Focus: The International Sugar Organisation engages with governments on health policies

The International Sugar Organisation has a challenging task on its hands in engaging with governments, industry organisations around the world to inform on its appropriate uses, including confectionery. Keith Nuthall meets its executive director José Orive

The executive director of International Sugar Organisation (ISO) wants his body “to work more with the confectionery sector”, as it strives to debunk junk science that derides the nutritional value of sugar.

José Orive (pictured below) explained one of its key goals remains a desire to succeed in presenting “scientific evidence-based information” about sugar’s health impact so the reputation of confectionery products is not “blackened with funky fake data”. While accepting that “some people eat too much sugar”, he said: “Sugar is part of a balanced diet: don’t consume it in excess.”

He wants the London, UK-based ISO (with its headquarters in central London, main image) to be a voice for the industry and promote a rational debate on sugar science, continuing to disseminate only peer reviewed research. Inflated concerns about sugar means “the confectionery industry has been unfairly impacted” by government policy, which should perhaps focus on foods and drinks full of alternative sweeteners, he said.

Furthermore, health campaigns targeting sugar have been dampening demand, Mr Orive insisted. ISO released a report last November concluding this was the case. It said the Striving to sweeten the sector’s use of sugar average annual growth rate in sugar sales is expected to reduce to 1.2% in the 2020s, down from 1.6% in 2010-19.

It added that consumption statistics for 2017 and 2018 show reduced growth or falls in per capita consumption: “This trend can be attributed to health concerns.” Given the desire of all governments to boost their citizens’ health, ISO has to tread warily and reflect its members’ varied policies (often with different ministries having different views in the same country), but it seeks to ensure their policy choices are based on rational science and economics. “We produce information. We have the best database in the world on sugar.

Russia and Cuba won’t give data to anyone else. We make that database a vehicle of communication and develop intelligence to enrich decision making. And we bring people together to discuss topics,” he said. To that end, ISO liaises with the sugar producing and using industries worldwide, while promoting solid information on the industry via its website, press releases, tweets, blogs, seminars, workshops, conferences and webinars.

Research work

It also works closely with the Milton, Cambridgeshire, UK-based World Sugar Research Organisation in assessing sugar policy issues such as the impact of sugar taxes. Formed in 1968, ISO was developed from the previous International Sugar Council which administered international agreements setting quotas on production and sales.

Such intervention was scrapped in the 1970s in favour of free markets, and since then, ISO has sort to improve market performance by delivering timely and accurate industry information to producers, users, traders and governments. ISO has 87 member states, who (as of 2019) comprise 87% of world sugar production; 67% of sugar consumption; 90% of world sugar exports; and 35% of world imports.

These include all European Union (EU) countries, the UK, and major producers such as Brazil, India and Thailand, (although not China). It does not, however, include the USA. Sugar producing major countries Brazil and India are expected to gain additional votes, with Russia, Australia and EU states likely to lose votes.

Bangladesh, Kazakhstan and Myanmar are expected to join ISO in the near future, he said. The organisation, which also assesses issued associated with alternative sweeteners and molasses, develops global policies on sugar production, trading and use through its biannual council meetings.

Also, a ‘market evaluation, consumption and statistics committee’ (MECAS) also meets twice a year, where experts debate the short-term sugar market in depth. The secretariat, which employs senior economists, and spends a £1.3 million ($1.69m) annual budget develops longer term perspectives and studies, which can focus on common industry problems.

These issues can also be debated in annual ISO seminars, where representatives of growers, processors, traders, governments, banks and media gather together. Issues that have been discussed in the past three years include the impact of liberalising the sugar sector (such as removing production subsidies) and improving sustainability within the industry. Clearly, Covid-19 has disrupted ISO work, with all staff told to work from home from March.

The pandemic also caused the cancellation of a March sugar market conference in Moscow and a May conference in New York on sugar and ethanol. But the core work of ISO has continued. “We haven’t missed a beat,” said Mr Orive, who is an experienced Guatemalan trade specialist, who represented the central American sugar sector in international forums, trade negotiations and to governments before taking on his current position in 2014. Given the fact that sugar remains a politically important product, with governments continuing to invest subsidies and trading controls into a sector that delivers jobs and prosperity, especially in emerging markets, this role is likely to retain its importance. This makes sugar “a political porcupine, prickly and sensitive,” said the ISO boss. So, ISO’s accurate data and analysis on sugar will continue to be essentia


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