Rachel Laudan

Sugar, Salt, and Fossil Fuels

The labor of transporting cane

Men carrying cut cane on a sugar cane plantation in Siribala, Mali on January 24, 2013. (Joe Penney/Reuters)

Thanks to Lane Turner, staff photographer and pictorial editor for the Boston Globe, for putting together a wonderful slide show of (largely) traditional methods of producing sugar and salt. via Sugar and salt – The Big Picture – Boston.com.

Here’s traditional brine evaporation in Costa Rica.

Boiling salt in Costa Rica

Antonio Noguera boils the water extracted from mangrove swamps at a pool to process kitchen salt in a salt mine in Colorado de Abangares, Guanacaste, Costa Rica on April 11, 2013. People work in temperatures between 35 and 40 Celsius for 122 dollars a month. (Jeffrey Arguedas/EPA)

And traditional sugar boiling in Pakistan.

Sugar boiling in Pakistan

Boiling sugar at a house on the outskirts of Peshawar on November 6, 2012. (Fayaz Aziz/Reuters)

My immediate reaction was “Awful working conditions, three cheers for industrial processing.”

My long term history of food buddy and sparring partner, Ken Albala, fired back on Facebook saying:

“OK, I totally get why people should not live in poverty and desperation. But why does that translate into cheers for industrially processed foods? Don’t we actually consume more sugar and salt than we need to? How about something in between? Well made, fairly and sustainably produced. And consumed with reason.”

So let me try to explain why I think the industrialized processing of salt and sugar is a good thing.  I’m not going to take up the question here of why we like salt and sugar and whether we should consume less.

And I’m going to confine my attention to cane sugar, the primary source of sugar for much of the past two thousand years, and beet sugar, now between a fifth and and a third of the world supply. (There were and are lots of other sugars, honey, palm sugar, malt sugar, milk sugars, and so on).

Working conditions were worse in artisanal salt and sugar production than in factory production

Those who produce artisanal salt and sugar tend to have terrible working conditions, which I see little way of ameliorating without machinery.

Planting cane by hand is backbreaking. Cutting it is very hard labor, made worse by high temperatures, and by the sharp leaves which cut the hands. Hauling it to the cart or mill means heaving heavy loads since cane is full of juice. Crushing cane by running it through roller mills all too easily led to limbs torn off as tired workers fed stalks through the machinery. Boiling sugar (or salt) was exhausting, particularly in tropical heat.

Sugar plantation in Brazil

Composite image of a Brazilian sugar plantation. From Brasilise Suykerwerken in Simon de Vries, Curieuse aenmerckingen der bysonderste Oost en West-Indische verwonderens-waerdige dingen . . . (Utrecht: J. Ribbius, 1682). Courtesy John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, sugar plantations introduced machines driven by fossil fuels to plant and harvest sugar.  They built railroads (and later used trucks) to haul it to the mill. And more efficient machinery meant few accidents, better working conditions, and few people in all needed to produce sugar.

In short, artisanal production using tools and animal- or water-driven machinery did not, in the case of salt and sugar, mean better working conditions than fossil-fuel-driven factory production.  Quite the reverse.

Artisanal production of salt and sugar was no more sustainable and probably less sustainable than factory production

As the photos above show, both sugar and salt processing require evaporating lots of liquid.  In the case of sugar, it’s the juice pressed from the cane or the beets.  In the case of salt, it’s sea water or brine pumped from underground salt deposits.

Evaporating liquids is a very energy intensive process.  In the case of salt, in hot, dry climates, the sun’s energy was used.  In northern climates, though wood was the primary fuel.  In addition, human, animal or water power was required for growing, transporting, and crushing the cane.

The historian, Ward Barrett (72), points out that the sixteenth and seventeenth century sugar mills in Mexico were “voracious consumers of fuel,” a single one alone requiring between 1,250 and 2,500 tons of wood a year. An acre of woodland produces about 1-2 tons of dry wood per annum.  So something like 600 to 2000 acres of woodland had to be cut annually to supply one Mexican sugar refinery.

And wood was just what most of the world (the humid, parts of the New World excepted) did not have much of.  From Britain to China, wood was needed to smelt metal ores, to build houses, to construct machinery, to make carts and ships for transport, to fashion cradles, buckets, and furniture, and for heating and cooking.

Britain had a fuel crisis from the late middle ages, China and Japan were short of wood, German economists from the late eighteenth century worried about how to make salt boiling more efficient, and sugar makers everywhere scrambled for fuel.

So in the organic economy, the useful phrase of E.A. Wrigley for the economy that depends entirely what grows for its energy sources, the production of salt and sugar were two of the processes that created an energy crisis by the late eighteenth century.

As coal and then oil took over from wood, this immediate crisis would be averted.  It’s not a perfect world and fossil fuels have their limits.  With luck, new technologies, and a richer world, we will be able to solve this before fossil fuels run out.

Industrially produced sugar and salt was cheaper and easier to use than sugar and salt produced by artisans

In the pre-industrial world, rulers loved salt because they could make it a monopoly and fill their coffers. Salty appetizers and rich, salty sauces to accompany meats were the privilege of the rich.  A common pattern for everyone else was to save their precious, expensive salt for preserving foods and condiments, which they then used to liven up a largely unsalted staple.  Think bean paste and millet or rice in China, cheese with bread in Europe.

Sugar too was an expensive commodity, a medicine, a spice, and generally reserved for the wealthy.

With the exploitation of fossil fuels all that changed in the richer parts of the world.  Accompanying this were revolutions in boiling techniques, particularly in the use of evaporating pans in which reduced pressure made the process more efficient.  With the use of beets, sugar production was no longer confined to the tropical world. According to the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, the average price per hundred weight of sugar on the world market fell from 48 shillings in 1840 to 22 to 23 shillings in 1877/88 and 11 to 12 shillings a decade later.

Beet sugar mill in northern France

By the late nineteenth century, northern France was dotted with three hundred sugar beet refineries, each capable of refining, concentrating, and granulating the juice of ninety thousand tons of beets during the three-month harvest period. This refinery plant belonged to the Compagnie de Fives-Lille, which by World War I had refineries for beet or cane sugar plants or offices in Java, Réunion, Brazil, the Caribbean, Egypt, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Russia, Italy, Argentina, Mexico, the Philippines, Australia, China, and the United States. From Edward H. Knight, Knight’s New Mechanical Dictionary (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1884), pl. XLVII, opp. p. 873.

In 1870,  the British per capita consumption of sugar was 50.64 lbs of raw sugar and 8.88 lbs of refined sugar for a total of nearly 60 pounds per annum. In 1900, it was 30.80 lbs of raw sugar and 56.40 lbs of refined sugar for a total of 87 pounds per annum.

With inexpensive sugar came an explosion in pastry and cake making in the West, one of the West’s signal contributions to world gastronomy.

According to Wikipedia, the world per capita consumption of sugar is now at 53 lbs per person, or about the British consumption in 1870, even though the world population is     times larger. Salt and sugar have become so cheap that today we no longer even consider their expense when preparing meals.  They are just the two pure white substances that sit in packets or jars on our shelves.  And they are well made, excellent products.

As always there are downsides, to my mind, minor ones.  The rich taste of raw sugar is still available in Latin America but you don’t encounter it much in the USA.  Many wealthy Americans and Europeans prefer the taste of sea salt produced in small batches.  But those are available to rich consumers.

The industrial production of salt had side benefits

With the industrial production, salt became so cheap that it was far more widely used for purposes other than food processing and cooking.  It is essential for making the plastic keyboard I am typing on, for the semiconductors in my electronic equipment, for the rubber of my tires, for the brightly died clothes that I wear, for making metals, and for saline drips and dialysis treatments.

And it’s not just sugar and salt

The same story can be told for rice, flour, wine, chocolate and many other foods we cherish.



For the “organic economy” and its constraints.  E.A. Wrigley, Energy and the Industrial Revolution. (Cambridge University Press, 2010).  See p. 16 for woodland yield.

For salt technology. Robert Multhauf, Neptune’s Gift. (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978).

For a comparison of fuel shortages in eighteenth-century Europe, China, and Japan.  Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. (Princeton University Press, 2000), 218-225, 227-235)

For sugar in colonial Mexico. Ward Barrett. The Sugar Hacienda of the Marques del Valle. (University of Minnesota Press, 1970).

For changes in sugar technology in the nineteenth century. Alan Dye, Cuban Sugar in the Age of Mass Production. (Stanford University Press, 1998), 81.


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  1. Pingback: Salt and Sugar: Industrial is Best | Rachel Laudan

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