J H Galloway. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Volume 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Sugar is the world’s predominant sweetener. It satisfies the human appetite for sweetness and contributes calories to our diet. Sugar is used in cooking, in the preparation of commercially processed foods, and as an additive to drinks; it is also a preservative and fermenting agent. It sweetens without changing the flavor of food and drink. It is cheap to transport, easy to store, and relatively imperishable. These characteristics helped sugar to displace such sweeteners as fruit syrups, honey, and the sap of certain trees, the most famous of which is the North American maple.

Lack of data makes it difficult to establish when sugar became the principal sweetener in any given part of the world, but in every case this has occurred fairly recently. Illustrative are Europe and North America where it was only after 1700 that sugar was transformed from a luxury product into one of everyday use by even the poor. This took place as Brazil and the new West Indies colonies began producing sugar in such large quantities that price was significantly reduced. Lower prices led to increased consumption, which, in turn, fueled demand, with the result that the industry continued to expand in the Americas and later elsewhere in the tropical world.

Since the eighteenth century, the rise in the per capita consumption of sugar has been closely associated with industrialization, increased personal income, the use of processed foods, and the consumption of beverages to which people add sugar, such as tea, coffee, and cocoa. In addition, the relatively recent popularity of soft drinks has also expanded the use of sugar. Annual per capita sugar consumption is now highest in its places of production, such as Brazil, Fiji, and Australia, where it exceeds 50 kilograms (kg). Consumption in Cuba has been exceptionally high, exceeding 80 kg per capita around the beginning of the 1990s. Subsequently, consumption has fallen to a still very high 60 kg per person.

With an annual per capita consumption of between 30 and 40 kg, the countries that were first industrialized in western Europe and North America constitute a second tier of sugar consumers. The poorer countries of the world make up a third group where consumption is low. The figure for China is 6.5 kg, and it is even lower for many countries in tropical Africa. Such a pattern reflects both differences in wealth and the ready availability of sugar to those in the countries of the first group. In the Western industrialized world, concerns about the effects of sugar on health, as well as the use of alternatives to sugar—such as high-fructose corn syrup and high-intensity, low-calorie sweeteners—have stabilized and, in some countries, lowered the use of sugar. Thus, it would seem that further expansion of the industry depends primarily on the poorer countries following the precedent of the richer ones by increasing consumption as standards of living improve. Secondarily, it depends on the ability of the sugar industry to meet competition from alternative sweeteners.

Sugar is the chemical sucrose that occurs naturally in plants. It is most richly concentrated in sugarcane and sugar beet, which are the sources of commercial sugar. Fully refined sugar, whether made from cane or beet, is pure sucrose, and the consumer cannot tell from which of the two plants it derives. But despite the identical end product, the sugarcane and the sugar beet industries differ greatly in methods of production and organization, and each has its own distinctive history and geography.

The Sugarcane Industry

The Raw Material

Sugarcane is a perennial grass of the humid tropics. It requires at least 1,000 millimeters of rain annually, which should fall year-round, although with irrigation the plant can also be grown in dry climates. Temperatures must be above 21° Celsius (C) for satisfactory growth, and the best results are obtained when the temperature exceeds 27° C. Cold temperatures, therefore, impose northern and southern limits on cultivation. Growth ceases when the temperature falls below 11-13° C; light frosts injure the plant, and a prolonged freeze will do serious damage. Sugarcane is tolerant of a wide range of soil conditions and grows well on both hillsides and flat land. With the mechanization of harvesting, a recent development that dates only from the 1950s, the industry has come to prefer flat land where the machines can function most effectively.

The principal parts of sugarcane are the roots and the stem that supports the leaves and the inflorescence. The stem in a mature plant can grow as high as 5 meters (m) and can be thick or thin, depending on the variety. Some stems have soft rinds and are easy to chew on; others have tough rinds, which makes for difficult milling. The color of the stems can range from green through shades of purple, and some varieties are leafy, whereas others are not. Despite these differences, the identification of varieties in the field is usually a matter for experts.

Commercial sugarcane is reproduced vegetatively. Until the late nineteenth century, the commercial varieties were thought to be infertile. Some are, although others set seed under certain climatic and day-length conditions. This discovery has been of basic importance for the breeding of new cane varieties, but commercial sugarcane is still reproduced in the traditional vegetative way. The stems have nodes spaced from 0.15 to 0.25 m apart, each of which contains root primordia and buds. A length of stem with at least one node is known variously as a sett, stem-cutting, or seed-piece. When setts are planted, roots develop from the primordia and a stem grows from the bud. Stems tiller at the root so that the bud in each sett produces several stems.

The first crop, known as plant cane, matures in 12 to 18 months, depending on the climate and variety of cane. The roots, left in the ground after the harvest, produce further crops known as ratoons. Some varieties produce better ratoons than others. As a perennial plant with a deep root system and with good ground coverage provided by the dense mat of stems and leaves, sugarcane protects the soil from erosion. Given adequate fertilizer and water, it can flourish year after year, and there are parts of the world in which sugarcane has been a cash crop for centuries.

All wild and domesticated varieties of sugarcane belong to the genus Saccharum, one of the many subdivisions of the large botanical family of Gramineae. Because these varieties interbreed, the genus has become a very complex one. Authorities recognize species of Saccharum: S. robustum Brandes and Jeswiet ex. Grassl., S. edule Hassk., S. officinarum L., S. barberi Jeswiet, S. sinense Roxb. emend. Jeswiet, and S. spontaneum. Speciation, however, of the genus is still in dispute.

The status of S. edule as a distinct species is problematic, and an argument exists for conflating S. barberi and S. sinense. There is also discussion as to the places of origin of the species. S. barberi, S. sinense, and S. spontaneum occur widely in southern Asia and may have originated there. New Guinea is thought by many to have been the place of origin of the other three species, although possibly S. officinarum evolved close by in the Halmahera/Celebes region of present-day Indonesia. Four of the species were cultivated for their sugar: S. barberi and S. sinense, respectively, in India and China; and S. edule and S. officinarum in New Guinea. S. robustum is too low in sucrose to be a useful source of sugar, but its tough fiber makes it valued in New Guinea for fencing and roofing. S. officinarum may have been cultivated as an important food for pigs in prehistoric New Guinea (Stevenson 1965: 31-2; Barnes 1974: 40-2; Blackburn 1984: 90-102; Daniels and Daniels 1993:1-7).

S. officinarum is the species of basic importance to the history of the sugarcane industry. In New Guinea its evolution into an exceptionally sweet cane led to wide diffusion throughout the Pacific islands and eastward through southern Asia to Mediterranean Europe and America. Until the 1920s, nearly all the cane sugar that entered international commerce came from one or another variety of this species.1 The varieties of S. officinarum are known collectively as noble canes, a name the Dutch gave them in the nineteenth century in appreciation of their importance to the sugar industry in Java.

Disease brought the era of the noble canes to an end. In the mid-nineteenth century, Bourbon cane, the standard commercially cultivated variety in the Americas, had suffered occasional outbreaks of disease, but in the West Indies in the 1880s, disease in Bourbon cane became general and caused a serious reduction in yields. To use the jargon of the sugar trade, this variety “failed.”

In the 1880s, disease also devastated the cane fields of Java. The initial response of planters was to replace the diseased cane with other “noble” varieties, but because these too might “fail,” this solution was seen at best to be a temporary one. The long-term answer lay in breeding new varieties that would be resistant to disease and rich in sucrose. Cane-breeding research began simultaneously in the 1880s at the East Java Research Station (Proefstation Oost Java) and at Dodds Botanical Station in Barbados. Initially, researchers worked only with S. officinarum. Success came slowly, but during the first years of the twentieth century, newly bred varieties began to replace the naturally occurring ones, and substitution was complete in most regions by the 1930s.

In a second phase of research, which benefited from developments in genetics, attractive features from other species of sugarcane were combined with varieties of S. officinarum. This process, known as “nobilization,” resulted in even further improvements in disease resistance and sucrose content. Nobilized varieties entered cultivation during the 1920s and gradually replaced the first generation of bred varieties (Galloway 1996).

The sugarcane industry has now been dependent on cane breeding for a century, and research remains necessary to the success of the industry. Because varieties “fail,” reserve varieties must be on hand to replace them. Some of the aims of breeding programs are long-standing: resistance to disease, insects, and animal pests; suitability to different edaphic and climatic conditions; better ratooning; and high sucrose content. In recent years, additional considerations have come to the fore. Canes have to be able to tolerate herbicides, and in some countries they have to meet the needs of mechanical harvesters.

Cultivation and Harvest

Success in cane breeding gave the sugarcane industry a much improved raw material that enables it to meet more easily a basic requirement of survival in a competitive world, which is the sustainable production of cane rich in sucrose in different climatic and soil conditions. Cane breeding has also added flexibility in dealing with the constant of how best to manage the cane fields with a view to the needs of the mill and factory. A long harvest season is preferable to a short one because it permits the economic use of labor and machinery. Fields of cane, therefore, must mature in succession over a period of months. This can be achieved by staggering the planting of the fields and by cultivating a combination of quick-maturing and slow-maturing varieties. Cane ratoons complicate the operation because they mature more quickly than the plant cane.

Over the years, however, ratoon crops gradually decline in sugar yield, and eventually the roots have to be dug up and the field replanted. Breeding can improve the ratooning qualities of cane. The number of ratoon crops taken before replanting is a matter of judgment, involving the costs of planting and the yield of the crops. Practice over the centuries has ranged from none at all to 15 and even more. Where numerous ratoon crops are the custom, the introduction of new varieties is necessarily a slow process. Planting is still largely done by hand, although planting by machine has increased.

The harvesting of cane presents another set of problems. The cane must be carefully cut close to the ground (the sucrose content is usually highest at the base of the stems) but without damage to the roots. The leaves and inflorescence should not go to the mill where they will absorb sugar from the cane and so reduce the yield. Manual workers can cut carefully and strip the stems, but the work is arduous and expensive. The mechanization of harvesting has been made easier by the breeding of varieties that achieve uniform height and stand erect. The machines can cut and top (remove the inflorescence) with little waste.

Because it is very important to send clean cane to the mill with a minimum of trash, soil, or other debris, preharvest burning of the cane has become a common practice. This removes the living leaves as well as the dead, which lie on the ground and are known as “trash.” Burning prepares a field for harvesting and does not damage the stems or reduce the yield of sugar, provided the stems reach the mill within 24 hours. But this last requirement is not new: Breeding has not been able to alter the fact that stems of cane are perishable and, once cut, must be milled quickly to avoid loss of juice and, hence, of sucrose and revenues. The perishable nature of the stems and the expense of transporting them still demand that the mills be located close to the fields where the cane is grown.

Where the owners of the mills also own the fields that supply the cane, coordination of cultivation and harvesting is a relatively easy matter, compared to a situation in which independent cane growers do the supplying. There are mills that rely on hundreds of cane growers, each cultivating a few hectares. In addition to logistical issues, the price the growers are to receive for their cane is a constant source of dispute (Blackburn 1984: 136-288; Fauconnier 1993: 75-132).

From Mill to Refinery

The aim in the mill is to extract the maximum amount of sucrose from the stems; the aim in the factory (usually attached to the mill) is to make maximum use of the sucrose to produce sugar quickly and efficiently. The opaque, dark-green juice that contains the sucrose flows from the mill to the factory where it is first heated and clarified, then condensed by boiling to a thick syrup in which sugar crystals form. This mix, known as a “massecuite,” is then separated into sugar crystals and molasses. Early in the history of the industry, both milling and manufacture involved rather simple processes that by modern standards not only were slow and wasteful but also led to rather crude results. Now the milling and manufacture of sugar involve a series of highly sophisticated engineering and chemical operations and take place in what are, in fact, large industrial complexes. The daily grinding capacity of modern mills varies enormously, with the largest exceeding 20,000 metric tons (Chen 1985: 72).

Innovations in processing have never entirely replaced the old methods, and in India, Brazil, and many other countries modern factories coexist with traditional ones. The industry draws a distinction between the products of the two, based on the method of separating the crystals from the molasses. In traditional mills, the massecuite is placed in upright conical pots, and over a period of days, if not weeks, the molasses drains through a hole at the base of the cone, leaving a sugar loaf. In a modern mill, separation is accomplished rapidly in a centrifugal machine that was first employed in sugar factories in the mid-nineteenth century. The terms “centrifugal” and “noncentrifugal” are used in the sugar trade as a shorthand, referring to the products of very different processes of manufacture.

Noncentrifugal sugars are characteristically made for local markets by rural entrepreneurs with simple equipment and little capital. They appear for sale yellowed by molasses, and sometimes still moist, and compete in price with centrifugal sugar. They appeal to people who are especially fond of their taste. The noncentrifugal sugars include the gurof India, the jaggery of Nigeria, the rapadura of Brazil, and the panela of Colombia. (Indian khandsari sugar, an interesting anomaly, is produced by traditional methods, except that the crystals are separated in hand-held centrifuges.) The often remote location and modest scale of many noncentrifugal factories means that a proportion of world cane sugar production goes unreported.

Centrifugal sugar, the product of the modern factories, by contrast, enters world trade. The International Sugar Organization, as well as governments and sugar traders, track production; thus, there are detailed, country-by-country, annual statistics on production and consumption (Figure II.F.2.1). Commercial sugars are classified according to their purity, which is measured in degrees of polarization (pol.) with a polarimeter; purity ranges from 0° pol., signifying a total absence of sugar (as in distilled water, for example), to 100° pol., indicating pure sucrose. The basic centrifugal sugar of commerce is known as raw sugar, which, by international agreement, must have a polarization of at least 96°. Raw sugars are not quite pure sucrose and are intended for further processing, meaning that they are to be refined.

Refining is the final stage in the manufacture of sugar. The result is pure sucrose, with a pol. of 100°. The process of refining involves melting the raws, removal of the last impurities, and recrystallization of the sucrose under very careful sanitary conditions. The raws lose a very minor percentage of their weight in the transformation to refined sugar, the amount depending on the pol. of the raws and the technical ability of the refinery (Chen 1985: 634-6). This loss and the expense of refining are built into the selling price of refined sugar.

Refineries are located close to the market where the sugar is to be consumed, rather than the fields where the cane is grown. In the Western world, this pattern was established several hundred years ago. Transport in leaky sailing ships meant that sugar inevitably ran the risk of contamination from sea water, and in the hot, humid conditions of a long voyage across tropical seas, sugar crystals coalesced. Thus, there was no point in making a finished product if it was only going to be damaged in transit to the market. In addition, the lack of fuel in the cane-growing regions meant that it was rarely possible to produce the finished product there. The industry does make its own fuel, bagasse, which is the residue of the stems after milling, but during the early centuries of the industry, inefficient furnaces meant that it had to be supplemented with another kind of fuel, usually scarce timber.

In short, the location of refineries in the importing countries reflected the realities of the sugar trade of yesterday. Today, there are clean, rapid, purpose-designed ships, so that long voyages pose little risk of damage to the sugar. And fuel is no longer the problem it once was. A long record of improvements in the design of furnaces and machinery means that an efficiently operated factory produces a surplus of bagasse. Nevertheless, factors continue to favor the location of the refineries in the importing, temperate countries.

Perhaps most importantly, refineries are not limited by harvests but can operate year-round by buying their supplies of raws from producers throughout the world according to season and price. Since the nineteenth century, refineries in some countries have also had the option of adapting to domestic beet sugar. By contrast, a refinery in a cane-growing region, dependent on the local production of raws, can only operate seasonally, which is not cost-efficient unless it is possible to stockpile or import raws to keep the refinery constantly in operation.

Because of such developments, many sugar factories now skirt the issue of refining by making direct-consumption sugars which, as their name implies, require no further processing. Whites, also known as plantation whites, are the most important of this class of sugar, and have a pol. of up to 99.5°. Whites were intended originally only for local consumption, but they have now entered international commerce to compete with refined sugars (Blackburn 1984: 290-3, 313-14).

Despite what might seem as the diminution of their locational advantages, however, the importing refineries will not yield their role easily. Vested interests continue to be involved, but additional refining is the only value-added part in the sugarcane industry that can be transferred from the producing to the importing countries in order to create jobs. Such refineries also have a trump card—they are close to and know their markets and can create demand as well as deliver what the market wants.

A glance along grocery store shelves reveals the many products of the refineries. There are the standard granular sugars, ranging from coarse to fine, and powdered sugar for icing cakes. The familiar sugar cubes for tea and coffee have been there since as long ago as the mid-1870s (Chalmin 1983: 84). The brown and yellow sugars, whether granular or in lumps, are still called Demerara—named after an administrative division of British Guiana, where, in the mid-nineteenth century, partially modernized factories deliberately produced sugar still colored and flavored by molasses. It became a recognized trade name that could only be applied to this type of sugar produced in Demerara until 1913, when a court of law in London accepted the argument that the term had become common usage for any brown sugar, whether or not it had been made in Demerara (Barnes 1974: 11). Today, Demeraras are, in general, refined sugars that have been colored and flavored.

Other Products

Sugar is the most important product of the sugarcane industry. But there are also others, one being fuel. Because sucrose can be fermented, as well as crystallized, it is turned into an alcohol that substitutes for gasoline in cars. A substantial portion of Brazil’s annual sugarcane crop is used for this purpose. Another use is the creation of fancy molasses (made from clarified, concentrated, very sweet syrup-like juice from which no sucrose has been drawn). This is what is used in cooking, spread on bread and scones, and employed as a topping for pancakes. Fancy molasses was a specialty of Barbados, with North America once the major market, where it sold for less than maple syrup. Barbados still exports fancy molasses, and a similar product is made in several other countries.

In addition, there are by-products of the manufacture of sugar. The most important are molasses, alcoholic beverages, bagasse, and filter mud, each of which has several uses. The molasses that spins from the massecuite in the centrifuges of modern factories is known as final or blackstrap molasses. It contains unextractable sucrose, as well as glucose, fructose, water, and minerals, the composition varying according to the climate and soil in which the cane was grown. Relatively little of this type of molasses enters international trade. One local use is for animal feed (either fed directly to the animals or mixed with other foods). Other derivatives of molasses include industrial alcohol, citric acid, and yeast. But perhaps its best-known use is in the manufacture of alcoholic beverages.

Rum is the sugar industry’s best-known drink, flavored and colored with burnt sugar. But there are numerous other cane liquors, such as the cachaç of Brazil. Moreover, in cane-growing countries, alcohol is now mixed with imported concentrates to make gin and even whisky.”Choice” molasses, the by-product of noncentrifugal sugar, is also distilled for alcoholic beverages.

Bagasse—the dried cane pulp remaining after the juice is extracted—is a fortuitous by-product of sugar manufacturing that finds important uses. In some countries it is a fuel that generates electricity for the national grid. Ongoing research has also pointed the way to other applications, and it is now employed in the production of compressed fiberboard, various types of paper, and plastics.

Much of the filter mud, the result of clarification of the cane juice, is returned to the cane fields as a fertilizer. But it is also possible to extract a crude wax from it that can be used in the manufacture of polishes. All of these by-products are major contributors to the profitability of the sugarcane industry (Barnes 1974: 446-69; Blackburn 1984: 314, 327-47).

Historical Geography

The manufacture of crystal sugar from sugarcane is one of the world’s oldest industries. Its history is markedly episodic, with periods of technological innovation and geographical expansion separating periods of comparatively little change. Sugar became closely linked to major forces in European history when the Portuguese, who, in the fifteenth century, were venturing along the west African coast, discovered that the production and sale of sugar grown on nearby islands, especially Madeira, could be a means of financing the enterprise of reaching the East Indies. In subsequent centuries, sugar became intimately associated with the European colonization of the tropical portions of the New World. The demand for labor that it created led to the transatlantic slave trade that carried millions of Africans to the Americas. These were followed by East Indians and other Asians in still more international migrations.

Yet sugar was hardly confined to the Americas, and neither were the historical forces that have shaped the industry from the rise of capitalism through the industrial revolution to twentieth-century advances in science and technology. The first use of sugarcane by humans was doubtless to chew it to obtain the sweet juice, a practice that continues, especially among children. Later, in southern Asia at some unrecorded time, efforts were begun to extract the juice with a simple mill or press and to concentrate it by boiling into a sweet, viscous mass. The first evidence of crystal sugar production appears at about 500 B.C. in Sanskrit texts that indicate it took place in northern India. They describe in rather vague terms the making of several types of sugar for which the principal use seems to have been medicinal. Knowledge of this technique spread from northern India eastward to China and (along with the cultivation of sugarcane) westward into Persia, eventually reaching the east coast of the Mediterranean about A.D. 600.

Sugar making in India and China, however, remained a technologically conservative, small-scale, largely peasant activity until the twentieth century. In China, for reasons that are not entirely clear, sugar joined, rather than displaced, its competitors, becoming one more option in a cuisine that continued to value honey, manna, maltose, and sagwire palm sugar. Clearly, the history of sugar in the East stands in marked contrast to that which unfolded in the West.

The sugar industry entered the Mediterranean basin as part of an agricultural revolution carried out by the Arabs. In the years following the founding of Islam (Watson 1983), its adherents presided over the introduction of tropical and subtropical crops from Asia to the countries of the Mediterranean, as well as the techniques of irrigation that permitted cultivation throughout hot, dry summers.

To mill sugarcane, the burgeoning industry borrowed existing Mediterranean technology for extracting oil from olives and nuts and, in a second operation, used screw presses to obtain more juice from the bagasse. The juice was then clarified, reduced to the point of crystallization in open pans over furnaces, and the resulting syrup was placed in conical pots from which the molasses drained, leaving a loaf of sugar in each pot. The mills relied on water, animals, and men for power.

The risk of frost in the Mediterranean, together with the need for irrigation water, confined the cultivation of sugarcane to a few favored locations in the Levant, North Africa, Cyprus, Crete, Sicily, and Andalusia. Sugar production on the Atlantic islands of Portuguese Madeira and the Spanish Canaries was also Mediterranean in character. In its Mediterranean phase, however, the industry was labor-intensive, small-scale, and unable to produce large quantities of sugar, which therefore remained a luxury product. In short, there was little change in the technology of the Old World sugar industry between its introduction to the Mediterranean and its decline in the face of competition from the New World nearly 1,000 years later.

This Mediterranean phase did, nevertheless, fore-shadow what was to come in the New World: Atlantic sugar was produced by slave labor brought from Africa to plantations in a system like that which would arise in the Americas. Moreover, the manner in which the Venetians and Genoese organized the supply of sugar to continental Europe during the Mediterranean phase also served as something of a blueprint for things to come. The capital of these Italian city-states established a colonial relationship with the producing regions. They built the first refineries in Bologna and Venice and also drew on slave labor from the coasts of the Black Sea. The Genoese came to concentrate their investments increasingly in the western Mediterranean and were later instrumental in helping to finance the transfer of the industry to the Americas.

The years between 1450 and 1680 mark that transfer, as well as the decline of the Mediterranean industry in the face of American competition. It was a phase not only of technological innovation but also of geographical expansion, with the sugar-producing islands of Madeira, the Canaries, and São Tomé serving as stepping stones across the Atlantic. The Spanish first cultivated sugarcane on Hispaniola in the early 1500s, but the Portuguese, beginning in Brazil during the 1520s, were initially far more successful. The English turned Barbados into a sugar colony during the 1640s, and the sugar industry gradually spread across the Caribbean and to other regions of the New World.

In tropical America, not only did the climatic conditions favor sugarcane cultivation but so did the abundance of land to grow it on and the forests needed to provide fuel for the factories. With these advantages, the American sugar industry assumed an altogether new scale in terms of number of mills, size of land holdings, and quantity of exports. Such an increased scope of activity created a large demand for labor, which the Portuguese, at first, tried to satisfy by employing the indigenous population. But as that population declined in the face of Old World diseases, they turned increasingly to Africa, and the entire American industry soon depended on slave labor from that continent, resulting in the importation of more than 10 million people (Curtin 1969).

Still another development was a technological revolution in the seventeenth century that saw the replacement of the inefficient Mediterranean-style mills used initially in the New World (Galloway 1993: 211-22). Perhaps the most important innovation was a mill which, in its basic design, consisted of three vertically mounted rollers that could be turned by animal, water, or wind power. Such a mill did not require the stems to be chopped into pieces before milling, and the efficiency of its operation made the use of presses redundant. It is interesting to note the strong evidence of the contribution of Chinese technology to this design (Daniels and Daniels 1988). More efficient milling demanded, in turn, more efficient manufacture of sugar, and notable improvements in the design of furnaces allowed a production-line organization for transforming cane juice into crystal sugar.

Sugar colonies with slave-run plantations characterized American industry in the eighteenth century, a period once again of relatively little change in technology, although planters did gradually introduce conservationist measures to preserve the fertility of the soil and supplies of fuel. The sugar colonies exported sugar and rum to Europe and North America and imported slaves and food. Such an economy supported the densest concentrations of population in colonial America.

With the nineteenth century, however, there began another era of innovation in methods of production and of geographical expansion. The successful slave revolt in the French colony of St. Domingue (now Haiti) during the 1790s heralded the beginning of the end of the old regime. Nonetheless, the process of abolition was only completed a century later when the slaves of Cuba and Brazil finally gained their freedom. Many of the former slaves continued to work on sugar plantations, but planters also sought other sources of labor. Between 1838 and 1917, the British recruited workers from their Indian empire and, in so doing, profoundly changed the ethnic composition of many of their colonies. Laborers also came from Madeira, China, Japan, and the Pacific islands to work in the cane fields.

Major nineteenth-century technical innovations included steam power and the replacement of the three-roller mills by horizontally laid iron rollers mounted in sets of three that could be linked with other sets to form a train of six, nine, and even more rollers. With some improvements, this basic design of the mill has continued to the present. Cane-sugar technology also borrowed from the beet industry, especially the use of vacuum pans, in which juice could be boiled at lower temperatures under reduced pressure to save fuel. The centrifuges for separating the crystals from the molasses were also borrowed, and large central factories, which could accommodate the new machinery, gradually replaced traditional mills.

Still another major development was the breeding of new sugarcane varieties. The new technology, coupled with improved varieties of the raw material, helped keep the sugarcane industry competitive with the sugar-beet industry. By the end of the nineteenth century, the manufacture of cane sugar was becoming a capital-intensive agribusiness that relied on continued improvements in technology and methods of cultivation to keep a competitive edge.

During the nineteenth century, the link between the sugar industry and European expansion continued. A rising prosperity among the growing populations of western Europe led to increased demand at a time when European territorial empires extended into Africa, southern Asia, and the Pacific. One result was that sugarcane industries were established in such places as South Africa, Java, Queensland, Fiji, Hawaii, and Taiwan. In southern Asia, the Western, industrial style of sugar production either replaced or operated alongside traditional noncentrifugal producers. By 1900, the sugarcane industry had become one of the major economic activities of the entire tropical world.

The Sugar-Beet Industry

The Raw Material

Sugar beet is a root crop of temperate lands in Eurasia and America that in recent years has also become an important winter crop in North Africa and the Middle East. Obviously, it has adapted to a wide range of climatic and soil conditions, even growing well in the short summers of Finland, the dampness of Ireland, the high altitudes of Iran and Sichua, and the hot, dry Imperial Valley of California. It benefits from irrigation and from long hours of daylight. Differences in temperature, day length, and rainfall do, of course, influence the sugar content of the roots. It is a biennial, storing food in its swollen roots to carry the plants through the first winter and the process of setting seed in the second year. Farmers harvest the roots that contain the sugar at the end of the first year’s growing season, thus interrupting the plant’s natural cycle. Toward the polar limits of the sugar beet’s range, low summer temperatures and extended length of the day encourage some plants to set seed prematurely during the first year, resulting in poor development of the roots. Plants that do this are known as “bolters,” which if present in significant numbers, lower the yield of sugar from a field.

Cultivated and wild beets belong to the genus Beta, of the family Chenopodiaceae. The species Beta vulgaris L. includes the common beet, the mangelwurzel, and the sugar beet. All three have descended from wild sea-beet, Beta maritima, by human selection. The Romans used beets, probably Beta maritima, as food for both humans and animals and thereby selected for its value as a vegetable. Cultivators in medieval and early modern Europe developed the roots for animal feed, and since the eighteenth century, the capacity of Beta vulgaris to store sucrose in its roots has been the focus of breeding. Selection in Germany increased the sugar content of the roots from 7 percent in the eighteenth century to between 11 and 12 percent by the 1850s. The sugar content is now up to 20 percent. In addition to this success, researchers also breed sugar beets to discourage “bolting,” to resist disease, and for shape and fibrosity to help in harvesting and milling. Sugar beets provide an example of a rapidly domesticated plant that is still being modified and improved to suit a particular purpose (Bailey 1949: 353; Campbell 1976; Bosemark 1993; Evans 1993: 101-3, 107, 109).

The main stages in the extraction of sucrose from beet have remained basically the same over the last century or so, but there have been improvements in the efficiency of each stage. On arrival at the factory, the beets are washed to remove soil and stones and then sliced into thin, smooth pieces known as “cossettes.” The aim is to maximize the surface area of the beet so as to facilitate the diffusion of the sucrose. The cossettes then enter a countercurrent diffuser through which they move against the flow of a hot water extractant. This operation transforms about 98 percent of the sugar from the beet into a raw juice. The juice, in turn, is purified, reduced by evaporation, and crystallized, and the crystals are separated in centrifuges from the mother liquor. Formerly, beet sugar factories produced a raw sugar that was further treated in a refinery; now many factories produce a white sugar that is 99.9 percent pure (Vukov 1977: 13, 421, 426-7; Reinefeld 1979: 131-49; Bichsel 1988).

More than 90 percent of the revenue of the sugar-beet industry comes from sugar. Alcohol production is the best financial alternative to making sugar, but researchers have been unable to generate other by-products that are very lucrative. The lime sludge from the purification process is sold for fertilizer. Citric acid and baker’s yeast are produced by fermenting the molasses, and the exhausted cossettes can be used for animal feed (Blackburn 1984: 338-9; Tjebbes 1988: 139-45).

Historical Geography

The sugar-beet industry is only two centuries old. In 1747, a Berlin professor of chemistry, Andreas Marggraf (1709-82), succeeded in extracting a modest quantity of sugar from beet. Although he published the results of his research in French and German, he did not put them to commercial use (Baxa and Bruhns 1967: 95-9). However, his student Franz Carl Achard (1753-1821) was more practical. He improved the raw material by breeding the cultivated fodder beets for sugar content, and he evolved the white Silesian beet, which is the ancestor of all subsequent sugar-beet varieties (Oltmann 1989: 90, 107).

In the years around 1800, Achard was active in promoting the beet industry, and in 1801, with the financial assistance of the King of Prussia, he began to build what may have been the world’s first sugar-beet factory (Baxa and Bruhns 1967: 113). Although it was not a financial success, other Prussians followed his initiative, building several small factories in Silesia and around Magdeburg. Russia was the second country to enter the industry: Its first sugar-beet factory opened in either 1801 or 1802 (Baxa and Bruhns 1967: 118; Munting 1984: 22), and the first factory in Austria opened in 1803. In the beginning, the French limited themselves to experiments, as did the Dutch, whose Society for the Encouragement of Agriculture offered a prize for extracting sugar from native plants (Slicher van Bath 1963: 276-7; Baxa and Bruhns 1967: 99-119).

These experimental and very small scale beginnings of the sugar-beet industry were given a considerable boost during the Napoleonic wars. In 1806, Napoleon’s ban on the import of British goods and Britain’s retaliatory blockade of his empire greatly reduced the supplies of cane sugar that reached continental Europe. Napoleon encouraged the production of beet sugar as a substitute, and landowners in France and the countries north of the Alps tried to respond.

The paucity of seed and unfamiliarity with the requirements of the crop led, however, to a disappointing supply of beet, part of which rotted on the way to the factory because of poor transportation. The number of factories illustrates the extent to which policy overreached reality: In France, in the season that spanned 1812 and 1813, only 158 factories of the 334 for which licenses had been given were actually in working order (Baxa and Bruhns 1967: 139). With the low yields of beet per hectare, low sucrose content, and a disappointing rate of recovery of the sucrose in the factories, beet sugar could not compete with cane once imports from the West Indies resumed after 1815. The beet industry disappeared from Europe except in France where it hung on until better times (Slicher van Bath 1963: 277; Baxa and Bruhns 1967: 134-45).

Those times began in the late 1830s and gathered force throughout the middle of the century, benefiting from improvements in both field and factory. In France, P. L. F. Levèque de Vilmorin (1816-60) was particularly successful in breeding varieties of beet for greater sugar content, with improvements continuing after his death (Baxa and Bruhns 1967: 190-1). In the first generation of sugar-beet factories, the juice was extracted by grinding the beet in animal-powered mills and then placing the pulp in presses (Baxa and Bruhns 1967: 148). In 1821, however, another Frenchman, Mathieu de Dombasle (1777-1843), proposed the procedure of slicing the beets and extracting the sucrose in a bath of water. He called the method maceration, but it is now known as the diffusion process. In 1860, Julius Robert (1826-88) became the first to employ it (Baxa and Bruhns 1967: 150, 176).

Diffusion replaced the mills and presses and remains to this day a standard part of the processing of sugar beet. Vacuum pans were first used in 1835 in a beet factory in Magdeburg, and centrifuges became part of factory equipment during the 1840s (Baxa and Bruhns 1967: 152, 172). An additional development encouraged the revival of the beet industry—the arrival of cheap Russian grain in western Europe where, from the 1820s onward, it caused a fall in grain prices. Western European farmers who had been growing grain now required a substitute crop, and beet was a good candidate. It could fit into the agricultural rotation, growing on land that would previously have been left fallow, and its leaves and roots provided feed for animals. This, in turn, made possible an increase in livestock numbers, which meant more manure. If the roots were sold to a factory, they earned the farmer cash, and the pulp could also be used for feed (Galloway 1989: 131).

Despite the advantages of sugar beet to the agricultural economy and improvements in its raw material as well as factory technology, the beet industry nevertheless was still not competitive with cane. Rather, its revival in the 1830s, and its continued growth, depended on government protection through tariffs on imported cane sugar and incentives of one sort or another, such as subsidized exports. The 1902 Brussels Convention attempted to bring some order to a scene characterized by a protected beet industry and a complaining sugarcane industry, yet protection for beet sugar remains in place (Chalmin 1984: 9-19; Munting 1984: 21-8; Perkins, 1984: 31-45).

The revival of sugar-beet cultivation began in northern France, where it had never entirely died out, and continued in Prussia and the other German states during the 1830s, in Austria-Hungary in the 1840s, and in Russia in the 1850s. By the 1850s, Germany had become the most important producer of beet sugar, responsible by the end of the century for rather more than a third of the European total. By this time, beet cultivation extended from southern Spain in a curve arching north and east through France, the Low Countries, Germany, and eastern Europe, and into the Balkans, Russia, and the Ukraine. It also extended into Denmark and southern Sweden. The industry was particularly important in northern France, in the Low Countries, around Magdeburg in Germany, in Bohemia, and around Kiev in the Ukraine. Great Britain was noticeably absent, refusing to subsidize a beet industry of its own, but rather buying sugar, whether cane or beet, wherever it was cheapest.

Sugar beet remained a predominantly European crop throughout the twentieth century. In the years approaching 1990, Europe accounted for about 80 percent of the world’s production of beet sugar, with 40 percent of that production coming from the European Union. Since 1991, production in the countries of the former Soviet Union has lost ground, but this is probably a temporary situation. The geography of the European beet-sugar industry has also remained remarkably constant: Those regions that were important producers at the beginning of the twentieth century remained so at its end. There has been some modest expansion on the periphery into Ireland and Finland, and since the 1920s, Great Britain has finally developed a sugar-beet industry of its own. Two considerations led to the change in Britain’s policy towards beet: World War I had revealed the difficulties of relying heavily on continental European producers of sugar and the awkwardness of such dependence. Moreover, sugar beet had the potential of being a useful cash crop for farmers in the agricultural depression that followed the war.

The North American sugar-beet industry dates from the 1880s and has increased steadily, producing nearly 4 million tonnes of sugar a year. The industry is overwhelmingly located in the United States. Beet is grown in the Midwest, but the bulk of the crop grows on irrigated land in the West. In Asia the industry became significant only in the 1920s and has seen rapid expansion since the 1960s (Baxa and Bruhns 1967: 192-201, 221-2, 262-94; International Sugar Organization 1994: 279-85).

Like the cane industry, the sugar-beet industry invests heavily in research. The breeding of new varieties, the methods of harvesting and planting, and improvements in factory technology are all important foci of attention.

The Contemporary Sugar Industry


At the beginning of the twentieth century, beet-sugar production exceeded that of cane sugar, with the total combined production of centrifugal sugar about 12 million metric tonnes raw value (mtrv). However, today cane accounts for most of the sugar produced (about two-thirds). Total combined production reached 100 million mtrv in the mid-1980s and rose to 120 million mtrv by the mid-1990s.This expansion has been fueled by increases in consumption of about 2 percent a year, resulting from a growing world population and improving standards of living in some of the less-developed countries of the world. Non-centrifugal sugar also continues to be an important sweetener: Statistics are almost certainly incomplete but show production in excess of 15 millions tonnes at present.

The sugar industry in some countries is highly protected. The United States, for example, maintains a domestic price for sugar well above the world price and controls the amount of sugar imported. The European Union protects its beet growers, and the industry in India is carefully regulated to control production and domestic prices. Clearly, the interventionist traditions in the industry established long ago remain very much alive.

India is the world’s major producer of cane sugar, and its sugar industry continues to grow. Annual centrifugal production has reached 16 million mtrv, which includes nearly l million tonnes of khandsari sugar. India is also the world’s major producer of non-centrifugal sugar, accounting for perhaps as much as two-thirds of the total. Practically all of this sugar is consumed in India; only rarely, after exceptionally good harvests, are small quantities exported.

Brazil’s production has increased rapidly in recent years to reach 13 million mtrv, plus some small-scale production of noncentrifugal sugar known as rapadura. The country has the advantages of abundant land and a good climate, and its production is divided between the home sweetener market, fuel alcohol for automobiles, and exports. Brazil has the ability to direct sugar to exports or to fuel alcohol, depending on the world prices. Cuba and Thailand compete for the third and fourth rankings among the world’s sugar producers. Cuba’s annual production in the late 1980s was around 8 million mtrv, but collapsed to half this amount when the fall of communism in Eastern Europe brought about a loss of its major markets. The Cuban industry’s ability to recover remains a major question. Thailand has only recently become an important sugar producer. Its industry is expanding, and production is now in excess of 6 million mtrv, of which two-thirds is exported.

The European Union is responsible for nearly half of the world’s beet sugar, about 18 million mtrv annually. Germany and France are the main producers, although Ukraine and Poland produce close to 4 million and 2 million mtrv, respectively. By and large, the beet industry in eastern Europe suffers from poor management and a lack of investment in machinery, and because much land is still publicly owned. The region has enormous potential, however; several western European companies have taken advantage of privatization schemes to buy factories and begin the work of modernization. The United States, China, and Turkey are also major beet-sugar producers. The United States and China are among the relatively small number of countries which, because they extend across a wide range of climatic zones, are able to grow both cane and beet.


International trade in centrifugal sugar amounts to about 30 million mtrv, or about one-quarter of the total world production, meaning that most sugar is consumed in the country where it is produced. Much of the trade takes place under special arrangements, and only a small portion of the sugar traded internationally sells at the free-market price.

The European Union buys sugar at a preferential price from the former colonies of its member states; the United States allocates import quotas to a large number of countries. Cuba bartered sugar for oil with the former Soviet Union, and now barters with Russia on a more limited scale. These arrangements have had what might seem curious consequences. The European Union is both a major importer (1.8 million mtrv annually) of sugar from its former colonies and a major exporter (five million mtrv annually) because of its beet production. Some countries (Barbados, Jamaica, Guyana, and the Dominican Republic) export all, or nearly all, of their sugar at a premium price to meet contractual arrangements with the United States and the European Union, and they import at world market price for their own consumption. Refineries also import raw sugar, only to export it again in a practice known to the trade as tolling. This accounts for the presence of the United States on the list of sugar exporters. Quotas limit its imports, but tolling permits the use of otherwise surplus refining capacity and provides employment.

About 75 countries export sugar and about 130 import it—the numbers fluctuate a little from year to year. Most trade in small amounts, and many are minimal participants dealing in less than 10,000 tonnes a year. But the European Union, Ukraine, Cuba, Brazil, Thailand, and Australia all export more than 1 million mtrv annually. Together, these latter countries account for by far the greater part of sugar exports. By way of contrast, the European Union, Russia, Canada, the United States, Japan, and South Korea all import more than 1 million mtrv a year apiece, with Malaysia and Algeria not far behind. Such activities provide certainties, insofar as there can be any, in the sugar trade. The major sources of uncertainty are India and China. They may appear unexpectedly on the market as either importers or exporters if their policies change or if their policy makers misjudge the market situation. Weather is also an uncertainty. Poor or excellent harvests in a number of countries can cause shortages or create surpluses.

In most countries there are stocks of sugar held against sudden shortages and increases in price. The world stocks-to-use ratio in the mid-1990s was considered high, at about 19 percent (USDA 1996: 9). This translates into low free market prices because there are reserves to draw on in case of a sudden shortage. Sugar traders and some governments carefully monitor production, import, export, and consumption data in each country and calculate the buildup and/or drawdown of stocks with a view to predicting demand and prices. There is a very active trade in sugar futures.


For several hundred years, sucrose in the Western world has been without a serious competitor in the sweetener market, but recently this has changed. The leading caloric competitor is high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). It is a liquid sweetener made from plants (especially maize) that contain a sufficient amount of starch, although sweeteners are also made from sweet potatoes and tapioca in Asia and from wheat and potatoes in Europe. HFCS appeared in the 1970s, during a period of high sugar prices, but continued in production after sugar prices fell. Sugar usually has a price advantage over HFCS, and HFCS is not always a good substitute for sugar. Bakers and manufacturers of confectionery and cereals prefer sugar because of its “bulking, texture and browning characteristics” (USDA 1995: 18). HFCS is most competitive in the manufacture of soft drinks. The United States is by far the largest producer of HFCS, with the European Union, Canada, Korea, Argentina, and Taiwan making very modest quantities. HFCS has captured rather less than 10 percent of the sweetener market and, in the immediate future, is not expected to expand beyond the liquid sweetener market in a few countries (USDA 1995: 15-20).

Low-calorie, high-intensity sweeteners have gained in significance since the 1980s and claim a small percentage of the sweetener market. Saccharin and aspar-tame are perhaps the best known. They are attractive to consumers concerned with diet and can compete in price with sugar. Both are used to sweeten coffee, tea, and other beverages (“table-top use”), but aspar-tame, benefiting from the demand for diet soft drinks, has received approval for a wider range of uses in the European Union, the United States, Canada, and Japan. This branch of the sweetener market is still evolving. Low-calorie sweeteners are used together in some applications, but they also compete with one another and, of course, they compete in the soft drink market with HFCS and sugar (Earley 1989; USDA 1995: 23-4).

The fact that the manufacture of sugar is one of the oldest industries in the world gives the sugar industry a special place in the cultural history of food, but other characteristics also give it a particular interest. It is unique among agro-industries in that it has both tropical and temperate sources of supply of its raw material. It has been responsive throughout its history to developments in science and technology and today continues to invest in research. Government intervention is a long-standing tradition. The importance of sugar to the finances of European imperialism was a great incentive for the colonial powers to attempt to manage the international trade in sugar for their own benefit. Governments continue to intervene to this day with subsidies and protective tariffs to defend vested interests.

The sugarcane industry has had profound economic and social consequences on those parts of the world in which it became a major crop. Indeed, perhaps no other crop has had such a formative influence on societies. The industry has divided societies, along class lines, between the owners of the factories (either local elites or—often nowadays—foreign companies) and the work force. Even where the factories have been nationalized, or are owned by cooperatives, disparities exist in income and prestige between managers and laborers. Because of its great demand for labor—satisfied first by African slavery, then by indentured workers, and finally by free laborers—the industry also produced multiethnic populations that frequently have complex internal politics. Another legacy is economic dependency. Although the empires are gone, many ex-colonies continue to grow sugar as a staple, relying on special arrangements with their former rulers (now members of the European Union), as well as with the United States, that enable them to sell their sugar at a premium above the low price that sugar generally commands on the open market.

The dilemma of dependency has had no easy resolution. Sugarcane producers have little bargaining power, given the oversupply of their product, and alternatives to the cultivation of sugarcane that can provide a better level of employment and income have been difficult to find. Dependency is keenly felt by the populations of the cane-growing countries, and where this sense of frustration is joined with the memory of slavery, as in the Caribbean, sugarcane is a very problematic crop.