10 February 2013

The Crystals of Catastrophe

by Peter Lanyon 

Sugar beet is such a feature of Norfolk farming that one may take it for granted. One expects to get stuck behind those lorries and to see the plume of steam above the Cantley factory. We are always hearing of new pests and diseases and of the wrong sort of weather for the crop, and we don’t notice that these headlines are interspersed with record-breaking sugar beet harvests.

We pass so many people every day who are obese that we don’t notice that either, however much harm we know it does to folk and however much of the NHS’s struggling budget is devoted to treating it.

Put these two commonplaces together and one wants to deny it, to say it must be more complex than that. It’s not. East Anglia is a centre for growing a drug that damages far more people than tobacco and narcotics, is not only legal but is blatantly flaunted, contains no useful fibre, minerals, or vitamins, is pure, white and deadly, and was castigated as causing “The Saccharine Disease” as long ago as 1974 By Dr T L Cleave.

There’s more. Because it’s a bulky crop torn out of the fields during the winter when they are wet, it requires machinery that destroys the structure of the soil, compacting the deeper layers and churning the shallower ones to lifeless mud. This became so bad a few years back that the mud being trundled out of fields onto the roads became an East Anglian scandal, only shelved by the development of more expensive machinery, but much of the soil ends as mud in the water courses as before. Bigger machinery still cajoles the denatured soil back into what passes for health in time for the next crop.

What is disguised during this rape of the land is that East Anglia’s topsoil is being removed from its fields and run into its ditches, streams, rivers, drains and sewage systems. Since the Romans navigated their way far inland along the regions’ many rivers, these waterways have become progressively silted up, a mere vestige of their former size and depth. When we boast of the Broads as a boating paradise, we conceal the fact that they are a trivial (and artificial) remnant of a one-time efficient and low-energy method of transport.

The silting up has increased enormously since fossil fuel replaced horses, and since mechanisation required our fields to be run together, with ditches and field-draining often modified in piecemeal fashion instead of through sensible overall planning. This is one of the main reasons for the increase in flooding, only you won’t often hear the Government or water utilities admit this – the farming lobby is too powerful for that. Indeed our farmers will tell you, correctly, that since 2006, reduced subsidies paid to them by the EU have forced them considerably to reduce the amount of sugar beet they grow.

The EU had to do this to conform to the World Trade Organisation’s requirements to reduce such subsidies to prevent sugar beet being sold at below world market prices. Thanks to the subsidies our farmers had been getting, they could afford to sell their sugar so cheaply that exporters could dump it on less developed countries still cheaply enough to put those countries’ own farmers out of business. Oxfam played a memorable role in attacking this shabby system, and our Government and our farmers have never forgiven them for it. But for Oxfam and other NGOs, we would be wrecking our fields even more with sugar beet than we are now.

I wish the tale might end there. It can’t. There are two big UK sugar firms, Associated British Foods (AFB) that produces Silver Spoon, and Tate and Lyle. While the two firms’ granulated white sugars are exactly the same substance – pure, white and deadly crystallised sucrose – Tate and Lyle has always been proud that its product is pure cane sugar, whereas AFB’s Silver Spoon is proudly home-grown beet sugar. Norfolk is near the northern limit for growing beet, and the tropical sugar cane has a higher sugar yield and is sometimes considered to be a more efficient use of land. The appalling conditions of sugar cane workers, however, mean that is nothing but hypocrisy. One can’t compare the sugar cane workers’ casualties from pesticides, cutlass injuries, heat, overwork and callous employers on the one hand with damage to our own soil from growing sugar beet on the other. Each ought to be avoided – even if it didn’t result in our addiction to sugar!

Associated with the restructuring of the sugar industry in the wake of the EU changes, several refineries in the UK closed down, and AFB began to shift their focus towards cane sugar, buying sugar importers Billingtons and then South African cane plantation owners Illovo. I shall let Simon Fairlie, joint editor of The Land (Issue 13, Winter 2012-13) continue:
 “In theory the increase in demand for sugar cane should have improved prospects for third world farmers. But most of the imports are not coming from smallholder producers in poor developing countries; instead the beneficiaries are more likely to be land-hungry agro-industrialists who want to cash in on the sugar-cane boom.”

The massive land-grabbing perpetrated by rich corporations across the world deserves a column of its own, but because of the war in Mali it’s appropriate to mention one such land grab there, up-river on the Niger from its broad inland delta on the fringe of the Sahara. The delta area depends on the river for its remarkably rich and complex ecosystem providing sustenance for three different ethnic groups.

Further up the river a barrage was completed by the French well before independence to realise a dream of irrigating a million hectares of farmland, but so far less than a tenth of it has been developed. To change this, Mali began looking for foreign investors, and one of those was Illovu, mentioned above as a part of ABF, owners of Silver Spoon, who planned to cultivate some 14,000 hectares of sugar cane there.

“Its contract stipulated that the regional government should first remove the 1,600 people occupying the land, and the project’s water needs should be fully met before anyone else on the distribution canal can receive anything. If there is any water left that is. The project will take 20 cubic metres a second from the River Niger during the first phase alone ……. According to the Office du Niger data, since 2006 the barrage has failed to discharge the official minimum of water downstream to the delta between January and May. There simply isn’t enough water now.”*

Illovu pulled out when the war started, but one can imagine the chaos it left behind.

As a young man I was deeply upset by Vicki Baum’s “The Weeping Wood”, about the sadness behind the history of rubber, and still feel unease about that material. If we renamed sugar as “the crystals of catastrophe” might it help us to wean ourselves off our dreadful addiction?

* - extracted from Fred Pearce’s book The Landgrabbers: The New Fight Over Who Owns the Earth, Eden Project Books, 2012, featured in The Land (ibid), for which I am grateful.

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