Friday, February 12, 2016

Big Sugar

    The CBC documentary about Big Sugar raised many interesting questions and thoughts about human nature, capitalism and the relationship between the two. Most strikingly, I recognized parallels between Big Sugar capitalism and slavery in the United States historically. The reasons given as to why the treatment of workers is justified remains paternalistic: “without us, they would have less”, “we provide them with purpose”, etc. Hearing those words brought me straight back to 1800 (or 1609, or 1700, or 1850… You get the point). I wonder: Are those historically and currently in the position of “master” (for all intents and purposes) in denial of the inhumane conditions, or rather choose to remain ignorant? Or something different altogether? Perhaps they see the treatment as justifiable. Human nature exists on a broad spectrum.
    I also recognized (and it was discussed) the similarities between Big Tobacco and Big Sugar. The documentary brought the idea of “Big Sugar” to light--I had never noticed that it was a propaganda machine designed to keep people at their mercy for the sole purpose of profit, just like Big Tobacco (once was, at least). Question: Can Big Sugar/excessive consumption of sugar be addressed in the same way that Big Tobacco/consumption of tobacco is/was? Tobacco use has significantly declined since a quasi war on tobacco was waged and I wonder if this method can also tackle the United States’ sugar addiction.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Sweet Slavery

What surprised me most about the sugar production was the effort necessary to produce such an in demand good, “Once planted, the cane sprouts and with adequate heat and moisture may grow an inch a day for six weeks. It becomes ripe- and reaches the optimum condition for extraction- in a dry season after anywhere from nine to eighteen months. ‘Ratoon’ cane… is normally cut about every twelve months. Seed cane cuttings in the tropics take longer to reach maturity. In all cases cane must be cut when ready so as not to lose its juice… and once it is cut, the juice must be rapidly extract to avoid rot…” (pg. 21)
For such a complex process one would expect an increase in technological advances to parallel the growing request for the product; yet from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth century, “…sugar production grew steadily, as more westerners consumed sugar and each consumer used it more heavily. Yet technological changes in the field, in grinding, and even in refining itself were relatively minor. Generally speaking, the enlarged market for sugar was satisfied by a steady extension of production rather than by sharp increases in yield per acre of land or ton of cane, or in productivity per worker.” (page 35).
Thus my opinion regarding the need for slavery during the uprising of sugar fame throughout the world. The level of energy and labor needed to keep up with European demands outweighed paid labor, or every free labor, a concept I am unsure about: “Slaves were decidedly important, perhaps crucial; but a substantial amount of the labor was actually done by free wage earners paid partly in kind- some of them specialists, others temporary laborers.” 32
The passage continues to explain that although this sounds odd, it wasn’t as uncommon as one might believe. How could a system survive on free wage earners? What provoked “The Canarian system” to have equal sharing of produce between owners and workers? Such an idea seems unrealistic in today’s society and standards. I’m quite confused with this concept in general but intrigued all the same.
Nevertheless, a large workforce was still necessary to attend to the difficult process, a demand difficult that became difficult to fill: “…The prices of labor-costly goods like sugar rose after the Black Death. Indeed, in (Galloway’s) opinion, it was the expanded use of slave labor to compensate for plague-connected morality that initiated the strange and enduring relationship between sugar and slavery: ‘The link between sugar cultivation and slavery which was to last until the nineteenth century became firmly foraged in Crete, Cyprus, and Morocco.’” (page 29)
Along with this, the “…rapid destruction of the indigenous Arawakan-speaking Taino Indians of Santo Domingo had left too little manpower even for the gold mines, let alone for the experimental sugar plantations… By 1509, enslaved Africans were being imported to work the royal mines; others soon followed to power the sugar industry.” This passage especially put the importance of sugar into perspective for me. By divvying up their limited resources, sugar must be significantly vital to the market, or at least to the players of power. With only a small portion of labor available, and most attending to the ROYAL mines, I am very surprised sugar was put at a close second. This is implying the value of sugar is equally as beneficial to royalty as actual gold itself, which I find difficult to believe!
Beyond this though, is a level of competition that mixed with the age of colonization globally. As all countries raced to inhabit and control as much land as possible, ‘sugar islands’ were being produced in equal measure. It was a race between the most dominant supremacies, and no one knew who was going to win: “…England shifted from buying modest quantities of sugar from Mediterranean shippers… to establishing her own sugar colonies… On the one hand, they represent an extension of empire outward, but on the other, they mark an absorption, a kind of swallowing up, of sugar consumption as a national habit. Like tea, sugar came to define English ‘character’.” (page 39).
With the growth of nations came marking territory; by marking territory came the need to protect the newfound land, owned by the motherland. “Individual entrepreneurs were encouraged to establish sugar-cane (and other) plantations on the Atlantic islands, manned with African slaves and destined to produce sugar for Portugal and other European markets, because their presence safeguarded the extension of Portuguese trade routes around Africa and toward the Orient.” (page 30).
These plantations helped start a game amongst the richer, who could produce more? Who had the better sugar? At the time, the color of whiteness sugar held pronounced the level of purity. Thus, everything became part of the competition, part of the capitalist game. Such as Santo Domingo: “By the 1530s, the island had a ‘fairly stable total’ of thirty-four mills; and by 1568, ‘plantations owning a hundred-fifty to two hundred slaves were not uncommon. A few of the more magnificent estates possessed up to five hundred slaves, with production figures correspondingly high.’ One interesting feature of this development was the part played by the state and, indeed, by civil servants, who owned, administered, bought, and sold plantations.” (page 34). Not only was the creation of sugar important, but the sales surrounding this economy boomed as well. What good business man would look away from such a production??

None. Not the consumers, who were addicted just like the spread of opium. Not the business men, who not only had estates but given an extensive group of manpower to control. Not the royalty, who were forever competing with fellow countries to have the upper hand. Not a single class or aspect of the world could turn away from the sugar production. In all reality, sugar control us, our entire race.
“From humble beginnings on the island of Barbados in the 1640s, the British sugar industry expanded with astounding rapidity, engulfing first that island and, soon after, Jamaica… As English sugar became price-competitive with Portuguese sugar, England was able to drive Portugal out of the north European trade. From the resulting monopoly came monopoly prices, however, and then stiff competition from the French. In 1660, sugar was enumerated (and taxed).
In 1660, England consumed 1,000 hogsheads of sugar and exported 2,000... and by 1753, when England imported 110,000 hogsheads, she re-exported only 6,000.” (page 39).
It’s human nature that drives competition and between the people of power, the stakes only became higher, especially when “England fought the most, conquered the most colonies, imported the most slaves… and went furthest and fastest in creating a plantation system. The most important product of that system was sugar.”
Sugar became apart of the system, and not just one system, EVERY system: “But by the end of that century, sugar was outpacing tobacco in both the British and the French West Indies; by 1700, the value of sugar reaching England and Wales was double that of tobacco.” (page 34). But it did not stop there; the reach of sugar expanded just as the different types of consumption did as well:  “At the consumption end, changes were both numerous and diverse. Sugar steadily changed from being a specialized- medicinal, condimental, ritual, or display- commodity into an ever more common food” (pages 37-38). Because this need, this dependency, only expanded, the sugar industry could not shy away from being characterized by slave labor. Just as the need for slaves in America dwindled prior to the cotton boom, slavery went hand in hand with sugar for centuries.

Tate and Sugar as a Social Construction

    Taste as something socially constructed, is a topic we previously began to touch on in class, and one which we haven’t reached much of a conclusion on. On one hand, many of us find it strange to think of something with a “taste”, or a sensation we biologically react to, as possible to be constructed. On the other, there were those of us in class who gave example of how certain taste either grew on them as they aged, or the opposite, and they lost taste for a certain item, both associated with factors such as maturity or a social association such as turning 21.  In Sweetness and Power pg 79 and 80, Mintz points out that sugar was originally grouped in with spices, and that its corresponding taste was not associated with sweetening. He argues that there was shift in the conceptualization of sugar from spice to sweeter, and that much of this had to do with the availability and uses of sugar. As a spice, it was used sparingly for seasoning as were other spices and it held great value among the wealthy. Long before, it was used in medicine by physicians, and out of medical use it was turned into a decorative form. Each form required sugar to be viewed and processed in a different manner, thus giving a new meaning and purpose. As sugars use as a spice peaked in the sixteenth century and it became more abundant, and people of other socio-economic levels began to experiment with it. I believe one point which is important to remember is that everything has its own socio cultural context, even something biological like taste. You could largely attribute this to sugar being such a versatile object, and if you follow Mintz progression of the uses of sugar, it seems that it took a long time before the taste of sugar was thought of as it is today.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The hidden agenda behind the pervasiveness of "sucrose"
         Reading the first section of Sweetness and Power, I realized how we take certain aspects of our lives for granted it and do not question the socially constructed practices that have been occupied and enticed our being. One of these social practices are our daily diet.  We are aware that every culture has their own unique cuisine. However, we rarely question the fact that some food supplements exist almost in every culture. Those main supplements include sugar and salt, for example. We often justify that we use salt because it taste good or otherwise the food would be tasteless. Similarly, we use sugar because we crave for it. We rarely pay attention to the hidden agenda of universalizing these food supplements. It is worth questioning what really contributed to the pervasiveness of sugar and salt? Sugar has been around for millennia but what has changed in these two last centuries that they became one of the significant and main ingredients of our diet? Mintz (1985) provides answer to all these questions through an intellectually stimulating and thought provocative thesis. He reveals that how European and American exploited the slave crops by transforming sugar, a rare substance, to an ordinary and basic food of modern society that soon became part of individuals daily diet. The larger the demand grew, the bigger the exploitation got.  The new crave and thirst for sugar motivated the supply and demand chain further and transformed the history of capitalism and industry. Mintz argues that we might feel we have an innate crave for sugar. However, it is not as simple as it seems. The West played a significant role dragging this sweet supplement into our lives.
Mintz artfully explains the role of culture influencing our food habit. However, he also complains about changing food habits. He explicates, "We appear to be capable of eating (and liking) just about anything that is not immediately toxic". I think what he really referring is the dynamic change of world since globalization and flow of migration.  People are exposed to different food. For example, from the place I am coming from I would have never touched if I saw "Guacamole" back home with the way it appears and the way it tastes. However, being in a country where everybody loves it makes it more appetizing. In fact, it turned out to be one of my favourite sauces. I totally agree with Mintz as he talks about good food bing social than biological matter. If it was not social, we wouldn't be able to adapt a new dietary into our meal schedule. However, I would like to also point out that in today's modern life though sugar is largely used and is our favourite; there is some restrictions to its use. For example, the modern life also emphasize on body shape and health. When we talk about sugar, there are certain things that we need to address. For example, obesity, diabetes, teeth decay and a popular demand for the skinny body, especially for women are the topics that are mainly attached to sugar. Some of these are also the legacy of capitalism. I look forward to discussing these issues in class.

The different ideals of sugar production

As I was reading the introduction portion of the text for Monday's class, I came across numerous aspects of the life of a slave and servant on a plantation. One of the many things that interested me was the fact that their entire lives were focused on the production of sugar. Mintz stated that the plantation workers did not have time to do anything else but harvest sugar for the plantation owners. This resulted in their purchasing items that were made elsewhere in the world. This intrigued me because I know that in most slave/servant societies, the families don't usually have the extra money to spend on items for their household, so they have to make the items themselves. This alone showed how much power the plantation owners had over their workers and also the importance that the New World placed on the production of sugar, primarily for trade.

Another interesting point that I found was the differing uses for sugar as evident from widely different areas of the world. In the New World, sugar was used as a capitalist commodity that would be sold and traded with other regions of the world. It was rarely used by the workers themselves because this would result in a loss of economic gain for the plantation owners. Mintz went so far as to describe instances of how individuals might obtain sugar cane for personal use. This differed from how other areas of the world acted. Mintz stated that in India, people would produce sugar for personal use and for giving to their neighbors. This was a drastically different way of thinking than that of the New World. It shows how the European ideas of capitalism reached the New World but did not entirely reach India at the time.

Finally, I found it interesting the way in which sugar has flourished as a capitalist commodity. In the introduction and in chapter 1, Mintz describes the reasoning why sugar intake increased and how capitalism helped this to happen. He says that it is because humans have a natural attraction to sweet stuff. This is shown in his description of the infants in the US and in how the earlier societies acted upon the finding of sugar. Now, nearly everything has sugar in it and this has helped sugar flourish to be a major commodity and trade throughout the Early Modern era through to today's time.

Food, Sociality, and Sugar

The discussions brought up in this chapter about not just the foods that people consume but also a look into the way in which foods are being eaten show the global diversity, as well as similarity of humans. We are a species that thrives on cultural structures and developments. On page 4, Mintz mentions Robertson Smith who studied the social aspect of eating, bringing up this concept of breaking bread. I found Lorna Marshall's description of the !Kung's eating style a really strong example of the social side to eating. I think it is really interesting to compare to our own society today and see in what ways social eating has developed. Marshall mentions that "the idea of eating alone and not sharing" made the !Kung "shriek with an uneasy laughter." In this hunter-gatherer community and lifestyle "breaking of bread" was wholly important, almost the fundamental purpose of eating besides nutritional survival itself.

It is interesting to put this in context of the Aggrandizer Hypothesis also, where the entire foundation of food production rested on the social desire to "feast" and build relationship with surrounding community groups. While yes, eating alone has transformed through the industrial revolution and the emergence of full day jobs at the office, eating alone is still viewed as awkward in many contexts. For example just a few years back, I would eat in the dining halls alone, I went whenever I had time and was hungry. Multiple times I received pitying looks and was asked if I wanted to sit among a group of (to me) perfect strangers. In this way, I believe eating is still very much a social experience.

The other part from this chapter that really stood out to me Audrey Richards account of the Southern Bantu people. This concept of a preferred starch and the preference for Ubwali as the one main and traditional dish of the Bemba, reminds me exactly of my experience with the Nepali people and their affinity for Dal Bhat. Just in the way that the Bemba feel as though they have not eaten without having eaten Ubwali, or "do not like to mix their foods" the Nepalese people do not like to mix up their diets, or go a day without Dal Bhat. Boiled or steamed white rice mounds plates in Nepal and is covered with a soupy lentil and vegetable mixture, acting similarly to the relish of the Bemba.

Coming back to this main topic of sugar now, it is fascinating the nutritional as well as social role that a single food product can have on lives globally. With a "human liking for sweetness" humans have maneuvered violent and corrupt ways to ensure the regularity of this once delicacy. Was it only colonialism and in turn slavery that allowed to sugar to become a global phenomenon or would our search for nutrition and a genetic predisposition from a survival standpoint have led us there eventually?