareness-raising bake sales with cakes and cookies prepared without sugar or else only with sugar from India. (Thanksgiving cooks everywhere can empathize—how to fit the tofu next to the turkey?)

Today, sugar production in the U.S. is big agribusiness, with its own legacy of heavy chemicals, intensive irrigation needs, and labor issues. Want to opt out of your support of it? Tran explains which elected representatives to contact, and how to buy fair-trade sugar.

It’s fascinating stuff, if a little bittersweet.