There are signs at grocery stores in Bolivia now proclaiming “No Hay Azucar!” (No Sugar Here!). Evo Morales would like to blame the sugar shortage on the North, but this time he only has Pacha Mama to blame. The rain has been really low this year in Bolivia and the sugar cane crop has suffered. There are rumors that the shortage may be artificial, but the fact that there is no sugar of any kind on the shelves of stores is very real.
My wife was gearing up yesterday for making some sweet cinnamon bread today for a Christmas treat. Of course there was no sugar, powdered or otherwise, in the store. The bread will still be made, but the search for sweetness made me reflect on the sugar shortage. Imagine if this happened in North America. Sugar cane requires a tropical climate. So, in the United States it can only be produced in Florida, Louisiana, Texas and Hawaii. We are the tenth largest producing country in the world. So, we still produce a lot of sugar, but Bolivia’s neighbor, Brazil, is the worlds top producer of sugar. Still, there is no sugar in Bolivia.
To North Americans it seems almost impossible that store shelves would ever be empty of sugar. Yet we are much further from the source of this product than Bolivia. I can only imagine the reaction of North Americans to shelves with no sugar, especially during the holidays. Indignation. Outrage. It is as if we believe that sugar is somehow a right that we cannot be denied.
In Bolivia, though, the reaction of people we know has been non-existent. People are used to being more subject to the ups and downs of production based on weather. They don’t assume that any particular product will always be available to them, especially agricultural products. It also doesn’t seem to affect Christmas much (perhaps because people hoarded sugar when they heard about the shortage).
Fruit, though abundant here, is very seasonal, and people don’t expect to have peaches in June. In many ways our eating disorder stems from misplaced expectations and a distorted understanding of our relationship to food and the earth. I guess, this is appropriate for the season of expectation and waiting. Perhaps some good questions for Advent are: What are our expectations? What are we waiting for? What are the things we take for granted? What are the things we don’t have to wait for that maybe we should? How do you respond when there is no sugar?
Photo from fmbolivia.com
First, you can use honey as a substitute (which I see the government there is advocating).
Second, empty shelves are not a natural phenomenon. Weather by itself doesn’t cause empty shelves, interference with the price mechanism does. It’s ironic because I read that the Bolivian president is blaming the shortage on “capitalism,” when it’s just the opposite. The Bolivian government is doing two things:
1. Prohibitive tariffs and quotas on imported sugar, so that everyone is forced to “buy local.” They just inked a deal to import more from Brazil, but then did #2:
2. Price controls on all sugar. Any time you have a mandated price ceiling below equilibrium you have empty shelves.
If the market were allowed to work, as it is in the U.S., there will be sugar on the shelves, it just would be expensive. The government has outlawed expensive sugar and doesn’t want its people buying from Brazil or anyone else, hence no sugar on the shelves. It’s ironic b/c on a Bolivian government website I find that in April they were trumpeting that sugar cane yields were double what they were in 2009, and there was discussion of how to market the Bolivian brand better– ie: to take advantage of market forces. It sounds to me that the Bolivians expect shortages because they are used to the price system being interfered with.
Last year as sugar prices were rising in the U.S., Hershey, Kraft, General Mills, etc. started asking Congress to lower the U.S.’ prohibitive tariffs because their input costs were rising. The sugar lobby successfully fought against it to protect their oligopoly. Political favoritism is a universal phenomenon.
There is another reason why there would be less on the shelves. If Bolivia is a low-cost producer of sugar and the world price is rising, then more could be exported than sold domestically. But that’s not a reason for the president to bash capitalism either; it means higher incomes for his citizens that are in the production of sugar. They now have more income to spend on other goods, hire more workers, pay higher wages, pay more taxes, etc. There would still be some sugar sold on Bolivian shelves, just at the higher market price (but since the market price exceeds the government-mandated ceiling the shelf is still empty–it can’t be sold on the domestic market).
I know it’s more complicated than simply the weather. The article I linked to talked about what Evo said and I said in my post that his explanation doesn’t hold water. Unfortunately Bolivia’s not the only isolationist country in the world. Our motherland notoriously subsidizes its own agriculture to the detriment of other producers around the world (Bill Clinton recently apologized for one example of this in Haiti). The way we keep sugar on the shelves is not by freely trading with the rest of the world. It’s by rigging the system to our benefit. Cheap sugar is freely available to the wealthiest nation on earth because we made it cheap.
I’m sure you can give me lots of information to complicate the economics of this, but often times I think our expertise can obscure our vision (I’ve found this true for me in terms of theology and biblical studies).
Your last paragraph is dead on and an example of what I’m talking about on a broader scale. I’m curious where you got your information about the shortage. A quick search of google news did not reveal much at all. I was mainly interested in contrasting our expectations and the differences in reactions. Your additional information adds interesting facets to the picture.