This fiscal year, the United States will import more sugar than it has in four decades, NPR reported. This news comes after a shortage in annual beet harvests, from which we get half of our sugar. The simple sweetener has played a major role in world history.
The NPR article mentions that “about half the United States’ sugar normally comes from beets,” and the United States grows enough of its own sugar to tightly restrict the amount of foreign-grown sugar allowed into the country each year. However, this past year has seen several adverse growing conditions that have affected the crops. The NPR articles states that two of the major U.S. sugar producers announced that they can’t deliver the amount of sugar that they had expected. As candy-makers and bakers are increasingly affected, the import restrictions are loosening. A major pie-maker company, called Tippin’s, has declared force majeure for the October 2019–September 2020 fiscal year.
“In a new report, economists at the Agriculture Department estimate that it will take 3.86 million tons of imported sugar to satisfy the domestic demand for sugar during the current fiscal year,” the article said. “Most of the sugar will come from Mexico, because trade agreements give Mexico first dibs on the American market.” Sugar isn’t just big business; it’s played a considerable part in world history.
A Rich History
Sugar cane’s place in the human diet can be traced back 10 millennia to 8,000 B.C.
“The birthplace of domestic sugar cane is thought to be in New Guinea, close to 10,000 years ago with the agricultural revolution,” said Dr. Alyssa Crittenden, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “It was then carried to the Philippines, China, India, and Indonesia, although some scholars think that Indonesia might be an independent place of origin. At first, sugar was processed manually by chewing on the cane stock; it wasn’t until about 1,700 years ago that sugar cane was made portable, and this likely first happened in India.”
Dr. Crittenden explained that in order to be processed, cane fibers were first crushed, chopped, or ground so their liquid could be extracted. “Then the liquid was heated up, causing the water to evaporate and yield a concentration of sucrose,” she said. “When the liquid was hyper-saturated, sugar crystals appeared.”
Sugar production centers originated in Pakistan and India, and sugar didn’t even appear in England until the Crusades. The first sugar press was invented in the 1390s.
So how big of a role does sugar play in our lives? Big enough to be at the forefront of world leaders’ minds come wartime. However, to understand this, let’s take a step back.
“During World War II, governments issued ration books, which contained coupons that shopkeepers cut out or signed when people bought food,” Dr. Crittenden said. “The idea was to make sure that everybody got a fair share of the food available. The fear was that as food and other items were scarce, prices would rise and only rich people would be able to buy them. There was also a danger that some people might hoard items, leaving none for others.”
In Britain during World War I, sugar was rationed beginning in 1918. In World War II, well aware of the popularity of the processed crop, the United States federal government made sugar the first rationed food on the list.
“By the spring of 1942, Americans were unable to purchase sugar without government-issued food coupons,” Dr. Crittenden said. “The war with Japan had cut off U.S. imports from the Philippines, and cargo ships from Hawaii were diverted for military purposes. The nation’s supply of sugar was quickly reduced by more than a third.”
Rations on sugar remained until 1947, two years after the end of the war.
These days, Americans get most sugar from a domestic supply, with only a small amount coming in from overseas. This fiscal year, however, anyone with a sweet tooth may feel the pinch in their wallets with the rising prices of sugar products associated with imports.
Dr. Alyssa Crittenden contributed to this article. Dr. Crittenden is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where she is also an Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Medicine. She received her M.A. and Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of California, San Diego.