Agriculture and Environment: Commodities

Overview: Sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum)

It is not known when sugar was first made by boiling the stems of the plant Saccharum officinarum. However, the plant and the technology are known to have originated in India. The word "sugar" has been traced back to Arabic (sukkar) and Sanskrit (sarkara). Initially, sugar was used for religious ceremonies and as a medicine to treat ailments ranging from leprosy to gallstones (Swahn 1995).
It appears that in about 500 B.C. residents of present-day India began to make sugar syrup, which was then cooled in large flat bowls to make crystals that were easier to transport and store.

"Khanda" or candy as we know it
In the local language the pieces of crystal were called khanda, which is the source for our word candy (Swahn 1995). These pieces were lifted out of bowls and put in bags where they were squeezed to remove the remaining liquid. These cakes of dried crystals were ideal for transport and trade.

The production of sugar was spreading
By the fourth century A.D., sugar production had spread throughout India. By the fifth century, the Chinese were growing and making sugar. In the sixth century, sugarcane was cultivated in Persia.

The Persian sugar loaves
The Persians invented sugar loaves, which took their classic cone shape from the conical clay vessels used to crystallise the sugar. These vessels had holes in the bottom to allow liquid to escape. The conical loaves were associated with the sugar trade for more than a thousand years. In fact, Rio de Janeiro's distinctive mountain is known as Sugar Loaf because of its distinctive conical shape and because sugar was an early and commercially important product of the colony (Swahn 1995).

The increasing global demand for sugar
When the Arabs conquered Mesopotamia, they also gained access to sugar production technology that was subsequently spread by the Moors throughout northern Africa, Sicily, the Middle East, and even into Spain. However, sugar's breakthrough into non-Moslem Europe owed more to the Crusades than to Spain. Crusaders to the Middle East became acquainted with and liked sugar. This subsequently created demand for the product.

When the Normans conquered Sicily in 1072, Europeans controlled their first sugar-producing area. As demand emerged, the Italian ports of Genoa and Venice became the main trade ports for Europe (Swahn 1995). Spain and Portugal gained considerable knowledge of sugar from the occupying Moors. After the Moors were expelled, they used this knowledge to spread sugar use and production throughout the tropics. Within 15 years of Columbus discovering the Americas, the Spaniards began to plant sugar in Hispaniola (modern Haiti and the Dominican Republic) (Swahn 1995).

How sugar fuelled slave trade
Sugar, more than any other crop, encouraged the rapid expansion of the slave trade. Because of Spain's control of the Low Country (Holland), all sugar from the New World came into Europe through Rotterdam, where it was processed from brown, conical loaves into white sugar. At that time, sugar was so expensive that it was only consumed by the elite. As a status symbol and during special occasions, sugar crystals were often tied in small bundles and suspended over the tables of those who could not afford to consume it.

Very little nutritional value
Today, although sugar has very little nutritional value, it (or other sweeteners) is found in almost all processed foods. Sugar makes up 20% of the calories consumed by Americans, who eat nearly half a kilogram (about a pound), on average, every 2.5 days.


Extracts from "World Agriculture & Environment" by Jason Clay - buy the book online from Island Press

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