Whatever happened to Irish sugar?
Now We Know: EU incentives led to industry ceasing but efforts are under way to re-establish it
The first beet processing plant in Ireland was opened in Carlow in 1926. Photograph: iStock
When was the last time you baked a cake using sugar that was as local as your eggs and butter? Within living memory, most sweet treats made in Ireland in the 20th century would have been made using sugar beet, a plant with a root high in sucrose which was grown commercially in Ireland as far back as the mid-1800s.
According to the Carlow Historical Society, Ireland’s first ever sugar beet factory was established in Mountmellick, Co Laois in 1851.
This was part of a European drive to quell the huge sugar thirst across the continent while moving away from depending on the morally reprehensible system of sugar cane farming which relied heavily on an enslaved workforce in the Caribbean. Though it flourished throughout Europe, this first wave of beet sugar farming in Ireland didn’t quite take roots. It wasn’t until the era of Irish independence that Irish sugar beet production really bloomed.
The first beet processing plant in the newly independent Ireland was opened in Carlow in 1926, followed by factories in Mallow, Thurles and Tuam. When Ireland joined the European Economic Community in 1973, the Irish sugar beet industry was impacted by EU quotas but it wasn’t actually until 2006 that all beet sugar production ceased in Ireland when the European Union offered incentives for countries whose industries weren’t as high performing as others to exit the sugar sector.
Food writer Caitriona Devery is currently working on a piece about the history of Irish sugar for FEAST, a UK-based publication that looks at food through an arts and cultural lense. “When the EU quotas came in, it was an example of a global system interrupting what was happening in a country,” says Devery. “It became cheaper to import sugar. When there is a shift from doing things locally to doing things on a global scale, it’s worth asking: who is controlling that shift?”
When the Common Agricultural Policy Reform 2015 abolished the EU sugar quotas in 2017, the idea of a new Irish sugar beet sector became a real possibility. The lobby group Beet Ireland, founded in 2011, is currently working towards re-establishing Ireland’s sugar industry by enlisting farmers to sign up to growing sugar beets and establishing a new national sugar beet processing plant.
If it proves to be financially viable for Irish farmers to produce, this re-emergence of sugar sovereignty is potentially quite timely, slotting in well with a wider focus on local ingredients being less detrimental to our environment.
“Do we have the potential to change our addictive relationship to sugar?” Devery is considering for her piece, which will be in the July issue of FEAST “If we do choose to eat sugar, why not choose to eat locally made sugar?”