Rum – deliciously sugary sweet, with a challenging supply chain

Here in Finland, we often associate rum with hot drinks to warm you up on winter days. However, rum has its roots far from the snowy north – all the way back in the 15th-century Caribbean. At that time, rum was believed to have healing properties. It was consumed as a cure for tropical diseases. It has since been discovered that rum actually has the opposite effect – it is made from sugar cane, which is cultivated in conditions that are now known to cause CKDnT (Chronic Kidney Disease of undetermined causes) in plantation workers.

Sugar is one of the oldest international trade goods. About 75 per cent of the world’s sugar is produced from sugar cane. Millions of people are employed in sugar cane cultivation. It is grown in over one hundred mainly developing countries. It is a versatile commodity with plenty of potential applications – including new innovations such as biofuel. Sugar cane is traditionally processed into molasses, syrup and sugar cane juice, which are used to make rums, sugary soft drinks, animal feeds and many other products.

Incidence of CKDnT is constantly linked to excessive workload and heat stress, dehydration and toxin exposures on sugar cane plantations. Around the world, CKDnT occurs among workers not only on sugar cane plantations but also in salt mines and rice, coconut and cashew nut production in Central America, India and Africa. Working conditions on plantations are often poor and the workers come from a deprived background. The disease especially afflicts men of working age on fields – and the worst outcome is death. Virtually no healthcare may be available and the conditions often pose challenges to treating serious infections. However, there are simple and inexpensive ways of preventing the disease. These include providing shade in the fields, regular breaks and enough drinking water for workers (water, shade, rest and sanitation).

Rum supply chains are multi-tiered and challenging to assess. The raw materials are often sourced from the sugar exchange and information on their point of origin is easily lost. A variety of certification systems specify criteria for products and their production, and enhance reliability in taking responsibility into account in different phases of production. The leading certification system for sugar production is Bonsucro. It has recently been added to Alko’s list of approved ethical certifications.

Over the years, Alko and the other Nordic monopolies have communicated about the ethical issues involved in sugar cane production in a number of different ways and have provided a variety of training to actors in the supply chains. Among other measures, over the past two years we have organised the international Sustainable Sugar seminar (2019) in Nordic cooperation. Its participants consisted of suppliers, beverage manufacturers and representatives of various stages in the rum production chain.

After this event, we have engaged in close cooperation with the international organisations La Isla Network and Adelante Initiative, which work on site at Central American sugar cane plantations to help people suffering from CKDnT and provide training to parties in the supply chain. In addition, the CEOs of Alko and the Nordic alcohol monopolies signed a joint statement paper in January, in which we committed to promoting responsible operating models in the rum supply chain. That said, we can work to improve production conditions over and above official certification efforts, too. We need to engage in cross-border cooperation, communication and active dialogue.

La Isla Networking and Adelante Initiative will next organise water, shade, rest and sanitation training for rum supply chain actors in September. Follow our communications about training on our site at:

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