In the Daily Telegraph today, Boris’s article is about the sugar industry. I never knew that the UK owns the biggest sugar cane refinery in the whole of Europe, Tate and Lyle. Founded in 1878, Henry Tate was so successful, he endowed the wonderful Tate Galleries. His sugar foundries survived the bombings of the blitz, when “the blaze of the Tate & Lyle warehouses could be seen for miles, and the air of London was filled with the caramel aroma of roasted sugar.”
Boris begins: “It is one thing to show solidarity with the Scots by eating porridge for breakfast. But can you really face it on its own? Surely the thing is to add brown sugar or — better still — whorls of golden syrup. If you are like me, you take a childish pleasure in watching as it falls from the spoon, a glistening shaft of solid tawny sunlight.
You can doodle someone’s name, or perhaps a love heart; you can make pools and rivers of golden sweetness — and as you marvel at the glutinous smoothness and regularity with which it flows, you may reflect that this syrup is made of no ordinary sugar. This is cane sugar. This is the stuff that cooks swear by. Top jam-makers insist upon it. In so far as all decent beer is made with molasses, then that molasses has been made of cane sugar, the king of sugars, the sugar that beats the hell out of beet. And the best thing of all is that this cane sugar is made in London.
It is a tribute to the astonishing versatility of manufacturing in the British capital that we still have the largest cane sugar refinery in the whole of Europe. Any syrup needs they may have on the continent — one thinks, perhaps, of baba au rhum — are almost certainly satisfied by recourse to sugar cane, and the biggest supplier is Tate & Lyle. This historic company produces about 40 per cent of the cane sugar in the entire EU, and most of it comes from the London plant.
That venture was founded by Henry Tate in 1878, and he made so much money from the sweet tooth of the British empire that he was able to endow the great art gallery that bears his name. In 1921 he teamed up with Abram Lyle, and to this day Tate & Lyle are selling a million of their beautiful green-gold tins of syrup every year. When you pick up one of those tins and prise off the lid, you are handling a piece of commercial history — and that image on the front, of the dead lion, has been reckoned by the Guinness Book of Records to be the oldest brand in this country. The plants at Silvertown and Plaistow are monuments of industrial durability.
Boris continues: “They survived the Blitz, when the blaze of the Tate & Lyle warehouses could be seen for miles, and the air of London was filled with the caramel aroma of roasted sugar. They have survived the collapse of scripture knowledge, and the sad truth that most kids these days don’t know the story of Samson and the bee-generating lion, and that most shoppers probably haven’t the foggiest why their favourite syrup is decorated with a decaying cat. They have survived the erosion of British manufacturing. There are still about 850 employees using state-of-the-art centrifuges and evaporating pans to produce a world-beating nutriment.
Now this superb business faces a threat from Brussels, and the imposition of an unnecessary and badly thought-out regulation. For 134 years, the company has sourced its sugar cane from around the world — not unnaturally, since the crop doesn’t grow in the UK. Week in, week out, huge boatloads of brown crystals come up the Thames to be treated. The plant has the capacity to produce 1.1 million tonnes of refined sugar a year; and yet the company is prevented, by the EU commission, from importing the raw materials in the quantities it needs. Their current output is now down to 60 per cent of capacity — and the result is that jobs are being lost in a part of London that already faces the highest levels of unemployment in the city and indeed in the whole of the country.
And while a great London business is unable to fulfil its potential, the price of sugar is pushed up — by the EU — far higher than necessary, and that price hike is felt by every hard-pressed consumer who eats anything in which sugar is an ingredient. That is a long list of foods, in tough times, whose prices are being pushed up by the Common Agricultural Policy. It is utter madness, and it derives from the ruthless determination of the Commission to protect the sugar beet producers of continental Europe.”
Boris concludes: “For decades they have been artificially shielded, by high tariff walls around the EU, which mean that sugar prices in Europe are more than double the world market price. And those sugar beet producers have been given huge sums of taxpayers’ money, in export refunds, to dump their produce overseas. In 2006 the Commission reluctantly bowed to outrage from Oxfam and others, and agreed to a programme of “reform”. Of the total EU sugar market of about 17 million tonnes, 13.5 million would be reserved for the European sugar beet barons. The other 3.5 million tonnes could be supplied by sugar cane producers around the world.
The trouble is that these countries — in Africa, the Caribbean or Pacific regions — have not been able to fill the gap. To find enough cane sugar, Tate & Lyle need to be able to bring in boatfuls from places like Brazil or Central America: and that Brussels forbids. They face swingeing tariffs to bring more in — while the sugar beet producers are given a licence to produce more. At every turn the British refinery finds the system skewed in favour of the beet producers, mainly in France and Germany. But they can’t use beet in the London plants; and you can’t use beet to make golden syrup.
Already 30 jobs are going — high-skilled jobs held by long-serving staff; and it is surely a disgrace that a natural source of employment is being choked at a critical time for the economy. London firms need to be given every incentive and confidence to hire more staff and expand, from tax breaks to the apprenticeship schemes we have been helping to lead from City Hall. And we are lobbying Brussels to drop its crazy prohibition, and allow Tate and Lyle to get cane sugar from wherever in the world it can find the stuff. It is time for common sense on the sugar regime — in the name of jobs for London and cheaper food all round”.