Cassandra 2012 Headline Animator

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Sweet and Sour Memories

Sugar beet and debt forgiveness may seem strange bedfellows but for me they show how history echoes down the decades

For most of the 1980s I was politically active in the UK: County Councillor, District Councillor, general election agent. And I was a regular attendee at party conferences, the party in question being the British Liberal Party and, later the Liberal Democrats. On one occasion – I think it would have been 1986 – I had the opportunity to make a speech at a Liberal Party conference. The issue being debated concerned the effect of EU subsidies to sugar beet production on the price of sugar on world markets. Many developing nations relied on sugar cane production in order to survive and the dumping of surplus European production on the world market was harmful to them.

My home constituency at the time contained a sugar mill and sugar beet was an important crop for many local farmers. I argued in my short speech that Europe should follow the Brazilian example and turn surplus sugar into fuel. I also argued, in the same speech, for the forgiveness of third world debt. This was long before such luminaries as Blair and Bono began putting forward the same argument. The gist of what I said to that conference was that these countries had been persuaded to borrow in order to invest in producing commodities that were now incapable of yielding the promised incomes. Meanwhile populations were starving whilst their governments paid out more in interest to first world banks than they received in aid from first world governments.

Fast forward ten years and I was participating in a major construction project at a steel works in Scunthorpe. My daily journey to and from work took me past the sugar factory which had shortly before been converted to produce ethanol fuel. Sugar beet continued to be an important agricultural product throughout Lincolnshire and East Yorkshire.

Another ten years passed and I retired and moved to the Irish Midlands. One of the things I was soon to discover was that many people were still angry about the closure of a sugar factory in Carlow and the demise of sugar beet production in Ireland. I was especially surprised about this given the country's commitment to reducing its carbon footprint and the presence of Green Party representatives in government.

Five years later still I am passing great mounds of sugar beet as a cycle around the countryside on the Laois/Kildare border. In the Irish papers I read of meetings to discuss the re-establishment of sugar production here in Ireland. Meanwhile it is the nations of Europe that are unable to meet the interest payments on their debts and whilst the people clamour for those debts to be forgiven the governments impose austerity measures in order to keep the banks on-side. Plus ca change!

Footnote: the efforts to kick start the industry in Ireland may have nothing to do with the mounds of beets I am seeing as plans are still only at the formative stage. I guess what I am seeing is a crop that will be used as a supplement to winter feed for animals which is a shame when it could be put to use reducing Ireland’s reliance on imports for sugar and fuel.

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