EPISODE II: Sugar and its relation with human health, slavery, and environmental damage

EPISODE II: Sugar and its relation with human health, slavery, and environmental damage

Apart from fighting against the lack of clarity on food and drinks labels, as seen in Episode I, VSF has many other ongoing campaigns. One of them is 25 gramos, whose name refers to the daily amount of sugar that a person should consume, as the WHO recommends. Instead, the average consumption is Spain is over four times higher, a piece of statistics that could easily be extrapolated to other developed countries. But human health is not the only issue linked to the sugar industry. Javier Guzmán, director of VSF Justicia Alimentaria Global tell us about sugar's negative impact on different realms.

This article, as the previous one and the subsequents that will be published, is categoried as Green since it takes the perspective of VSF and its fight against all these practices by the food industry.

QUESTION. What are the consequences for human health, society and environment of this excessive consumption of sugar?

ANSWER. The first thing we need to know is that this is a problem with a global impact, since we have an increasingly globalized diet. The increase of obesity and other problems derived from food -given that sugar is a basic component- are happening all around the world: you will find obesity problems in Mexico, Uganda, Europe… And, on top of that, it is out of control and no country has been able to stop it yet. That is why food is a global health problem; the big problem.

Javier Guzmán, director of VSF

Javier Guzmán, director of VSF

For every day of health we lose because of the tobacco, we lose five days because of the food we eat; nearly 55% of cardiovascular diseases derive from a poor diet; almost 35% of cancers such as colon or those related to digestive organs; almost 45% of cases of diabetes are due to the consumption of artificial sugar. I mean, the big problem that we are facing in the world nowadays is linked to food, and to the products derived from an industry that has increasingly manufactured more processed commodities.

This, in the case of sugar... Where does it have a stronger impact? Of course, it impacts more on the working and popular classes, as unhealthy and junk food is much cheaper than healthy and fresh food. What has happened in Europe and around the world is that food prices of products that can be considered unhealthy and processed are at the same levels as in 1990. In contrast, the prices for fresh, healthy food have risen between 70% and 90% in recent years.

However, for example in Spain, research shows that almost 50% of the population cannot afford a healthy diet. We are not speaking of ecological or local food here, but about the nutritional pyramid [that half of the population] cannot follow because they cannot pay for it. If we look at the map of type 2 diabetes in Barcelona, the levels of incidence of the disease coincide with the income levels and studies of the different neighborhoods.

Therefore, the thing is clear: working classes -and especially the women-, are paying with their health the profits of some multinationals. In Barcelona, for example, the difference in life expectancy among neighborhoods is over 11 years, and that is closely related to food.

Regarding the environment, we are finding that large areas of sugar cane are being grown again. This is one of the worst crops, since is one of the most industrialized in which large amount of toxics are used. It is also one of the major water resources wasters.

In Guatemala, for example, we have seen how there are entire rivers diverted from their natural course to supply these fields; these fields that, apart from that, have people working in subhuman conditions, even sometimes children, and sometimes in slavery.

For example, the Brazilian labor ministry said some years ago that it was estimated that there were about 25,000 people in slavery, most of them linked to the production of sugar. And, in Bolivia, it is estimated that 7,000 children without a tutor were also working on this kind of plantations.

This has a huge impact because the big sugar business, which moves billions of dollars in the world, is in the hands of 4 or 5 multinationals; classic, some of them. There is British Sugar, and also its French counterpart, Brazilian and German companies, etc.

They are actually managing a big business worldwide and we are increasingly consuming more sugar. Although people have the perception (and this is one of the most striking things) that we have reduced our consumption of sugar, -either because people take care of themselves, or because they put less sugar in their coffees- actually, around 80% of the sugar we consume is hidden in products we don't believe they contain sugar. Thus, our daily average of sugar consumption is 112g. This is outrageous compared to what the WHO recommends: 25 grams.

And this also results in an increase of sugar imports from third countries. In Spain for example, 50% of the sugar consumed is imported, because the total soil area in the country wouldn't be enough to produce what is consumed.

Therefore, if we followed the WHO's recommendation, -not the current one of 25g per day, but even the previous of 50g- just with the production that exists in Spain would be more than enough for having a healthy intake and avoid sugar imports from several countries, because we aren’t really controlling what is going on behind these companies.

Sugar cane plantation - Photo by Jeevan

Sugar cane plantation - Photo by Jeevan

QUESTION. It is curious, because you mention British Sugar or other multinationals dedicated to the sugar business, but these are names we are not familiar with, so that we aren’t aware of the power they may have.

ANSWER. Of course, in reality what people get are the names of retail and distribution companies: those that sell chocolates, juices, sugary drinks, etc. Many of them are actually also within the sugar conglomerates, in fact. But, of course, those other big [sugar] multinationals and that of production that are behind them don't appear on the media. They have their strategy to keep safe and not suffer any kind of pressure.

It must be said that in Spain there are two large sugar groups: Azucarera Española and ACOR. Well, the former is part of British Sugar, and the latter is part of Tereos, a group from France. As a matter of fact, even if we think they are Spanish companies that are producing sugar for its consumption in this country, they actually belong to a multinational working at a global scale.

 

IN THE NEXT EPISODE...

In Episode, Javier Guzmán speaks about marketing and advertising of junk food aimed at children.

 

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