Stop the sugar rush

Louise Weinzweig calls for more transparency on where the food and drink industry sources its products

Too often the sugar in your favourite food and drink is produced by kicking rural farmers off their land. Families have lost livelihoods and people have suffered, whole communities have lost their main source of food and income. Big food companies like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo and Associated British Foods buy a huge amount of sugar from around the world, making them very powerful industry players.

Leading brands Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Associated British Foods should set an example with greater transparency within their practice and policies so others will follow. Yet all too often they simply don’t know if their sugar is grown on grabbed land.

Sugar is a key ingredient for the food industry – 51 per cent of sugar produced is used in processed foods such as soft drinks, confectionery, baked goods, and ice cream. Demand for sugar is set to rise by 25 per cent by 2020 due, in part, to our insatiable sweet tooth

Sugar production has increased by approximately one fifth in the last ten years so the need for land is forever on the increase. It’s now grown in an area about 15 times the size of Wales. Over the past 100 years, many small-scale farmers have been displaced from their lands by governments and companies in search of fertile land.

Brazil accounts for 20 per cent of the world’s sugar supply and close to 50 per cent of all exports. Nearly 9.5 million hectares of land in Brazil were devoted to sugar production in 2011, accounting for one eighth of the country’s arable land. This huge expansion of large scale agriculture in Brazil has led to a rise in violence and conflict over land, often linked to indigenous and other community land rights. In 2012, Brazil saw 1,067 land conflicts, with 36 deaths and 77 related attempted murders.

In 2011, the United Nations recognised the vast human rights impact of businesses and endorsed a detailed set of responsibilities applicable to all companies. Under the UN principles, companies are required to undertake due diligence to ensure that they do not violate human rights and to address any adverse impact in any of their activities or relationships. Importantly, this includes their supply chains. Yet there continues to be a serious disconnect between the industries’ broader public promises to achieve sustainability and the actual policies which govern their supply chains.

We need comprehensive policies to be enforced and continuously evaluated throughout the supply chain, alongside efforts to engage government, civil society and industry leaders to rid the industry of perennial abuses of human rights.

Oxfam has therefore developed a ‘Behind the Brand’ scorecard which delves deeply into a company’s publicly disclosed policies. This evaluates the intention of businesses to improve the social and environmental effects of their operations in seven key areas. The aim of the scorecard is to generate a race to the top allowing companies to gain an understanding of where they stand in comparison with peers and helping them consider areas of improvement in sourcing of raw materials.

The scorecard will serve as the core of our ‘Behind the Brands’ campaign. This will work with consumers, governments and companies to hold the food and beverage industry accountable for its social and environmental impact on farmers, workers and communities worldwide.

Oxfam has evidence of violent land grabs in Brazil and Cambodia that supply companies which in turn supply sugar for Coke and PepsiCo products. Through their ownership of Illovo, Africa’s biggest producer of sugar cane, Associated British Foods has been linked in media reports to land conflicts in Mali, Zambia and Malawi. We are calling on Coke, PepsiCo and ABF to lead the way forward towards a better and fairer future – and especially for small scale farmers and their families.

Louise Weinzweig is Campaigns and Communications Co–ordinator with Oxfam Cymru. It’s petition on the campaign can be access at:

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