A recent report supported by health professionals and environmental advocates suggests that government officials should limit the amount of sugar produced domestically in order to address the obesity epidemic in Britain.
According to a report from environmental advocates Feedback Global and Action on Sugar, a group of experts in medicine, nutrition, and public health, the UK produces and imports over two and a half times the recommended amount of sugar for its population.
The report suggests that the excess supply encourages food producers to incorporate more sugar into their products and for British farmers to prioritize growing sugar beet instead of fruits or vegetables.
The activists are advocating for a quota that would gradually reduce sugar production in the UK by 50%, impose tariffs on sugar cane and refined sugar imports, and provide subsidies to farmers for growing more fruits and vegetables.
According to the “polluter pays” principle, sugar producers should be held accountable for the negative impacts of sugar on health and the environment, similar to regulations on product packaging. This means they would need to cover the hidden costs of sugar to society.
Jessica Sinclair Taylor, the policy head at Feedback Global and one of the authors of the report, stated that the main message conveyed by the report is that in order to address consumption and its associated issues, the current supply level is significantly greater than what is necessary. While there are policies in place to encourage individuals to consume less, there is a lack of focus on how supply may influence and contribute to demand.
Hattie Burt, a senior officer for policy and international projects at Action on Sugar, and one of the authors of the report, stated that initiatives such as the sugar reduction program from 2015 to 2020, which aimed to decrease sugar content in common foods and challenged the food industry to participate, resulted in a 7.1% rise in the sale of sugar.
Health policies alone will not suffice, as trade and agricultural land-use policies also play a role in promoting sugar production. Upon closer examination, the abundance and affordability of sugar in products is a result of these policies.
In 2022, the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities reported that 63.8% of adults in England were projected to be overweight or obese. Of these, 25.9% would be classified as obese. Based on estimates from Frontier Economics, the UK incurs a cost of approximately £58 billion annually due to obesity-related illnesses, shortened lifespans, and reduced productivity.
While there are multiple factors that contribute to obesity, the abundance of high-calorie foods that are rich in salt, sugar, and fat play a significant role. Additionally, processed foods that may not seem sweet can still contain substantial amounts of sugar.
Based on the findings of the Sugar Pollution report, the United Kingdom either imports or produces 1.91 million tonnes of sugar annually. However, if the entire population were to consume the maximum recommended quantity, it would only amount to 0.72 million tonnes.
Approximately 50% of the sugar in the UK is produced by 2,300 farmers within the country, primarily in the eastern regions of England and the east Midlands. This sugar is then processed by British Sugar. The remaining sugar is brought in from other countries, such as raw sugar cane from Brazil, or in the form of refined sugar or confectionery.
In the UK, approximately 100,000 hectares of land is dedicated to growing sugar beet, which is almost equivalent to the land used for all vegetable crops at 107,000 hectares.
Sinclair Taylor stated that farmers prefer beet as it is a convenient crop for them. Other crops sold at supermarkets experience price fluctuations throughout the year. However, beet has a fixed price determined by the NFU and British Sugar. It is also commonly rotated with other crops such as wheat and rapeseed. Therefore, farmers are making logical choices, but the incentives may seem unreasonable.
The report also addresses the impact of beet cultivation on the environment. According to the report, when beets are harvested, topsoil clings to the roots, resulting in the annual loss of 464,000 tonnes of topsoil.
In the past three years, government officials have authorized the usage of neonicotinoid-treated seeds to protect beets from aphids carrying viruses that pose a threat. Neonicotinoids have been prohibited in the EU and UK due to their negative effects on bees and people, but exceptions are permitted by the government.
The representative from British Sugar expressed their pride in being a central part of the British beet sugar industry.
“Sugar beet plays a significant role in our farmers’ crop rotation, serving as a beneficial break crop to enhance biodiversity. Additionally, after the harvest, the organic material from sugar beet tops is returned to the soil. It is important to note that farmers do not receive any subsidies for growing sugar beet.”
In the UK, obesity remains a significant concern for public health. At British Sugar, we take this matter very seriously. We are dedicated to raising awareness and educating individuals about sugar and its impact on a well-rounded, nutritious diet through our Making Sense of Sugar initiative.