In London’s Victoria and Albert Museum is a small, silver sugar bowl from the late 1700s, complete with a tiny latch for a tiny lock. The mistress of the house would have kept the key herself, as sugar was far too precious to leave unprotected.

Today, sugar flows freely at every table. No longer spice or medicine, no more exotic or expensive than salt or pepper or clear tap water, sugar is now a basic and powerful commodity. It rarely concerns anyone who’s not worried about calories, insulin or childrens’ attention spans. With corn syrup currently wearing the black hat and ethanol a favorite of politicians, cane sugar has suddenly been rehabilitated. What sugar blues?

But Bill Haney and his documentary, The Price of Sugar (opening this weekend at the Opera Plaza Cinema) are here to show us exactly what it takes to bring us that stuff of sweetness.

I know, you’re already rolling your eyes or reaching for your mouse. Who wants to add sugar to the growing list of politicized food? Chocolate, coffee, corn, every fish and fowl and four-legged creature under the sun, and now this? Is nothing safe for the conscientious eater to enjoy?

If it makes you feel any better, know that centuries ago, cooks and diners were wrestling with these very same issues.


In 1791, abolitionists in the United Kingdom declared a boycott on sugar from the West Indies, where sugar plantations flourished with the help of the burgeoning slave economy. Diaries from the period mention how troublesome it was to entertain guests who were boycotting sugar, while Punch cartoonists poked fun at “anti-saccharrite” families that refused to offer sugar at teatime. There were valiant attempts to hold awareness-raising bake sales with cakes and cookies prepared without sugar or else only with sugar from India. (Thanksgiving cooks everywhere can empathize–how to fit the tofu next to the turkey?)

An ambitious little pamphlet, “Address to the People of Great Britain on the Utility of Refraining from the Use of West Indian Sugar and Rum,” written by Thomas Clarkson, set a publishing record for the time: 50,000 copies were distributed in the UK in only four months.

On the back of this anti-slave sugar bowl: “East India Sugar not made By Slaves. By Six families using East India, instead of West India Sugar, one Slave less is required.”

The slave-free sugar movement faced much greater opposition in the US, where rum was filling the new nation’s coffers. While Clarkson and his followers helped turn the tide against slave labor in the UK (an estimated 300,000 British families boycotted West Indies sugar) American abolitionists had another century of fighting before slavery was outlawed in the US.

But here’s the problem: Slave labor is not a thing of the past.

Ships no longer ply the Middle Passage, but we still have human trafficking in containers and vans. If trapping entire families on plantation land to work their whole lives, guarding them with rifles day and night, stringing barbed wire over their ceilings so they can’t escape, paying with vouchers for the company store or not bothering to pay at all, and enjoying the full support of governments do not all add up to institutional bondage — or slavery — then someone needs to rewrite the dictionaries.

In the US, the major sugar-cane states are Florida, Louisiana and Texas. A long-growing crop with intensive irrigation requirements, heavy chemical inputs and back-breaking, hand-maiming occupational risks, sugar cane is not an easy crop to grow. Increasingly, American growers depend on a mechanized harvest (especially after a lawsuit was filed in the mid-1990s demanding that companies pay their guest workers the contracted $5.70 a ton rather than merely $3.70 a ton.)

However, environmental devastation is still a serious issue. As sugar cane is re-framed by politicians and growers as an eco-friendly source of energy here in California, we need to keep a closer watch on the discussion. Close ties to Washington help big sugar companies maintain generous subsidies, while import restrictions keep domestic sugar cane prices artificially high.

So yes, there’s still a long way to go. Luckily for us, courageous and determined individuals continue to lead the way. Person by person, family by family, nation by nation…changes will happen.

Directed by Bill Haney
Landmark’s Opera Plaza
601 Van Ness Avenue
(415) 267-4893

The documentary really should be titled “The Life and Work of Father Christopher Hartley” since this Catholic priest, who compares himself to Mother Theresa, stars in the film. Father Hartley fought for years to improve the horrendous living and working conditions of undocumented Haitians on the sugar plantations of the Vincini family, powerful players in the Dominican Republic. The family has tried blocking the release of the film, and both the crusading priest and the director have received death threats. The film depends more on slow motion and plaintive music than data or historical context to make its points. In the end, though, I came away with an understanding of the human side — both the good and the bad — of this complex issue.


There are no easy answers. The US produces 80% of the sugar it consumes, so international free-trade sugar, already a small fraction of the industry, is just one part of the solution. Domestic sugar’s impact on ecosystems, energy production, public health and political power are other important considerations.

Awareness and education are the first steps. Seeing the above documentary is one way to begin. There are many resources on the internet for anyone curious and committed. I’ve included a few links at the end of this post for those who’d like to read more. Taking on all the issues is overwhelming. Instead, choose subjects already close to you and learn how they relate specifically to sugar production and consumption.

Spend your money wisely to express your desire for a better world. Do what you can when you can. Buying fair-trade sugar supports companies and cooperatives that meet international standards for worker rights and environmental sustainability. Go for little but consistent changes for the long haul. Our small individual acts really do add up.

Spread the word. While you might not have a sugar bowl that speaks for you, there are many opportunities to influence others, whether it’s the office manager who stocks your company’s break room or the grocery store in your neighborhood or the bakery that’s going to craft your wedding cake. Ask if fair-trade sugar is an option, and if it’s not, ask why not.

• Finally, one of the most important things we can do is to fax or call our elected representatives to remind them that we want an agricultural industry in California that is environmentally sustainable and fair to its workers. The California Coalition for Food and Justice offers several different sample letters as well as a detailed tip sheet on how to meet your respresentatives in person. Join the coalition or sign up for their newsletter to keep in touch with food policy issues in California. You can adapt their language to your own specific concerns. Encourage your friends and family to write letters, too.

Look for these marks of fair trade certification on sugar that you buy.


If you’re interested in learning about the sugar cane industry, especially a little closer to home, here are some online resources:

• Sugar Knowledge International offers a basic description of how cane sugar is processed.

• Fair Trade Certified provides a fact sheet on fair-trade sugar.

• Read about the call for growing sugar cane in California’s Imperial Valley to provide energy and ethanol.

• Environmental Entrepreneurs estimates

how many megawatt-hours of electricity
might be converted from cane sugar fiber in California.

• The Center for Responsible Politics describes the electoral politics of sweeteners in “Iron Triangle of Beet Sugar, Cane Sugar and Corn Syrup.”

• For a historical view of Big Sugar from, of all places, The American Conservative, this critique of guest worker programs for the US sugar industry describes how growers take advantage of their workers.

• In its National Wetlands Newsletter, the Environmental Law Institute discusses how growing sugar cane in the Florida Everglades affects the ecosystem and taxpayers.

Alter Eco, based in San Francisco’s Mission Bay, distributes fair-trade sugar. Their controversial financial model, melding the business structure of a corporation with the social mission of a nonprofit, helps them pursue their goal of mainstreaming free-trade products into supermarket chains.

Bitter Sweet: The Price of Sugar 9 April,2008Thy Tran

  • Krizia

    One of the most enlightening and informative food posts I’ve read all year. Thank you for being so careful, accurate and exhaustive in this write-up! I’ll make sure to pass this along.

  • EB of SpiceDish

    What a fantastic. Post. I truly thank you.

  • Kei

    I was just wondering about this b/c when I last bought sugar and was mulling over which brand to buy, I settled on Florida Crystals. It was touted on the package as the only organic sugar grown and processed in the U.S. So I looked them up online and it turns out that they’re an arm of Domino’s and C&H with 180,000 acres of sugar and rice in the Florida Everglades. Kind of a bummer. I guess Fair Trade is the way to go?

  • Thy Tran

    krizia and eb – I’m glad you found the post informative. I’ve been thinking about those old sugar bowls for years and years, then finally figured out how to write about them while sneaking in a bit of education. Sugar helps the medicine go down!

    kei – I know, it’s so hard to figure out. I’m really impressed that you researched the company. Kudos to you, and to all the other cooks and eaters out there who take the time to learn more about who and what’s behind their food. Fair Trade is the right choice for certain reasons. Of course, there’s a bit of extra fuel involved in getting it to us. I’m willing to overlook that part — for now — in order to support the environmental and economic sustainability.

    More importantly, I’ve been trying to cut back on my use of white sugar in general. Except for making jam. And ca kho (that yummy fish dish we Vietnamese are addicted to).

  • Joyce

    Thank you for waking me up. I knew practically nothing about this before, now I plan to buy and use only fair-trade sugar. Thank you for educating us all with this unbelievably smart and well-written post.

  • Thy Tran

    joyce – yay! one more convert to the cause!!

    I forgot to mention that it’s a challenge to grow sugar organically and that, for reasons I still don’t understand clearly, it’s nearly impossible to find fair-trade white granulated sugar. So for the hard-core boycotting conventional sugar completely, you’ll need to figure out how to make the most of unrefined sugar (which has way more flavor anyway) or powdered white sugar.

    This shouldn’t be a problem for most. Those who do fine sugar work, slipping back to some C&H occasionally may be required.

    There’s also honey, as long as all those bees don’t die off on us, and I’m in the process of researching locally grown beet sugar. Pastry chefs poo-poo beet sugar, but home cooks trying to make a difference may find it the best choice.

    If there’s interest, I can post in the future about substituting sugars as well as the pros and cons of beet sugar.

  • Lisa

    I buy Big Chief sugar made, in Michigan, from sugar beets. I liked the idea that I was supporting other workers in my state.
    Am I deluding myself? Do sugar beet workers face the same problems?

  • Thy Tran

    Lisa – Although sugar beets were once a labor-intensive crop, their cultivation is now completely mechanized. Hoeing weeds and harvesting by hand have been replaced by herbicides and machines.


Thy Tran

Thy Tran writes literary nonfiction about food, the rituals of the kitchen, and the many ways eating and cooking both connect and separate communities around the world. She co-authored the award-winning guide, Kitchen Companion, and her work has appeared in numerous other books, including Asia in the San Francisco Bay Area: A Cultural Travel Guide and Cooking at Home with the Culinary Institute of America. Her writing has been featured in The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Fine Cooking and Saveur. A recipient of a literary grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission, Thy is currently working on a collection of essays about how food changes in families across time and place.

Though trained as a professional chef, she works on cookbooks by day, then creates literary chapbooks by night. An old letterpress and two cabinets of wood and lead type occupy a corner of her writing studio, for she is as committed to the art and craft of bookmaking as she is to the power of words themselves. In addition to writing, editing, teaching and printing, Thy remains active in local food justice and global food sovereignty movements. Visit her website,, to learn more about her culinary adventures.

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