“Scientists are the true driving force of civilization.” -James Burke
Trouble in Kenya
President Uhura Kenyatta has a problem. His country is facing a sugar shortage. Weather conditions have drastically reduced production. Importing sugar to satisfy demand has proven to be seriously problematic. Sugar-dependent businesses have had to quit production and lay off workers. Sour business arrangements and import issues have left 4,400 metric tons of sugar left melting away at the Ethiopian border.
It gets worse. Sugar contaminated with mercury and copper found its way into the distribution chain. Investigators suspect the sugar picked up the toxins from being been shipped in bulk in ships’ hulls, then later falsely packaged as a brand name product. As of June 2018, 1.4 million 50 kilogram sacks of imported sugar have been impounded by the government for suspected contamination. According to the Kenya Star (June 14, 2018), this has created stress in both private and public sectors. The West Kenya Sugar Company, in an effort to save their reputation, published a statement refuting any claims against them and their sugar. (Business Daily). Investigations continue.
Starting around 8,000 years ago people began domesticating sugarcane in Polynesia and parts of China. The worldwide spread was sparked around 350 AD when it was first processed into a crystallized form in India. This ingenious discovery created a product that could be stored and shipped. It was known in Sanskrit as sharkara and was traded in the same category as rare spices. Improvements in processing made sugar more and more available. It spread throughout the Arab world, which included the Iberian Peninsula. By the time Spain was freed from Arab rule, sugar was already a well established part of the culture and economy. Even Don Quixote, enjoyed sugar sweetened almond paste.
Sugar is a bit like gold fever. Sugar can build nations and economies, win wars, suppress people, create an underworld, or topple leaders. Overcoming obstacles, innovators and investors rise with the occasion to meet greater and greater demand. Chemists, horticulturists, farmers, engineers, politicians, religious leaders, laborers, and distributors have made the sugar market what it is today. Key people seem to magically come out of the woodwork to turn obstacles into opportunities.
Columbus and Tapioca
When Christopher Columbus arrived in America tapioca was a staple food, perhaps a bit bland. There was no sugar. On his second voyage, Columbus brought a few sugarcane plants to Hispaniola (Dominican Republic/Haiti). Though sugar wasn’t commercialized until a couple decades later it made a big impact. During his lifetime, he would have had no idea how much impact those plants would have.
The Portuguese, Dutch, and English jumped in and were all in competition with sugarcane plantations in the Caribbean and in Brazil. Production increased and was exported in greater quantities to Europe. It became a staple that Europeans couldn’t live without.
Napoleonic Sugar Wars
“First you get the sugar, then you get the power.” -Sugar Wars, The Rise of the Cleveland Mafia
Even in the midst of war and a revolution, the French had a taste for sugar; so did the Prussians. Napoleon Bonaparte took advantage of sugar fever to gain military advantage over Prussia. He blockaded their ports to keep sugar out. This obstacle proved to be the catalyst for nearly doubling worldwide sugar production and rendering sugar embargoes ineffective. The science and politics were in place, as were the key players who followed their destiny to change history.
Prussian King Frederick II (Frederick the Great) politically couldn’t bear a sugar shortage. He needed a solution, which turned out to be scientific rather than military. This was a textbook example of an obstacle turning into an opportunity, in this case an opportunity to change the world. The right person appeared, with the right experience, in the right place, right when needed. Franz Karl Achard may not a household name to you, but his influence in history, science and business impacts your world everyday. He was Frederick’s science advisor. The king depended on him so much that they actually met twice weekly on many issues. The sugar shortage became the priority.
Reaching back to his chemistry studies, Achard had an idea. He had been a student of a chemist in Berlin, Andreas Sigismund Marggraf. In 1747 Marggraf discovered that beets contained sugar and that the sugar could be extracted. Frederick pressed forward and gave Achard resources to take action, to experiment to find the best strains of beets with the highest sugar content and to learn how to extract and process the sugar on a commercial scale. If successful, sugar could be produced domestically.
It was Napoleon who put an embargo against Prussia. It turns out he was a victim of his own medicine; he also had a sugar shortage. The British blockaded his ports. One of his main pillars of effective rule was to prevent street riots of angry and hungry people by stimulating a vibrant economy so that the people would have ample and affordable food supplies. A modern day example of this type of unrest can be seen today in Venezuela over food and medicine shortages.
Mary Poppins sang about calming children, but might as well have been singing about preventing riots. “A spoonful of sugar (15 calories) helps the medicine go down.”
Back in Prussia, Achard built the first sugar beet factory in the world, and expanded with several more factories. But Achard ended up in financial ruin when Napoleon’s forces burned down his first sugar factory and damaged several others.
The British offered Achard a generous and gorgeous financial reward if he would discredit his own research and publish that his work in sugar beets had been a failure. For whatever reason, Achard took the perspective of abundance for all. Not only did he refuse the bribe, he shared his discoveries with his students and anyone who would listen.
Napoleon stepped up and invested in cultivation and factory research. By the time the British and Prussians defeated Napoleon in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, France already had 79,000 acres dedicated to beets, with over 300 operating sugar beet factories. Sugar had become a household food staple in Europe.
The Sugar Beet Arrives in America
The United States was growing and so was the demand for sugar. An import tariff put in place in 1797 kept sugar prices high.
In 1847, precisely one hundred years after the Berlin discovery of sugar in beets, Mormon leader and colonizer Brigham Young arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, in present day Utah. Building a sustainable and diversified economy was a top priority for the survival of the new settlements.
With the German and French experience with sugar beets, a sugar industry was a brilliant option. In 1850 crops were planted. The community where the factory was built is still called Sugar House. Unfortunately, the beets failed to thrive in the local soils. The sugar produced was so inferior it was said to have a flavor so sharp that it “would take the end of your tongue off.” In addition to the initial failure of the refining process, a series of similar failures occurred across the United States.
The new industry could have been doomed on a number of occasions. But persistence and a willingness to take risks paid off. In Alvarado (Union City) California, E.H. Dyer was the first in the United States to produce sugar from sugar beets. In spite of obstacles, including a boiler accident that killed a factory worker, he kept moving forward, establishing a sugar industry in California that is still thriving.
After the first attempt at sugar production in Utah was such a failure, many were reluctant to try again. A local scientist rose to the occasion, horticulturist Arthur Stayner, one of Brigham Young’s colonizers. He discovered the the seeds obtained from the German and French were inferior in quality, the best seeds being retained by the Europeans. He began selecting out the beets for sugar content as well as ability to thrive in Utah’s alkaline soils. He campaigned for a major effort to once again attempt sugar production in Utah and reassured investors. The state supported and encouraged him, awarding him $5,000 for producing the first sugar in Utah. His successful work influenced various investors, including the Mormon Church, which was already struggling financially, to go into the sugar business in a big way. In 1899 they contracted with E.H. Dyer from California to build a massive sugar operation in Lehi at a cost of $400,000.
Before construction began, costs had already soared beyond the original $400,000. Additonal investors stepped up. That’s where my family comes in. The president of the new Sugar Company, Thomas Cutler, was an executive of another company along with John Beck, my great-great grandfather’s brother. They saved the deal by investing an additional $88,000. They also threw in a 35 acre construction site, 1,500 acres of farmland, a pond with perpetual water rights, a lime quarry, $1,000 for additional land purchases, and $1,000 labor for road improvements. The project was back on track.
During the first growing season, 565 farmers produced enough beets to produce 12,500 100 lb. bags of sugar. During the first six years of operation, nearly thirty new businesses sprung up in town. The factory was later doubled in size to meet the demand of the United States offering food support to the British and French during WWI.
The Lehi operation became the model and training facility for over 100 sugar factories across the nation. As the factory aged, new factories were built across the Mountain West. Meanwhile, the Lehi crops were in decline due to infestation by root nematodes and curly top virus. This was partly due to farming beets continually without crop rotation. The factory eventually shut down in 1924 when local farms could no longer provide enough sugar beets for the aging factory.
Physical remnants of the sugar enterprise include a historical marker at the site of the sugar factory, one deteriorating factory building, the factory pond and a 184’ smokestack which now serves as a massive cell-phone tower. During the heyday, the president of the Sugar Company built a mansion, which sits next door to my current residence. John Beck’s house is across the street. The lessons learned about cultivating and processing sugar beets continue to influence the industry.
Remember Franz Karl Achard who invented sugar beet production and processing in Berlin? His grandson, Anton Achard, immigrated to the United States and was a key investor in starting the sugar beet industry in Michigan.
Each key player leaves a mark in history and sets the stage for more innovators to overcome new obstacles in search of more abundance.
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Can’t Beet Utah Sugar History
Ethiopia: Fate of the Stranded 4,400tn of Sugar at the Kenyan Border
Find A Grave
Franz Karl Achard
History of Sugar Beets
“Kenya to Import Sugar After Drought Causes Shortages.” Reuters: May 15, 2017
World Sugar Consumption, Reuters, November 17, 2017
Kenya Star Newspaper
The Lehi Beet Sugar Factory
The Lehi Beet Sugar Factory
Lehi Factory, Sweet While it Lasted
Obituary: Arthur Stayner, Deseret News
Online Etymology Dictionary, https://www.etymonline.com/word/sugar
The Sugar Trade in the West Indies and Brazil Between 1492 and 1700
West Kenya Sugar Company Statement, Business Daily Africa