Implications of Cheap Sugar in India – Explained, Pointwise

Introduction

India is the largest consumer and the second-largest producer of sugar. With the increase in consumption of packaged foods, there has been a significant increase in the consumption of refined sugar.

This has resulted in a twin burden of obesity and malnourishment among children in India, due to the consumption of junk food by both categories. Almost 40% of children in the 10-18 age group from urban elite schools are either overweight or obese.

A colonial link to cheap sugar in India 

The global consumption of sugar was revolutionized by the emergence of the soft drink industry after the second world war. A key reason behind the success of Coca-Cola was cheap sugar from tropical producers and the US government’s policy of subsidies and tariffs.

In pre-independent India, the sugar industry was nurtured by the colonial state by inducing farmers to supply cane to the mills, instead of diverting it to traditional village-based industries that made jaggery. At the time of independence, about two-thirds of the sugar consumption in India was in the form of jaggery, but some provincial governments banned jaggery production to promote sugar mills.

Moreover, early research into sugarcane was geared towards creating thick-rind varieties suitable for mills but harder to crush using traditional methods. This was vigorously opposed by Gandhians like J.C. Kumarappa who advocated (for) increasing (the) production of palm jaggery, which is more environment-friendly and does not require arable land.

Implications of high sugar intake
  1. Oral health problems: At least eight in ten children in India suffer from oral health problems and 44% were in need of treatments such as root canal or extraction, found a 2019 survey by the market research firm Kantar IMRB.
  2. Increase in non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and heart ailments: About 17% of India’s adult males and 14% of adult females were found to be diabetic in 2019-20.
  3. Fatty liver and obstructive sleep apnea
  4. There are also several cases of polycystic ovaries among young girls. 
Why does India continue to encourage the production of cheap sugar despite its enormous health cost?

Farmers tend to grow more sugarcane due to its potential for generating higher returns over costs, about 60-70% more compared to most other crops. Refined white sugar is also cheap for consumers.

Sugar mills mandated to procure cane at the government-determined fair and remunerative price (FRP) are often unable to make payments on time following surplus production.

To clear the unpaid dues, the government then grants soft loans and export subsidies to the industry. In the process, refined sugar turns out to be the cheapest among food commodities, which fuels a steady rise in consumption.

Further, with the increase in household incomes, the affordability of sugar has increased even more. However, despite its high usage, the supply of sugar has outpaced its demand. The production is concentrated in states such as Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Karnataka, keeping the prices under control.

Measures to limit sugar intake through processed foods
1. FoP mean front-of-the-pack (FoP) labeling

It warns the consumers on how much sugar, salt, and fat they are consuming and by how much these exceed the daily recommended thresholds.

In 2018, an expert committee set up by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) proposed simple and effective front-of-the-pack (FoP) labeling for packaged food. However, the rules were diluted in 2019 following strong opposition from the food industry

However, evidence suggests that FoPs work. In Chile, for instance, the adoption of an effective FoP warning label of ‘excess sugar’ covering 10% of the front surface of a packet was followed by a 24% drop in consumption of highly sweetened beverages.

2. Sugar tax on soft drinks

After the introduction of a sugar tax on soft drinks in the UK in April 2018, it was found that sugar content in the drinks fell by almost 10%. The study was based on 30 million household purchases.

In comparison, Indian consumption of sugary beverages more than doubled between 2010 and 2019 from 8 milliliter (ml) to 18 ml per person per day, shows by data from Euro monitor International.

Suggestions 
  1. With increased incidences of diabetes and a reduced preference in people for white sugar, there is a case for greater encouragement to the gur industry,” the Niti Aayog’s task force report on sugar suggested.
  2. A task force set up under Niti Aayog, recognized the need to encourage farmers to move away from cane and suggested promoting jaggery production, which is considered to be a healthier alternative to refined white sugar
  3. The mismatch in sugar supply and demand—with supplies (at over 30 million tonnes a year) consistently outstripping demand has led to a buildup of excess stocks, leading to lower prices and higher subsidy outgo for the government.
  4. According to Niti Aayog, about 30% of cane area could be diverted to other crops by providing incentives to farmers at a cost of about ₹9,200 crores. But in the process, India would benefit from a reduction in subsidies as well as water outgo, especially in drought-prone areas including parts of Karnataka and Maharashtra’s Marathwada and Vidharba regions.
  5. Sugarcane growing is also faced with issues such as Low wages, inhospitable and unsanitary living conditions, 12-hour long working days. It leads to an epidemic of unnecessary hysterectomy operations among women cane cutters in Maharashtra. Hence, an alternative to the sugar crop needs to be supported firmly.
  6. The world is moving towards FoP and the Existing back-of-the-pack labeling is not consumer-friendly. It is meant to confuse, and the only purpose it serves is scientific compliance. Hence, India should also move towards FoP.

Source: Live Mint

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