The Cane Story
The story of sugar goes back a long time. The earliest evidence of sugar cane has been traced to Papua New Guinea around 6000 BC. In 325 BC, Alexander the Great invaded India and discovered "the reed which gives honey without bees." Later, in 7th century AD, sugar was introduced to the Mediterranean; it was first recorded in England in 1099. Columbus came across sugar cane in the Canary Islands in 1493.
Sugar cane belongs to the grass family. It grows up to 3 metres in height in tropical and subtropical climates. The sugar cane plant uses the process of photosynthesis to make sugar and stores it in the stem. Sugar cane is a natural agricultural resource because it provides sugar as well as biofuel and fertiliser. The main by-products are bagasse, used for generating power in sugar mills, and molasses, used in making alcohol.
Sugar (sucrose) can be produced from sugar beet or sugar cane. Sugar beet is a root crop and grows in moderate and subtropical climates, mainly in France, Germany, Russia and the USA. Sugar is a very heavily regulated market in Europe. Cane sugar accounts for a small minority of the total sugar and isoglucose availability in Europe. In the global sugar market the situation is the reverse, with cane sugar playing the dominant role accounting for around 80% of total production.
One of the countries from which we source our raw sugar is Belize in Central America. This is where the first Tate & Lyle sugar to be given the Fairtrade accreditation came from. Farmers plant a segment of a sugar cane and, depending on the quality of the soil and the care taken, they can expect to harvest for between three to ten years. It is also important that the young plants are protected from weeds and insects which degrade the yield and quality of the crop.
Harvesting and Milling
In Belize, the sugar cane harvest takes place between December and June. The farmers slice the cane into smaller segments and load onto waiting vehicles. The cane is then transported to the local sugar mill for pressing to extract juice. The cane has to be processed within 48 hours or else the quality and the sucrose content will deteriorate. The juice is then clarified and crystalised into raw sugar, ready for shipping to our European refineries.
Our European refineries receive cargoes of raw cane sugar from tropical countries around the world. The sugar is transported in large vessels; the cargoes can be as large as 42,000 tonnes, which is enough to make more than 40 million 1kg packets of sugar! Once the raw sugar arrives at one of the refineries, it is offloaded using large 'grab cranes' - in London, the sugar is transferred directly from vessels that arrive alongside the refinery using our own cranes at our berth on the River Thames.
The sugar is moved into the refinery on conveyers from where it goes to storage or straight into the refining process. The diagram shows the stages of the refining process where impurities are removed from around the sugar crystals. A sugar refinery takes a single raw material - raw cane sugar (of differing qualities depending upon the sophistication of the mills in the supplying country) - and produces a range of different bulk and packed sugar products tailored to the local domestic markets.
- Looking Back
- Sugar Cane
- Sugar Beet
- Cane Growing
- Harvesting and Milling
- Ocean Transport
- Refining Process