A not so sweet sugar rush

Campaigns and Advocacy, GROW, Media Releases, Opinion article written on the 03 Oct 2013

Most of us know that sugar in large quantities isn’t good for us.

But there are some hidden nasties in the sugar story that we don’t know about.

Sugar is not just bad for our health, it’s also bad for the communities around the world that have been forced off their land without compensation to make way for massive sugar plantations to meet soaring global demand.

From Cambodia to Brazil, the rush for land on which to grow sugar is tearing communities away from their homes, forcing some into slums while leaving others destitute and unable to feed themselves.

The rush is on because global consumption of sugar has more than doubled in the past 50 years, and sugar production is expected to rise by 25 per cent by 2020.  That’s some global sweet tooth.

The world sugar trade is worth a whopping $50 billion a year, with 31 million hectares – an area bigger than Victoria – already being used to grow the world’s sugar, much of it in poor countries.

More than half of the sugar produced is used in processed foods such as soft drinks, sweets, baked goods and ice-cream.  So food and drink companies have a huge part to play in ensuring communities are treated fairly.

Oxfam’s new report out today (2 Oct), Nothing Sweet About it: How sugar fuels land grabs, shines a light on some mostly hidden land-grabbing practices, and calls on the biggest names in the food and drink industry to be more transparent about what goes on in their networks of suppliers.

The report highlights examples of land grabs and disputes linked to companies that supply sugar for Coca-Cola and PepsiCo products, and allegations of land disputes among suppliers of Associated British Foods – whose brands include Twinings and Ovaltine.  

These companies are the world’s biggest producers and buyers of sugar, but they are doing little to ensure the sugar in their products is not grown on land grabbed from poor communities.

Among stories Oxfam has heard is that of a fishing community in Pernambuco State, Brazil, which is fighting for access to its land and fishing grounds after having been violently evicted in 1998 by a sugar mill. The mill provides sugar to Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. Many families are now living in slums and struggling to make a living.

Meanwhile, in Sre Ambel District in Cambodia, 200 families are fighting for land from which they were evicted in 2006 to make way for a sugar plantation. The plantation has supplied Tate & Lyle Sugars, which sells sugar to franchises that manufacture and bottle products for Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. The families’ lives have been devastated, as they no longer have anywhere to grow crops or graze their livestock.

So what can the three companies do?  Firstly, they can commit to zero tolerance of land grabs throughout their networks of suppliers. 

They should also publicly disclose who and where they source their commodities, publish assessments about how the sugar they buy affects local communities’ land rights, and use their power to encourage governments and the wider food industry to respect land rights.

These companies have a huge amount of power and influence. If they act, they could transform the industry.

Coca-Cola, for example, is listed as having the highest brand value of any company in the world in the 2011 Best Global Brands list, with a brand value estimated to be more than $75 billion.

PepsiCo is close behind Coca-Cola as the world’s second biggest soft drink company, controlling 18 per cent of the global soft drink market.

Imagine the positive reverberations throughout the food and drink industry if companies like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Associated British Foods came clean on how they are conducting business in poor countries, announcing policies that aimed to protect communities from having their land seized without their consent.

Then we, as consumers, would also be able to enjoy our nice, comforting sugary products guilt-free … well, almost.

 Dr Helen Szoke, Chief Executive, Oxfam Australia

This opinion editorial was first published on news.com.au on 2 October 2013.