sugar beet

The need to limit sugar consumption for health-related reasons is well established, but it is less commonly known that sugar production is also environmentally damaging.

Half of the UK’s sugar comes from domestically grown beet, which relies on harmful neonicotinoid pesticides and strips prime agricultural land of non-renewable topsoil during harvesting. Imported sugar cane is also problematic – it requires unsustainable amounts of water and chemicals to produce and has a high carbon impact, given that shipments come from as far away as Brazil and Australia.

As such, there are clear public health and environmental drivers for reducing sugar production and consumption. Food reformulation policies have become a favoured method of reducing sugar in industrially produced food and drink, the major source of dietary sugar. The UK government has implemented several such policies: the sugar reduction programme, the soft drinks industry levy (SDIL), and restrictions on placement of products high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) in prominent retail locations. Whilst these and other measures such as advertising restrictions on HFSS products are undoubtedly needed, there is an elephant in the room: the UK’s oversupply of sugar.

The amount of sugar supplied to the UK market is more than two-and-a-half times the maximum amount recommended for consumption at a population level, fuelled by trade and agricultural policies that actively seek to increase rather than decrease supply of this harmful commodity. Food manufacturers have had limited incentive to reduce sugar in their products, resulting in a proliferation of over-sweet, hyper-palatable food and drink.

Despite targeted interventions to reduce sugar in key contributors to sugar intake, this has not translated into reduced consumption. In fact, total sugar sales have increased, as industry moves sugar out of one range of products and into another, avoiding regulations and consumer awareness whilst continuing to push volume sales.

Following a year of poor Weather affecting harvests globally, the industry now finds itself with a supposed sugar shortage. Historically, sugar prices have increased as a result, although they remain only just above levels seen more than 10 years ago in 2011

The truth is, the level of demand for this harmful commodity has been inflated. Demand for sugar should be based on safe consumption levels, not food industry-inflated demand from incessant marketing and advertising. Through this lens, sugar supply to the UK market needs to reduce by almost two-thirds to bring it in line with recommended consumption levels.

As Feedback Global and Action on Sugar explain in our new report, launched this week, we must stop seeking to satisfy the industry’s insatiable appetite for this damaging commodity. Instead, the government must tackle what is an oversupply of sugar, with trade and agricultural policies that work in tandem with public health and environmental goals.

Proposed measures include capping production of domestic sugar beet; maintaining or increasing tariffs on sugar imports; and phasing out subsidies to sugar beet production, whilst providing support for growers to switch to more nutritious crops. Fiscal measures could also be extended to sugar producers, applying the ‘polluter pays’ principle to sugar to disincentivise production and sale.

These measures will undoubtedly result in increases to the wholesale price of sugar for industry. However, it is not the intent to affect consumer purchasing decisions by making sugary products more expensive. In fact, the cost of sugar accounts for a fraction of the retail price of even the highest-sugar products. Even if higher sugar prices were passed on in full to consumers, the impact on retail prices would be negligible.

The intent of supply-side policies is instead to tackle sugar at its source and incentivise the big users of sugar – the food and drink industry – to reduce the use of sugar across their product portfolios, with benefits to human and environmental health.