The Noble Sugarcane

Sugar cane

Over the course of history a few crops have become so important as to dominate economies and shape the development of entire regions. These crops tend not to be the staples of our everyday lives but those expensive luxuries that add that certain something extra. As such it is almost impossible to predict from their humble origins which species are likely to become the mega-stars of the crop world. One such species is sugarcane and that certain something is sucrose. Once its use was exclusive to the upper classes, but now sugar is the standard fix for that human craving for sweetness.

Sugarcane is a large tropical grass, originally from the humid forests of Papua New Guinea. There is an unbroken tradition of sugarcane cultivation in this region, which stretches back into the mists of time. The native Papuans grow garden canes in clearings in the forest as much for ornament as for the sweet juice they contain. These varieties are thick stemmed and brilliantly coloured in an unbelievable array of yellows, oranges, reds, greens, blues and black. They can also be variegated with either horizontal or vertical stripes, and actually look like something you may expect to find in a sweet-shop window. In addition to selecting something pleasing to the eye the Papuans selected canes with higher sugar concentrations and lower fibre content, producing stems that were more enjoyable to chew upon as they walked through the forest. Even so it must be said chewing sugarcane is still like sucking balsa wood that has been soaking in syrup.

These native garden canes are unknown in the wild and rapidly die out when their forest clearings are abandoned. For this and other reasons, garden canes are considered to be a different species from their truly wild relatives. These cultivated garden types or ‘Noble’ canes have the Latin name Saccharum officinarum and are thought to be derived from the domestication of Saccharum robustum which grows wild along the rivers of Papua New Guinea. Until this century much of the world’s sugarcane crop was either of the original Noble type or of a variety known as ‘Creole’ which is a natural hybrid of it. However, modern crop breeders have developed what they term ‘Nobilization’ which is a process by which they cross Noble garden canes with either of three of their wild relatives  to incorporate desirable genes for disease resistance. Then via a series of back-crosses with their Noble parent the breeders endeavour to regain the required high sugar concentrations. By the time the process of ‘Nobilization’ is complete some breeders privately question if any genes from the wild canes remain.

The cultivation of sugarcane by Europeans did not become well established until the colonisation of the New World. It was introduced to the Caribbean from the Canary Islands as early as Columbus’ second voyage in 1493. In spite of Columbus’ enthusiasm for the crop the sugar industry in the West Indies was slow to develop and relied heavily on state aid and subsidies from the start. It also relied heavily on manual labour and thus fuelled the evil trade in humans from West Africa to the New World. Inevitably slave based economies are inefficient and throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Caribbean producers were given financial encouragement by the Colonial powers. This policy generally referred to as the bounty system resulted in King Sugar dominating trade with the region and artificially inflating land prices.

By the nineteenth century times were changing and the world sugar market was becoming increasingly chaotic. This was driven by a number of linked factors. There was competition from the developing sugar beet industry. This was stimulated in part by British navel blockades of Napoleon’s France, which by 1811 forced him to decree the compulsory growing of sugar beet and to establish research into sugar beet cultivation. Ironically within a few years the blockades were over and France then imposed restrictions on sugar imports to protect its developing beet industry. Similar beet industries were developing in Germany and Britain. These were supported by Wilberforce and the Abolitionists, who were campaigning against the bounty system which helped prop up the slave estates. In addition to pressures from home, sugarcane growers elsewhere in the world were demanding an end to the financial support given to West Indian sugar. The outcome of all this was the 1846 Sugar Duties Act which started the process of equalising the duties on sugar from different origins. In 1874 Sugar Tax was abolished and the last two decades of the nineteenth century saw the European powers boosting beet exports by paying subsidies on every tonne.  The cost of sugar on the market dropped to far below the cost of production either from cane or beet.

By the twentieth century sugar had stopped being a luxury item and became an everyday commodity. This had knock on effects for the cultivation of other crops. In 1831 more than seven hundred gooseberry varieties were known. All of these were sweet varieties, which were often not picked until November to maximise their sugar content. Once sugar became cheap, virtually of these were replaced by the summer fruiting tart varieties we know today. Thus, while it is a vast over simplification to say that the emancipation of the West Indian slaves changed the nature of the British gooseberry, it is true to say that the two events are not unlinked.


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