This is a riveting account of a substance so successfully branded and marketed as being 'natural' and 'pure' that almost no questions are asked about the methods of production. Yet the history of sugar is mired in the worst excesses of mercantilism and colonialism. In the Caribbean region alone, the number of slaves involved in sugar production ran into many millions. They had only to remain productive for about three years for the plantation owners to make a profit on their 'investment'. Given the eighteen or twenty hour working days, inadequate or barely edible 'food', the mosquitoes, disease, insanitary living conditions, lack of health care, routine floggings, and other (worse) abuses and 'punishments', that these poor people endured, that they lasted that long is quite incredible.
The major players were the usual suspects: Portugal, Spain, France, the Netherlands, the United States and ESPECIALLY, Britain. Imperial Britain made the other countries look like bungling amateurs when it came to slavery.
Nor did abuse end with the 'abolishment' of slavery: the all-powerful sugar companies (referred to as 'Big Sugar') and their tame government lackeys, simply reinvented the practise under indentured labour. The enslavement of people, in order to put sugar on the white man's table, continues to this day.
This book might have warranted 5 stars except for a short section in the final chapter. Ms Abbott, possibly looking for something good to say about sugar after almost 400 pages of documenting is utterly appalling history, offered ethanol from sugar as a possible alternative fuel to oil.
The first point in relation to this is that if the world's entire sugar crop (sugar cane and sugar beet combined) were used for ethanol production, it would deliver only THREE PERCENT of the energy currently provided by oil. And as already pointed out by Ms Abbott (and also the World Wildlife Fund) sugar production has probably caused more environmental destruction than any other crop ever grown.
Also the energy return over energy invested (EROEI) figures provided require revision. While it is true that the EROEI for sugar cane is quite high (compared to other crops) at about 8.3:1, the opposite is true for sugar beet. Ms Abbott gives the figure as being the same for both crops, whereas the true figure for sugar beet is more like 2.25:1 (see link below for details)
This means that over forty percent of the energy yield of ethanol from sugar beet has to go into producing the fuel. The manufacture of road vehicles and development of a road infrastructure might use up most of what remained, leaving little or nothing for maintenance of the thing we call civilisation. Its a non-runner.
And any expansion of sugar cane production comes at the expense of food crops, soil fertility and/or forest ecosystems. So no, ethanol from sugar crops won't replace oil on any significant world scale.
I hope Ms Abbott is reading this as apart from that brief foray into fuel fantasies, this is an exceptionally good read. Maybe if there is an updated version, the final chapter could be re-written.