The Not So Sweet Story Of Sugar

Alexander Payne's great new movie The Descendants has so many elements familiar to me that it almost felt like watching a home movie. There was of course the universal pang of recognition for the bittersweet complexity of family dynamics, but also: I am from Hawai'i; my high school alma mater was also that of every main character; the soundtrack had many of my all time favorite songs; and, I am a Descendant.

I have similar family pictures to those shown in a critical scene, of the early generations of people that settled in the Islands during the nineteenth century westward expansion by America and Europe. The Daniels family of Maui was part English, part Hawai'ian, and had close ties to the Hawai'ian monarchy, so in contrast to the heritage of George Clooney's character, mine were on the losing end of the overthrow of the Hawai'ian government in 1893.

Hawai'i's story is the not so sweet story of American sugar.

Hawai'i's agricultural fertility drew the intense attraction of the sugar industry, fueled their interest in controlling her lands and laws, and led to the taking of Hawai'i's government, at gunpoint, in 1893. The American led coup was investigated by President Cleveland and found to be an illegal act. Although he demanded that it be reversed it never was. Hawai'i eventually became annexed to and then, in 1959, the last of the United States, producing more and more sugar all the while.

Sugar and pineapple were the monoculture crops of Hawai'i, dominating the fields, the economy, the environment and the cultural life. The plantation owners imported labor from China, Japan, Korea, Portugal, Philippines and other countries. The workers lived in plantation housing, bought from plantation stores, went to plantation schools, and eventually mingled into the rich pidgin culture we cherish today.

My grandfather spent decades of his life maintaining the Pu'unene sugar mill; you can still see its smoke stacks from the Kahului airport. He lost some of his hearing to the roar of machinery, which ground the cane to molasses and then into the coarse sugar that was shipped off to California for refinement. The sugar plantations and pineapple fields were the main source of jobs until the businesses moved to other island locales like Cuba, in hot pursuit of lower labor costs. One by one, the plantations have been shutting down, leaving the rich soil fallow, vulnerable to development, and expensive to farm. Now, most of what Hawai'i sells is based on a resort manufactured identity, and her economy is as fragile as a tourist's whim.

Once a self-sufficient nation with diversified subsistence farming, today 90 percent of Hawai'i's energy is imported, as is about 90 percent of its food. The worry is that if the cargo ships stopped coming to Hawai'i, the residents would be out of food in a week. An area with 1.9 million acres of agricultural land is not able to grow its own food in sufficient quantities.

Hawai'i's story serves as a cautionary chapter in the tale of cheap sugar. An ironic legacy is the growing rate of obesity in this country, claiming one third of adults and 17 percent of adolescents. The Center for Disease Control and many health departments have declared sugar a major culprit, particularly the sugar sweetened beverages that are about 35 percent of the American diet. For each can of soda a child drinks, their chance of obesity rises by 60 percent. In addition to the health problems caused by obesity, sugar sweetened beverages have been linked to diabetes, and found to cause high blood pressure. According to the Center for Disease Control, the medical cost of obesity is about $147 billion per year.

As early as 1776 Adam Smith lumped sugar in with alcohol and tobacco as proper subjects of taxation. Over 200 years and a despoiled country later, public policies creating disincentives for sugar-sweetened beverages are now popping up around the country. Boston banned sugar-sweetened beverages from city facilities, and public school vending machines; Chicago recently imposed a 6.25 percent sales tax on candy, alcohol and soda; the Los Angeles city council is currently considering a soda ban for its public facilities.

France recently imposed a nationwide "fat tax" on sugared beverages, noting that their rate of obesity is rising, as it is in other countries where American soft drinks are imported. Should we do the same here?

The sugar barons were spurred to their action against the Hawai'ian government in part by the McKinley Act of 1890, which imposed a tariff on foreign goods including sugar. Their way around the tax was to make Hawai'i un-foreign: to take her, no matter what it took. They did it to make sugar cheaply and widely available. They got what they wished for, and look where it got us.

I am proud to be American; I can't imagine being anything but. With that allegiance to this country it pains me to think of the ill begotten end run around the smart logic of the 1890 tariff, and the health consequences of so much sugar today. The foreign tax on Hawai'ian sugar disappeared after annexation; today sugar is part of the big price of cheap.

I'm hoping Alexander Payne and George Clooney team up on future installments of their great work. Maybe the next one could be a prequel: The Descendants: Sugar Wars. There is enough material there to go sideways.