The Sourness of the Sweet

We reached the farm of our raw cane sugar farmer, Senthil, at 10 in the morning. He wasn't there, but his wife and mother were, and were overseeing the start of a regular day of processing raw cane sugar. Bio Basics is one of the largest buyers of raw cane sugar from this farm. Senthil soon came in and we started chatting. And that day, we learnt a lot! We learnt how what we taste as sweet in our mouths can be so sour on the ground. Not in taste, but in many other ways.

It was a remarkable farm and processing unit within the farm. Quite rudimentary, nothing sophisticated, but very close to the ground, and rooted in tradition and Nature. And when we left the farm after having lunch with Senthil’s family, I realised the cost of sweetness in our lives.
Here are 5 ways what is sweet to us can become so sour on the ground:

Harvesting sugarcane:
Sugarcane consumes a lot of water. Thanks to the river that flows close by, Senthil’s farm is well-positioned to grow sugarcane. We visited the farms to see a bunch of older ladies in their 50s and an even older man in his 60s, working on the farm. As we spoke to these workers, it was shocking to learn that the sugarcane itself has so many micro-thorns on its surface, which fly in the wind, or when you hold it, that it becomes almost impossible to harvest it after 11 in the morning, when the sun beats down on these workers. So what sits on our table as sugar comes from not just hard work, but painful work on the farm.

The Processing Unit:

After harvesting, Senthil drives back his tractor filled with sugarcane to his Processing Unit, which is close to his house. And there, we see another couple of workers, this time both in their 60s, and a young woman in her 20s. As the young lady kept heating the cauldron, where the sugarcane juice is processed, the two older workers were engaged in juicing sugarcane on one hand, and stirring the cauldron filled with sugarcane juice on the other. This processing unit is right here in the farm, using the biomass generated inside the farm as fuel for processing. We were surprised to know that one of these two older workers was so critical to the operation that there is no alternative for Senthil and his family but to rely on this older man to help with the processing. His skill is so rare that there are no youngsters who have learnt this art of processing sugar. We ask Senthil what he would do after this gentleman to process his raw cane sugar. And Senthil didn't have an answer. It is sad, if not sour, to realise that what sits on our dining tables as raw cane sugar is heavily dependent on the knowledge and expertise of a generation that is fast receding into oblivion.

The Industry:
Governments by regulation do not allow the processing of raw cane sugar in any of these sugar mills. This is to protect the farmers and their ability to process the raw cane sugar in their farm itself, thereby adding value to their crops, leading to a better income for the farmers. While we must appreciate such regulations which empower the farmers, it is also a reality that most sugarcane farmers today take the easy route out to sell their produce to large sugar mills. In fact, the sugar mills arrange to get their sugarcane picked up, or even harvested, and the farmer needs to only receive the money. Of course, the stories of some of these large mills, or even the Governments for that matter, not paying these farmers, leading to suicide out of desperation by these farmers are very well known. So as a majority of the sugarcane farmers in the country rely on these large companies to buy their sugarcane from them, farmers like Senthil are probably the last bastion, where raw cane sugar is being processed without using any chemicals. It is a dying art. This is where all the sweetness in our lives and in our food becomes sour.

Processing for consumers:

Most of the sugarcane farmers are either selling their produce to the sugar mills, who use a variety of chemicals to convert the sugarcane into crystallised white sugar. Some of the farmers who are inclined to make raw cane sugar also compromise, owing to consumer demand, on the quality of their produce by adding chemicals, to either bleach their produce, or to make them finer and dryer. Why? Because we consumers demand whiter sugar and that which doesn't clump up with moisture. It is we consumers who with our sophisticated demand on the product make the farmers choose chemicals and other unsafe processing methods to get that sugar to us. So when we see raw cane sugar on our dining tables, we should ask ourselves whether it is processed in the most natural way possible, or are we consuming so much sourness in the processing in the form of sugar.

Impact of Technology:
Technology has taken sweetness by storm. Gone are the days when we or our ancestors had sweet food items occasionally, as some mark of celebration. Gone also are the days where sweetness meant coming from natural agriculture plant produce. Today the common white sugar that we eat is laden with chemicals used during processing. In order to reduce the cost of this sugar even further, technology has allowed the creation of a slew of variants of sweetness ranging from High Fructose Corn Syrup which is part of almost all processed foods, ranging from soft drinks to bread, biscuits, cookies and such, to liquid glucose which is an even cheaper version of sugar. As the price of sugar and its processing plummets,the rise of diseases among consumers is inevitable. Do we need such sweetness in our lives, where we consume sugar almost daily in different forms, both natural and artificial, both organic and chemical? We need to ask ourselves if sugar is such an important ingredient of our diet. Studies have shown that diseases, particularly lifestyle diseases, are not caused by excessive fat in our food, but by excessive sugar in our diet. It is time to recognise that the bottle of raw cane sugar or white sugar is only to be enjoyed occasionally to celebrate a special occasion. If we want to celebrate life itself, then let us understand that sugar is only a minor part of our diet made up of grains, pulses, flours and so many other raw ingredients, which have their own natural sugars in them and are healthy for the human body.

The cost of sweetness is high, my friends. It is almost as if we are walking down path laden with sweetness, but leading to disease.

We said goodbye to Senthil and his wife and mother after lunch, and while we were driving away, something in my heart told me that this ought to be the future. The future has to be much wiser and more sensitive to food, health and farming.

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