UK has 'moral responsibility' to limit EU sugar reform damage

By Niamh Michail contact

- Last updated on GMT

“The over-consumption of sugar in our diets is now a well-documented public health disaster. But in order to address this problem, there is a vast range of other issues that must be addressed," said Lang.
“The over-consumption of sugar in our diets is now a well-documented public health disaster. But in order to address this problem, there is a vast range of other issues that must be addressed," said Lang.

Related tags: High-fructose corn syrup, Eu

The end of EU sugar beet quotas could worsen the obesity crisis and damage the livelihoods of sugar cane growers and producers – and as an ex-colonial power Britain has a moral responsibility to act, says a report by the Food Research Collaboration.

In the report entitled Should the UK be concerned about sugar?​, co-authors Tim Lang and Victoria Schoen warned a drop in sugar prices following the 2017 reform could make the commodity a cheap and attractive ingredient for food manufacturers - encouraging them to up the sugar content of their foods and worsening the obesity crisis.

The sugar cane industry has been artificially buoyed up by protectionist EU tariffs guaranteeing a minimum price for sugar cane growers,  but these are set to end in 2017.

This leaves the livelihoods of growers in developing countries exposed to an inevitable drop in prices as sugar beet from the EU enters the market and lowers sugar prices, the report said.

Market analysts at the Kingsman EU sugar seminar this year predicted that the EU - currently a net importer -  will likely become a net exporter of sugar following the reforms. 

Dangerous innovation

“If the EU reform holds prices for sugar in the EU at low levels … consumption may increase. A lower sugar price will make it economically more viable to incorporate calorific sweeteners into processed products, potentially increasing the overall sugar content of foods," ​the authors wrote.

“Innovation to incorporate sugar into a greater range of foods may also be encouraged.”

The report also warns against a possible increase in the use of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) - known as isoglucose or glucose-fructose syrup in Europe - following the reform.

In the UK, where obesity would cost the NHS and society at large nearly £60m per year by 2050, according to a 2014 Public Health England report, sugar reduction was vital.

‘A moral obligation’

Despite hitting out against the harmful health effects of sugar, the report recognised that the sugar cane industry was a vital source of income to some countries – as much as 40% of all exports for Guyana and 25% for Belize and Fiji. 

It suggested that the UK had a moral responsibility to protect fragile sugar cane growers from market changes due to its colonial past, and called for British policymakers to lead efforts in helping current sugar cane producers find alternative employment and land-use.

“The British were responsible for establishing large-scale sugar plantations in the West Indies in the 17th century and this made sugar affordable for the masses.

“Profits from the sugar trade helped to build the British Empire and necessitated expansion of the Atlantic slave trade to work the plantations. The UK/EU has a moral duty to continue to support imports from these poor nations,” ​the authors wrote.

Are biofuels the solution?

There were several policy options open to the UK ahead of the reform, such as continuing to import sugar cane whilst using domestic sugar beet for alternate use, thus protecting both industries.

Sugar beet can be used to produce biofuel, ethanol, and in the UK at present the use of beet for ethanol is as important as the alternative crop, wheat.

“[And] according to the [French sugar beet growers' association] CGB, beet production for ethanol is more highly profitable than wheat production on a per hectare basis.”

But for a smooth transition to take place once the reform kicked in, Lang and Schoen said a sense of urgency in policy-making and investment was needed.

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