The Sweet Taste of Excess

Issue 295
March/April 2016
Walking Back to Happiness

Reviews

The Sweet Taste of Excess
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Cover: Sarah Boden, hill farmer, Isle of Eigg www.sopiegerrard.com

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Joanna Blythman welcomes a fresh approach to tackling the sugar monster. Sugar by Ben Richardson. Polity Press, 2015. ISBN: 9780745680156

Sugar only recently replaced saturated fat as the dietary demon, and for the time being the public discourse around it remains pretty binary. Either it is pure nutritional evil, and so should be reduced or replaced (the campaigners’ line), or it is merely a convenient punch bag for citizens’ inability to make savvy choices about the composition of their diet (the food industry line). Either way, this dialogue isn’t going anywhere fast.

Ben Richardson is an authority on sugar, and his latest book on it, written from an “eco-Marxist” perspective, takes our thinking down fresh and ultimately more productive paths. Face it: sugar is here to stay, so how can we democratise its production and consumption?

Richardson’s vision of a qualitatively different sugar economy is intriguing. He explores the economist – and early Resurgence supporter – E.F. Schumacher’s notion of appropriate technology and the idea that small-scale, more artisan methods that effectively limit production and processing are preferable, and much more equitable, than profit-driven mechanisation, dubbed “factories in fields”, even if this is carried out in the name of improving workers’ conditions. In tandem with a different trade model of fair exchange, based on local trade and direct selling – Richardson cites the approach of Edinburgh-based Equal Exchange here – a re-envisaged sugar system could fundamentally “overhaul … the way that sweetness is consumed”.

Richardson argues that to achieve such a shift we don’t have to just rethink our relationship to sugar per se, but also change our relationships with one another. What’s the point of reducing sugar consumption, he asks, if people just suffer from other forms of diet-related ill health instead? From Richardson’s perspective, sugar is no one-off bogeyman to be isolated and defeated, but a key structural prop in the global capitalist food economy. So tackling the sugar monster ultimately means challenging the profit-driven organisation of food and farming itself.

Amen to that. And if this proposition sounds daunting, Richardson argues that the blatant dysfunction of the present sugar economy – the fact that it undermines the basis of its own survival by making us ill, for example – leaves us room to reconfigure it, provided that we don’t let the issue be reduced to “individual choice at the checkout”.

Richardson is an academic, and although the book is admirably readable, it is also a solid intellectual work that surveys a wealth of research and interesting ideas from a wide range of academic disciplines, and this gives it heft and authority. This fascinating material allows Richardson to explore sugar thoughtfully, and in so doing he shines a light on the dynamics of the whole industrial food system. As someone who has investigated the inner workings of this behemoth, I say his analysis is astute.

He introduces us, for instance, to the perceptive concept of “substitutionism” (coined by sociologists David Goodman, Bernando Sorj and John Wilkinson), the business model that allows manufacturers to “continually extend the market in which their commodities can circulate”. In the case of sugar, it’s the story of classic crystalline sugar being replaced in turn by high-fructose corn syrup, then artificial, then supposedly “natural” sweeteners, but this is just one example of the industrial food system’s constant reinvention of its products. It could also snugly fit other commodity ingredients that Big Food manipulates so profitably, such as corn, wheat and industrially refined vegetable oils.

There is something refreshingly subversive about Richardson’s book because it isn’t anti-sugar as such, but rather against the system that makes this commodity such a bewitching, biddable muse for corporations. He reports on legitimate critiques of sugar from a range of perspectives (human health, environmental impact, labour relations, and more), but then takes the debate further by suggesting these might cohere into “broader systemic change that would make sugar provisioning more ecologically sound and socially just”.

Do we really need another book on sugar? In this instance, the answer is an emphatic yes.

Joanna Blythman is an investigative journalist and the author of seven books on food, including Swallow This. Twitter: @JoannaBlythman

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