This week, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution demanding that the global sugar industry “take immediate and decisive action” to combat “abusive and unscrupulous practices”.
The resolution, which has not yet been adopted, has the support of the US, Australia and Canada, but was opposed by the European Union and India.
“The resolution will have little effect unless sugar producers and processors take action, such as making the products more traceable, reporting suspicious activities, and strengthening their control over their products,” says the UNSC resolution, signed by China, Russia, Germany, Brazil, Japan, France, Mexico, South Korea, the UK, Spain, Turkey, the US and the EU.
“In the short term, however, we can expect a response.
There will be little immediate impact because the resolution is not binding,” says John Pemberton, professor of international relations at Griffith University, Australia.
“There are a lot of other issues at stake.
But there is a real risk that the international sugar trade will become even more insecure.
There are not enough inspectors to enforce international standards and they will be in conflict with each other.
That will lead to a much more fragmented and dangerous international trade.”
The sugar industry has long been a source of international conflict.
In the past, the sugar industry was accused of employing child labour and other forms of exploitation, but the recent report of the UN Commission of Inquiry into Labour and Human Rights found “no evidence to support these claims”.
In 2010, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation said the industry “has made significant efforts to address these problems, and has implemented many programmes designed to improve the welfare of sugar workers”.
But the resolution demands a major change.
“It would be helpful if the international industry started to address the serious human rights violations that have occurred in its industry,” says Pemberson.
“That could then have an impact on the trade of sugar.”
The resolution was approved in the second half of 2015, but it is expected to be put to a vote in the next few months, and could take years to implement.
What are the main issues at play?
There are three main areas where the sugar trade could be at risk: • The global supply chain: the amount of sugar that is shipped around the world; the number of factories, processing plants and warehouses that operate in each country; and the number and type of products that are sold through each country.
In addition, the amount and quality of sugar exported from each country are also affected.
The UN estimates that around one-third of the global supply of sugar is shipped through third countries, including China, the world’s biggest importer.
It has also identified a number of “black box” countries that have not been transparent about the use of sugar.
Some of these are developing countries that are vulnerable to a range of challenges, including rising food prices, corruption, conflict and food shortages.
In some cases, the trade could fall outside the reach of local governments.
• The sugar trade itself: the number, quality and quantity of sugar being consumed in each market, including processed and refined sugars, and how it is used.
“You have the global trade in sugar,” says Matthew J. Levenson, a senior researcher at the Institute for International Agricultural Research, a London-based think tank.
“But you also have this global market for processed and unprocessed sugar.”
This is where the real work begins.
A new trade agreement is currently being negotiated with the EU and Japan, but there is currently little chance of the countries agreeing to anything that would actually take effect.
If the EU does decide to negotiate a new deal, it is likely to be an agreement that will restrict the amount or types of sugar coming into the EU from third countries.
In other words, the EU may just be reopening its doors to the world and putting the sugar that we have been consuming for years into the hands of the big three, who will continue to make a profit from the industry.
The EU and the US are the biggest exporters of sugar to the EU, and are expected to make up the bulk of the sugar used in the EU’s products, with Australia leading the way.
But these are two countries that don’t have any control over the sugar they use.
“We have to take into account the fact that we can’t make wholesale decisions in the way we would in a developed country, which is what’s happened in the US,” says Levenston.
“They [the EU and US] have control over what goes into the food supply chain.
And they can decide to have a much stronger and more effective system to combat sugar trafficking.
The US has been very good at this, and it has succeeded in reducing sugar imports and the demand for sugar from developing countries.”
In the US sugar is processed at six processing plants, with two of them located in the northern part of the country, the other in the southern part of that country.