“Words, words, words” Hamlet1 replies in response to Polonius’ question as to what is he reading. As the conference on Sustainable Sugar Forum2 proceeded on the morning of 16th June in London, there was little enlightenment as to what the champions of sustainability, not only in the sugar industry aim to convey. I was reminded of a letter to the UK broadsheet The Guardian following a convoluted piece by the intellectual Edward Said. The letter writer inquired as to exactly what Edward said. Katherine Teague of AB Sugar noted that the company has been effectively subscribing in practice to the spirit and letter of sustainability for some time, just that it had not previously expressed it in an appropriate language. AB Sugar is one of the shining examples of a business fully profitizing waste streams generated during beet sugar processing. This includes selling dirt tare settled in ponds to landscape gardeners and using waste heat and carbon dioxide to grow tomatoes in greenhouse.
The fact that the conference attracted major producers in the EU sugar industry to some of the major purchasers of sugar such as Coca Cola, Pepsi, Nestle, Heineken confirmed the seriousness with which the issue of sustainability is driving the conduct of business.
Yet when it came to defining what is understood by sustainability – now that was another matter. For farmers, and one suspects for all businesses, it means profitability. A trader echoed this when he suggested that the focus of their business was profit, though the company did strive to work with those businesses deemed to adhere to sustainability agenda. Nonetheless, Iver Drabaek, Head of Sustainability at Nordzucker indicated that for the company, sustainability is a business case. Its three pillars are social, economic and environmental impacts supporting the production of quality products and promoting the health and welfare of workers. Few would quibble this and most would consider these to be sound principles to uphold to.
Jason Glaser, founder of La Isla Foundation, in a compelling presentation brought home the issue of health and welfare of cane cutters in Central America. Over the past 10 years some 20,000 cane cutters have lost their lives through chronic kidney disease (CKD). In the west, CKD impacts mainly obese people. The main drivers for CKD amongst the cane cutters are heat stress, dehydration and muscle loss. Cane cutters are expending as much energy as “running a half-marathon in 90°F+ heat five or six days a week for six months straight”.3 Yet the solution is simple – given regular access to water, rest and shade, CKD can be greatly checked. The fact that CKD is not prevalent amongst farm workers in cooler, mountainous region, supports the thesis.
As Ulrike Sapiro, Sustainability Director of Coca Cola pointed out, as a major purchaser of sugar, it does have a significant clout in ensuring that suppliers stick to sustainable agricultural practice it specifies. The impact of such high profile companies driving the sustainability agenda is clear to see. This is not surprising, as the dividend from positive perception is a price worth paying in the 24/7 media.
What is clear is that while in the West, in combination with regulatory oversight many businesses require fine tuning of their operations to accede to the demands of the sustainable agenda, it is a far different story in the developing and emerging economies where the issues of health and safety of workers, exploitation of child labour, human rights and land rights demand additional action.
1 William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet.
2 The conference was organised by Innovation Forum
3 Whitney Eulich (2015) In El Salvador’s sugar cane fields, small changes bring new hope for workers http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Americas/2015/0614/In-El-Salvador-s-sugar-cane-fields-small-changes-bring-new-hope-for-workers