Biofuels And Obesity Stir Worldwide Sugar Shortage, Crank Up Prices

Weather problems and growing health concerns in the United States about the dangers of high-fructose corn syrup have led to a global sugar shortage. For consumers, the result has been a bitter increase in prices for the classic sweetener.

Supply shortages are raising sugar cane prices
Supply shortages are raising sugar cane prices

Worldcrunch *NEWSBITES

You may have noticed lately that your morning coffee tastes slightly more bitter than usual. It may have something to do with a 15 million-ton sugar shortage in the face of global demand. In Europe, that's meant a steep price increase – from 550 euros per ton in August 2010, to 900 euros per ton this year.

The most common reason cited for the current supply shortage are weather problems in Mexico, Australia and, most importantly, in Brazil, the world's top producer. Also mentioned as contributing factors are the use of sugar cane for biofuels and increased demand in emerging countries. The situation is so bad right now that the International Sugar Organization announced that even with a good 2011/2012 harvest, sugar stocks will not return to levels considered "healthy."

There is one other major factor affecting world's sugar supply: the surprising end of the long romance between American consumers and high-fructose corn syrup, or HFCS, a sweetener often used in the food industry to replace cane or beet sugar. Growing evidence has linked HFCS to obesity and diabetes. For health reasons, in other words, food producers in the United States are beginning to wean themselves off the corn-based sweetener.

"Growing concern among consumers about high-fructose corn syrup, which is made from government-subsidized corn, is forcing producers, especially soft drink makers, to go back to cane and beet sugar," says Euromonitor, a market research firm. "This tendency away from HFCS is another factor pushing up prices."

The United States is not self-sufficient when it comes to cane sugar. Further complicating matters was the recent disastrous harvest in Mexico, which left U.S. producers without their principal provider. Theoretically, the situation could benefit Nicaragua and Guatemala. The problem there, however, is that unlike Mexico, these countries aren't part of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), meaning their exports are subject to quotas and tariffs.

That could change. Euromonitor reports that the U.S. Department of Agriculture said in August that it is considering relaxing import barriers in an effort to close the supply gap.

Read more from AmericaEconomia in Spanish

Photo – Sweeter Alternative

*Newsbites are digest items, not direct translations

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Saving The Planet Is Really A Question Of Dopamine

Our carelessness toward the environment could be due, in part, to the functioning of a very primitive area of our brain: the striatum.

Ad scuba-diver and brain coral

Stefano Lupieri

PARIS — Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Addictions to sex and social media

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the 'pleasure hormone.'

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

Transverse section of striatum from a structural MRI image

Lindsay Hanford and Geoff B Hall via Wikipedia

Tweaking genetics 

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Les Echos
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