high-fructose corn syrup -- 10/2/23

Today's excerpt -- from The World of Sugar by Ulbe Bosma. Since the 1700s, sugar has been one of the world’s chief agricultural commodities, albeit one where countries have increasingly attended to their own sweetener industries at the expense of cross-border trade. One consequence of this has been the shift in the U.S. away from imported cane sugar to domestic high-fructose corn syrup as a sweetener, taking the U.S. market largely away from producers in the Global South:

“By the 1980s sugar had entered a corporate age in which globalization, deregulation of markets, and the growing power of transnational corporations set the tune. Sugar production and consumption had grown spectacularly across the globe. Yet the international trade in sugar waned. Since the 1920s, the sugar industry had become increasingly attuned toward domestic consumption, and fifty years later this made up 75 percent of its markets. At that point, the production of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in Japan and the United States, so detrimental to sugar producers in the Global South, was just about to begin.

“As we have seen, national interests and protectionism provide the explanation for the decline in the international trade in sugar. In the days of Adam Smith, protectionism was denounced as unfair and even complicit in inhuman institutions such as slavery. It was, moreover, perceived as the favorite strategy of weaker nations to shield their inefficient economies from competition. History has shown, however, that in the case of sugar it was not the weakest economies but the most powerful--those of the United States, the European Union (EU), and Japan--that committed themselves to highly protectionist sugar policies. This should not be surprising as the history of sugar demonstrates time and again how industrial capitalism has been tremendously facilitated by the state, not least through stiff tariffs and generous export subsidies. The role of the state in the development of global capitalism has only grown over time, and this has definitely been the case with regard to sugar. This, in turn, explains the present paradoxical situation in which heavy protectionism allows huge transnational corporations to develop and dominate the world of sugar. 

“Through a combination of massive subsidies and stiff tariffs on imports, the EU enabled its companies to export, or rather dump, millions of tons of sugar on the world markets. At the turn of the twenty-first century, the EU had a 17 percent share in the global exports of raw sugar (and 30 percent share of white refined sugar exports), only surpassed by Brazil, with a share of 26 percent. Thailand and Cuba followed, with 9 and 8 percent respectively.  For Oxfam, one of the world's most prominent nongovernmental development agencies, the situation was crystal clear in 2004: ‘Europe dumps around five million tons of excess sugar on world markers each year, artificially depressing prices and depriving efficient developing country producers of potential revenue.’

“In the United States, meanwhile, domestic sugar and sweetener interests won out over the geopolitical clientelism that had been a crucial element in the American Sugar Kingdom. It has been estimated that a thorough reform of the sugar policies of both the United States and the EU would have allowed countries in the Global South to fetch prices up to a third higher on average in the 1990s. The Caribbean sugar estates would have been able to secure prices up to 68.2 percent higher, and many of them would not have perished.

1917 Karo advertisement encouraging corn syrup as a wartime sugar substitute

“While in Europe and the United States big sugar corporations flourished behind tariff walls, governments across the Global South decided to relinquish protections, and cooperative projects in particular. International consultancy firms and the World Bank restructured their sugar industries, which usually happened at the expense of smallholders and cooperatives. This opened the door for transnational sugar corporations. These, however, were no longer exclusively based in the Global North but also in Southern Africa, Thailand, China, and Latin America. Nonetheless, a declining number of multinationals control both the input (e.g., fertilizer, seeds) as well as the output (e.g., beverages, food, and fuel) of the sector. Hundreds of millions of farmers and a much larger number of consumers are dependent upon a shrinking pool of food corporations that increase their wealth by widening the gap between farmer and consumer prices. 

“Meanwhile, the acreage under cane rapidly expanded as governments in the Global South, and the big producers such as Brazil, India, and Thailand, embraced ethanol production to save their industry from being destroyed by sugar dumping and protectionism of the industrialized countries. This has burdened the world with immense ecological costs and consumer households subsidize the sector to the tune of $50 billion annually. The trend away from plantation to smallholder sugar cultivation has been reversed in favor of capital-intensive plantation enterprises that are akin to mining companies, geared toward getting the maximum energy out of the soil at minimal cost.”

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Ulbe Bosma


The World of Sugar: How the Sweet Stuff Transformed Our Politics, Health, and Environment over 2,000 Years


Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press


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