A review of our September 2011 talk - by Rosemary Doman

Ron Noon visited us on 19th September. It was an impassioned talk, which highlighted the true cost of what our speaker called a 'legal drug', refined sugar.

Classical historian Pliny called sugar cane the Persian reed, 'that makes sugar without the intervention of bees'. However, the story of sugar is bittersweet. The Tate & Lyle sugar refinery was founded in Liverpool by Henry Tate, from Chorley. Having sold sugar in his grocer's shops from 1839, he set up in Love Lane in 1872. The Love Lane refinery was closed on 22nd January 1981, after a ten year struggle to keep it open led by two workers, Albert E. Sloane and John McClean. Today, Tate & Lyle has divested itself of all its sugar business interests. This is a long way downhill from the days of 'Mr Cube', a campaign launched in 1949. The refinery's closure marked a key point in Liverpool's overall sense of decline, Margaret Thatcher's government having resisted pressure to consider its disastrous impact on the mainly elderly work force and more widely on employment and poverty. Today a memorial plaque to Henry Tate in Hamilton Street, Birkenhead, and the Love Lane Project recording the workers' lives, undertaken by two local primary schools, serve as reminders of its former importance.

The growth of the sugar industry in the UK tells the tale of great wealth spawned by this initially luxury product. Feasted on and feted by the rich in the 17th century, it became a staple of all by 1900, supplying almost a fifth of daily calories. This 'white gold' helped transform Liverpool from little more than a sleepy fishing village to the epicentre of the business world. By the 19th century it was a city of millionaires, like John Moss, a plantation owner, and Henry Tate himself, the equivalent of Rockefeller, financing Liverpool University among other philanthropic ventures. Our fine buildings, not least the Waterfront Graces, witness to this affluence.

However, Ron went on to show that 'capitalism's favoured child' has its bitter side. Ever since Christopher Columbus transferred sugar cane to the New World, the trade has been blighted by its dependence on slavery. The sugar trade was hugely influential in politics, for example shaping the Treaty of Paris after the Seven Years War, so that Britain took Canada instead of Guadeloupe, to avoid competition with the West Indies plantations. In this 21st century sugar is largely responsible for our current Western obesity and the prevalence of type 2 diabetes in children. It is not a 'natural' food but an industrial product, which distorts our taste for other forms of sugar on which for many millennia we depended.

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