September 23rd 2017

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Labor's vision for a transgender world

EDITORIAL Liddell closure: acid test for Turnbull

EUTHANASIA We risk turning our doctors into death dealers

DOCUMENTARY Harvested Alive: killing Falung Gong in China

AGENDA FOR AUSTRALIA Distorted jobless stats defeat planning efforts

ENVIRONMENT Hurricane Harvey: don't let a good disaster go to waste

AFL GRAND FINAL Bob Santamaria predicted the sunset of Aussie Rules

HISTORY After 500 years, is sugar going sour?

IDEOLOGY OF TRANSGENDERISM Reshaping our identities and relationships

MUSIC The Sequence: it's elementary

CINEMA The Hitman's Bodyguard: 'Eighties' action with popcorn

BOOK REVIEW One of globalisation's dwindling band




SAME-SEX MARRIAGE For bullying, look left, look left, and then look left again

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After 500 years, is sugar going sour?

by Jeffry Babb

News Weekly, September 23, 2017

People have always craved sweetness. Babies are drawn to it, naturally, unlike any other substance.

Hundreds of years ago, sugar was the domain of kings and aristocrats. Then, when the English and French turned the Caribbean islands into one gigantic sugar plantation, sugar rapidly became a luxury available even to commoners. The profits from sugar were so vast that sugar helped fund the expanding British and French empires.

But it was not always so. Sugar, as an industrial commodity, could only be cultivated and harvested through backbreaking toil. The byproducts of sugar refining, mainly rum and molasses, were important in their own right. In some areas of the world, including Australia, rum was a currency. Need we remind Australians of our early history and the Rum Rebellion, which resulted in the arrest of Governor William Bligh by the mutinous New South Wales Corps?

Australia has an important sugar industry. Sugar spurred the development of northern Queensland. Sugar exports are valued at $2 billion a year, making it our second most valuable agricultural export crop.

Australians played a big role in the modernisation and mechanisation of the sugar industry. Until slavery was banned in the British Empire, slaves had grown sugar. African slaves were shipped by the hundreds of thousands from Africa to the West Indies.

Slaves were not always mistreated. They were valuable property and had to be treated with a degree of consideration so as to be able to extract the maximum value from their labour. Slaves often had rum rations and cultivated their own vegetable plots.

Nonetheless, slaves were chattels; that is, they were property owned by an individual, like a horse or cow. When slavery was abolished, the slaves abandoned the plantations and the arduous drudgery of growing sugar. The slaves were replaced by indentured labour; these workers were not free, but were not legally enslaved.

When we talk of the Queensland sugar cane industry – and most sugar came from cane – we should not be misled by the politically correct myths about “blackbirding”. It is true that up until Federation in 1901, much of the labour in the Queensland cane fields were Melanesians from the South-Pacific islands. But it is not true that they were mostly shanghaied. The truth is that many – if not most – Melanesians boarded the ships to Queensland voluntarily. After the usual three-year term of engagement, most aimed to return home with a rifle. Many renewed their term of employment. Many stayed in Australia, or would have done so if they had been allowed to do so.

The importation of Melanesian labour was banned after Federation. The job of working in the cane fields fell to another sort of imported labour – the Italians and others who laboured in the cane fields with the intention of scraping enough money together to buy their own – usually small – cane farms. Innisfail, in central Queensland, had a large Italian population.

Between the end of Melanesian labour and the advent of mechanisation, the cane was cut by hand, or more correctly, by cane machetes. Ray Lawler’s classic play, The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, dramatises the life of two cane cutters who go south in the off-season. The play was set in an era that was ending and it is one of the few truly great works of Australian theatre.

Australia was in the forefront of the mechanisation of sugar-cane cultivation. The Toft cane harvester was a world leader in agricultural innovation. Bundaberg became the world’s most prominent centre for the manufacture of cane harvesters with Toft, Massey Ferguson and others leading the way. Eventually, Toft was taken over by Case, an American construction equipment manufacturer. Subsequently, the Toft manufacturing plant was transferred to Brazil, a bitter blow for Bundaberg, where Joseph and Harold Toft had first begun experimenting with mechanical harvesting during World War II.

Australia could thus truly be said to have taken much of the backbreaking sweat work out of the sugar industry. It is true that forms of indentured labour persist in the industry, for example in the United States, but this is a matter of politics rather than economics. Australia has led the world in developing a sugar industry that is both humane and economically sound.

According to British historian James Walvin: “For 2,000 years, from the world of classical antiquity to the present day, parents have coaxed sick children to accept unpleasant-tasting medicines by adding honey or sugar to the medicine. Now, the received wisdom is that sweetness itself is a health issue (Sugar: The World Corrupted from Slavery to Obesity, 2017, p208).

How has a commodity that has been in common use for 500 years become execrated? It seems that in a matter of years a staple of most of the planet has been found to be unsafe – indeed, a form of addiction. Why had people not become aware of this previously?

It has come to the point where the British government is introducing a “sugar tax” in 2018 on soft drinks. This anti-sugar mania seems to have developed into a panic over rising levels of obesity, mainly among children, and particularly in the Western world.

Sugar is a factor, certainly, in adding calories to our diet, but it is only one factor. Blaming sugar for all our complex dietary difficulties is illogical, a public health panic that looks likely to eventually blow itself out.

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