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Sugar: a potted history

In the beginning

Sugarcane was in Australia from the beginning of white settlement, having been brought in the ships of the first fleet. Like many other crops, it did not do well in the early days of the colony. Shifting to the warmer climate of Queensland in 1862 was the change needed to start the commercial sugar cane farming and milling industry.

A shameful chapter

With growing labour requirements, a history of using convict labour, rampant slavery in other parts of the world and a lax approach taken by the Queensland government, the shameful chapter of using indentured labour from the South Pacific enabled the industry to grow through the hard labour required for cane cutting. While most workers came voluntarily, others were kidnapped, forced, coerced or deceived (known as ‘blackbirding’) to travel to Queensland from their island homes. The Federal Government legislation stopped this practice in 1901.

Migrant labour

The early 1900s saw a wave of migrants arrive from Italy and many took up work in the sugarcane fields. The enterprising Italian migrants who went on to buy sugarcane farms have descendants in the industry to this day. The cultural legacy of European migration is still alive in Queensland.

War-time rations

In Australia, the Rationing Commission was established in 1942 to manage the limited supply of clothing, fuel and food available. In those days there were few processed foods, and most foods were cooked from scratch. Sugar was rationed to 2 pounds (900g) per person per fortnight (or 64g/day). This is higher than the WHO 10%kJ guideline of 50g a day or less for women and 60g for men (based on average energy requirements), and higher than current average intakes of added sugar in Australia of 52g a day reported by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). Other foods rationed were tea, butter and meat.  Rationing went on for 8 years before being lifted in 1950.

Labour-saving technology

Cutting sugar cane was backbreaking, slow and dangerous work so the advent of mechanical equipment for harvesting and loading in the 1960s revolutionised production making it faster, easier and cheaper.

From sugarcane to sugar

Sugar mills are located close to where sugarcane is grown. Sugar is made by crushing sugarcane to extract the juice and then evaporating the moisture until crystals form. The cane fibre leftover is used to fuel the mill boiler and the molasses by-product of juice processing is used for distilling and stock feed.

Green harvesting

The practice of burning sugarcane before harvest started in around 1935 after mass industrial action. The canecutters were catching Weil’s disease from rats that infested the cane and burning solved the rat problem. It also made cutting and loading easier by reducing leaf matter. However, as the population around cane fields and environmental awareness grew, people complained about the smoke and ash and the practice declined from the late 1970s. While it is still done in some places, most Australian cane farmers ‘green harvest’ without burning. Although it costs more, it also has agronomic as well as environmental advantages.

Sugary drinks

Lemonade made with water, lemon juice and honey was the first sweet drink marketed in Paris in 1676 and was sold from vendors with tanks on their backs. The bubbles (carbonation) came about to imitate naturally effervescent natural mineral waters sourced from springs, which were thought to have therapeutic value. In the early 1800s the process of carbonation was perfected. After making ginger, lemon and tonic waters, the iconic Coca Cola was invented by a pharmacist in Atalanta Georgia in 1886. The rest, as they say, is history. ‘Soft drinks’ were named to distinguish them from hard liquor and were promoted to avoid drinking too much liquor in the USA. 

Sugar-sweetened drink consumption has been steadily declining in Australia, as shown in the per capita volume sales figures below (from Shrapnel & Butcher, 2020): 

(a) all sugar sweetened vs non-sugar sweetened water-based beverages, and 

(b) sugar sweetened vs non-sugar sweetened carbonated drinks:

 sugar consumption

Sugar taxes

Concerns about the adverse health effects of consuming too many sugar-sweetened beverages have resulted in ‘sugar taxes’ being introduced in several countries including Mexico and the UK. The Australian and New Zealand Governments have not introduced a sugar tax.

The rise of sugar alternatives

While the first non-nutritive sweetener (NNS), saccharine, was invented in the 1879 they only really started being used in the 1950s and massively increased in the 2000s. ‘No sugar’ and ‘diet’ drinks are their main application and use in these products continues to grow. Recent research shows use of NNS is higher in the food supply of countries who have taken policy action such as sugar taxes.

Sugar in New Zealand

After importing refined sugar from Australia, New Zealand established its own refinery at Birkenhead in Auckland, forming the New Zealand Sugar Company in 1882, later becoming the Chelsea Sugar Company. Not having the growing conditions required for sugarcane, they purchased raw sugar from other countries such as Indonesia. During the 1930s depression era when most businesses were shedding staff, demand for sugar continued and the Chelsea Sugar Co. carried on business as usual, and workers kept their jobs. During WWII while men were off fighting, women took over the jobs in the sugar refinery. The land surrounding the refinery at Birkenhead is now a beautiful park owned by the Heritage Park Trust.


Australian Sugar Heritage Centre/History

National Archives of Australia

New Zealand Sugar

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