Health and environmental experts have urged the government to limit the United Kingdom's sugar output to address the nation's obesity epidemic, as detailed in a new collaborative report.
The report, authored by Feedback Global and Action on Sugar, highlights that the UK currently produces or imports over double the sugar quantities recommended for its population. This excessive availability motivates food producers to incorporate more sugar into their products and encourages local farmers to cultivate sugar beet instead of healthier options like fruits and vegetables.
The advocates recommend introducing a stringent quota to slash the UK's sugar production by 50%, imposing tariffs on imported sugar cane and refined sugar, and offering subsidies for farmers to shift towards more fruit and vegetable cultivation.
They further suggest the adoption of the "polluter pays" principle, where sugar producers bear the financial responsibility for the health and environmental repercussions their products create, akin to regulations for product packaging.
Jessica Sinclair Taylor from Feedback Global, a contributor to the study, emphasises the necessity of addressing the oversupply to reduce consumption effectively. She notes the lack of policies that consider how excessive supply may inherently stimulate demand.
Correspondingly, Hattie Burt from Action on Sugar points out the inadequacy of existing health initiatives, citing an actual increase in sugar sales despite programmes aimed at reducing sugar in everyday food items. This paradox is attributed to the easy availability and affordability of sugar, driven by trade and agricultural policies promoting its increase.
The obesity concern in the UK is underscored by startling statistics, with nearly 64% of English adults identified as overweight or obese in 2022, inflicting an estimated annual economic burden of £58bn. High-sugar, high-calorie food items contribute significantly to this problem, often hidden in products not traditionally associated with sweetness.
The report further elaborates that while the UK's recommended sugar consumption stands at 0.72 million tonnes annually, actual figures reach 1.91 million tonnes. Interestingly, more than half of this sugar is domestically produced, supporting 2,300 farmers, primarily in Eastern England and the Midlands, and processed by entities like British Sugar.
The cultivation of sugar beet occupies nearly 100,000 hectares, rivalling the land used for all vegetable growth. Despite the rational appeal of sugar beet farming for local farmers, the report criticises the environmental impact, including substantial topsoil loss and the controversial use of harmful neonicotinoid treatments, notwithstanding existing bans due to risks to bees and human health.
In response, a representative of British Sugar defended the company's central role in the sugar beet industry, underscoring the crop's benefits for soil and biodiversity and denying any subsidies. They acknowledged the gravity of the obesity issue, reaffirming their commitment to public education on sugar's place in a balanced diet through initiatives like their 'Making Sense of Sugar' campaign.