Wholesome Memories, Brutal Realities: The True Cost of the Sugar We Crave

The following is a guest post by Hana Ivanhoe, an Engagement and Advocacy Manager with Fairfood International in its San Francisco office. Hana recently helped to launch Fairfood’s work on sugarcane production in Nicaragua, focused on improving labor conditions for the country’s overworked and underpaid sugarcane workers.

Sugar is an essential part of almost all of my favorite snacks and drinks. From my beloved mint chocolate chip ice cream to the table sugar I shovel by the heaping spoonful into my morning coffee to the rum I use to spike my Christmas eggnog, sugarcane is a key ingredient in many of the food and beverage products that I and millions of others love and (let’s be honest) crave.

More than an ingredient in my favorite foods, sugar is also a prerequisite for my favorite hobby: baking. Since I was a little girl watching my mother knead the dough for her family heirloom sticky bun recipe with hunger in my belly and hero worship in my eyes, I’ve been hooked. It still amazes me how we can make something mouthwateringly delicious out of ingredients that on their own don’t amount to much of anything. To this day the smell of freshly whipped sugar and butter brings back some of my happiest childhood memories.

From Wholesome Childhood Memories to Modern Realities

Yet most of us know very little about how and under what conditions the sugar we consume is produced. Even some conscious consumers don’t know that many of our favorite treats and sweets are tainted by child labor and land grabs, and indirectly fund an industry characterized by abysmal working conditions, poverty and substantial health risks to workers.

Americans hear incessant commentary about the role of sugar in the obesity epidemic (certainly a significant concern), but the media hysteria that surrounds coverage of nutritional concerns contrasts sharply with the void of available information on how sugarcane is grown and the ethical and environmental calamities that plague its production. Sugar is the second ingredient in just about every Fair Trade certified chocolate bar I’ve ever bought, but often that very same sugar is not actually certified Fair Trade.

Sugarcane production around the world is frequently linked with severe human rights and environmental harms. In recent years reports have surfaced of rampant child labor at sugarcane plantations in the Philippines, a country estimated to employ 2.4 million child workers. Just last month, Oxfam unveiled the newest phase of its Behind the Brands campaign highlighting how the recent surge of the sugar markets has fueled land grabs and exploitation. Many of the world’s poor are being kicked off their own land to accommodate the growing corporate interest in capitalizing on this “sugar rush.”[3] And earlier this year, Fairfood International, the organization I work with, launched a new project to address labor conditions in the Nicaraguan sugarcane industry and, in particular, a rising epidemic of Chronic Kidney Disease of unknown origin (CKDu) that disproportionately effects sugarcane workers throughout Central America.

The Growing Cost of Poor Working Conditions

Growing and harvesting sugarcane is backbreaking work. In most cases the harvest is manual and each harvest season laborers work long hours under oppressive tropical heat to cut row after row of cane.  These conditions can lead to heat stroke and severe dehydration. Low wages and the piecemeal system of payment for the sugarcane harvested likely contribute further to the problem because laborers have to work more so that they can earn enough money to come close to supporting themselves and their families.

All of this comes at a cost. From 2009 to 2011 there were nine times as many deaths from CKDu in the sugar growing regions of Nicaragua as there were deaths from CKDu in the entire rest of the country. And while the exact causes of CKDu are still under investigation, there is now scientific consensus that the disease is occupational in nature and related to the brutal conditions under which the region’s sugarcane workers toil. Central American sugarcane workers might literally be working themselves to death.

Conscious Consuming Improves Lives and Livelihoods

Something must be done to change this reality and improve the lives and livelihoods of the people working to produce the foods we consume. Industry and investment are vital for economic development (particularly for the world’s poorest countries), but development must not mean increased wealth for large corporate interests at the expense of increased hardships for the poor. The wealthy multinational corporations sourcing sugar around the world must take responsibility for the miserable working conditions in their own supply chains and consumers can encourage them to do just that.

Although the Central American sugarcane industry faces seemingly intractable problems, I believe that even the smallest act, thousands of miles away, can have an impact. So why not start with your purchasing decisions? With the holidays rapidly approaching, make a note to buy sustainably sourced products for your favorite holiday recipes.


This Thanksgiving, as you frantically fill your shopping cart, purchase certified sustainable sugar for your famous pumpkin pie. Admittedly, it is not always easy to find these products and it may take a bit more time and effort. But maybe with a little more effort from each of us, our small acts taken together can help to give sugarcane workers thousands of miles away something to be thankful for.