Ethics:The Bitterness of Sugar
PRINCETON – Sugar is sweet, but the ethics of its production is anything but
appealing. “Sugar Rush,” a recent report released by Oxfam International as part of
its “Behind the Brands” campaign, has shown that our use of sugar implicates us in
land grabs that violate the rights of some of the world’s poorest communities.
Better-informed and more ethical consumers could change this.
We are genetically programmed to like sweet things, and when people become more
affluent, they consume more sugar. The resulting increase in sugar prices has led
producers to seek more land on which to grow sugarcane.
It is no surprise that the poor lose when their interests conflict with those of the
rich and powerful. The Oxfam report provides several examples of producers who have
acquired land without the consent of the people who live on it, turning farmers into
landless laborers. Here is one.
In the northeastern Brazilian state of Pernambuco, a group of fishing families had
lived since 1914 on islands in the Sirinhaém River estuary. In 1998, the Usina
Trapiche sugar refinery petitioned the state to take over the land. The islanders
say that the refinery then followed up its petition by destroying their homes and
small farms – and threatening further violence to those who did not leave.
As recently as last year, the fishing families say, employees of the refinery burned
down homes that had been rebuilt. Trapiche moved the families to a nearby town,
where they gained access to electricity, water, sanitation, and schooling, but if
they want to continue to fish, they have to travel a long distance. Many of them are
still seeking to return to the islands.
Both Coca-Cola and PepsiCo use Usina Trapiche sugar in their products. Does that
make them responsible for the wrongs done to the people whose land Trapiche is using
to produce that sugar? In the 1990’s, Nike tried to wash its hands of responsibility
for the use of child labor and other unconscionable labor practices in the factories
that produced its sneakers. That did not go down well with its customers, and in the
end Nike decided to do the right thing, inspecting factories, tackling problems, and
being transparent about its suppliers.
Likewise, McDonald’s initial response to criticism of its suppliers’ animal-welfare
practices was to sue the activists who made the allegations. The company expected
that its critics would give up. But when two of them, with nothing to lose, defended
themselves in court, the result was the longest libel trial in British legal history
– and a public-relations disaster for the corporate giant.
After the judge held that some of the activists’ claims were not defamatory, because
they were true, McDonald’s began to accept responsibility for its suppliers’
practices. It has since become a much-needed force for improvement in the treatment
of animals used for food in the United States.
More recently, the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh earlier
this year, which killed more than 1,000 people, posed a similar question for the
garment industry. Associated British Foods (ABF), which is both a major sugar
producer and the owner of the retail clothing chain Primark, took responsibility for
its suppliers by signing up, along with 80 other clothing brands, to a legally
binding building-safety agreement supported by trade unions and the Bangladeshi
What applies to the clothing industry should hold for the food industry, too – and
not just for sugar, but for all food production. Oxfam is asking the ten biggest
food brands to show leadership by acknowledging their responsibility for land-rights
violations involving their suppliers.
In particular, Oxfam wants these global companies to avoid buying from suppliers
that have acquired land from small-scale food producers without these producers’
free, prior, and informed consent. Where land has already been acquired without such
consent, and the acquisition is in dispute, Oxfam wants the corporations to insist
on fair dispute-resolution procedures.
“Behind the Brands” includes a score sheet, ranking the Big 10 on a range of issues,
including their impact on workers, water, land, women, and climate change. On land
issues, Oxfam rates PepsiCo, and ABF either “poor” or “very poor.” Nestlé scores
better, because its guidelines for suppliers – used for the sourcing of sugar, soy,
palm oil, and other commodities – require that they obtain the free, prior, and
informed consent of indigenous and local communities before acquiring land.
Nestlé was the first of the Big 10 to support this principle fully. Then, on
November 7, Coca-Cola responded to the Oxfam campaign by declaring that it would
have “zero tolerance” for land grabbing by its suppliers and bottlers. Coca-Cola
committed to disclosing the companies that supply it with sugar cane, soy, and palm
oil, so that social, environmental, and human rights assessments can be conducted;
it will also engage with Usina Trapiche regarding the conflict with the fishing
families of the Sirinhaém River estuary.
Oxfam’s advocacy is raising the standards for the global food industry. If PepsiCo
and ABF want us to regard them as ethical producers, they need to follow the lead of
Nestlé and now Coca-Cola, and accept responsibility for their suppliers’ conduct
toward some of the world’s poorest and most powerless people.
Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate
Professor at the University of Melbourne. His books include One World, The
Ethics of What We Eat (with Jim Mason), and The Life You Can Save.
Project Syndicate, 2013.