The Big Issue : Edition 478
20 THEBIGISSUE20FEB–5MAR2015 But the argument doesn’t hold up for added cane sugar, which represents empty calories and has no nutritional value. Nor does it hold up for soft drinks, which are completely non- essential and robustly linked to weight gain and therefore government health expenditure. In the end, perhaps the government won’t need to tax sugar, because consumers will abandon it for other sweeteners. Food and Agriculture Organization figures show Australians consumed about 4kg of ‘other’ sweeteners in 1998, increasing to about 9kg in 2011. It’s part of a trend in developed countries. A September 2013 report by Credit Suisse on sugar’s global prospects predicted: “the most likely outcome over the next 5–10 years will be a significant reduction in sugar consumption and a marked increase in the role played by high-intensity natural sweeteners in food and beverages”. DOES ALL OF this spell doom for Australian cane farmers? After my week in Bundaberg I take a train down to Brisbane and visit the head offices of Canegrowers to find out. I meet chief operating officer Ron Mullins, who tells me that domestic sales account for only 20% of the raw sugar we produce. Cane farmers in New South Wales, and to a lesser extent in southern Queensland, are exposed to declining consumption in Australia, but the vast majority of the nation’s cane farmers and millers have their eyes on overseas palates. Despite a history of protectionism, the Australian sugar industry is now largely deregulated and unsubsidised, which makes it highly exposed to fluctuations in the global sugar price. When that price collapsed in the early 2000s, for example, the industry received a federal assistance package of $444.4 million. Canegrowers’ latest annual report mentions that during the previous financial year, farmers faced “some of the biggest issues in the history of the Australian sugarcane industry”. Yet the list of issues – a rift between MILLAQUIN SUGAR MILL as alcohol, and for the same reasons. In 2012, Lustig – aforementioned star of Sugar: The Bitter Truth – and his colleagues published a comment piece in the scientific journal Nature. It listed four criteria that justify regulating alcohol: it’s pervasive, toxic, it offers potential for abuse and has a negative impact on society. The academics argued sugar met all these criteria. “It can also be argued that fructose exerts toxic effects on the liver that are similar to those of alcohol” the article went on. “This is no surprise, because alcohol is derived from the fermentation of sugar.” Following this logic, some countries and cities around the world have already introduced sugar taxes. In January 2014, Mexico, which has one of the highest rates of obesity in the world, introduced a 10% per litre tax on sugary drinks. And in November 2014, residents of Berkeley, California, voted to impose a ‘soda tax’ of more than 10%. In Australia, leading health bodies Diabetes Australia, Cancer Council and the Heart Foundation have been campaigning for a tax on sugary drinks since January 2013. With mounting obesity rates, the pressure on government to investigate this option is increasing. But the beverage industry is a formidable foe. In 2012, New York’s then mayor, Michael Bloomberg, pushed through a city-wide ban on large sugary drinks. In response, the American Beverage Association successfully petitioned to have it struck down by the courts. So far, the Australian beverage industry has responded by questioning the link between sugar and obesity, prompting comparisons to the campaign waged by tobacco companies decades ago. I found little support for a sugar tax during my time in Bundaberg. Earlier in the week I raised the topic with the local Liberal MP, Keith Pitt. “This is a free country... I don’t want to be in a government enforcing food choice,” he told me. Even Brian Courtice, the former cane farmer who refuses to put sugar in his tea, doesn’t support a tax on it. An ex-Labor MP, Courtice is worried that a sugar tax would disproportionately target the working class or poor. One objection to a sugar tax raised by many critics is that the comparison between sugar and alcohol or tobacco is flawed. Lustig and colleagues concede this in their Nature article: “food is required, whereas tobacco and alcohol are non-essential consumables”. That’s true of natural foods such as honey and fruit that also contain beneficial vitamins and nutrients.