Flapping Their Gum: Sudan Threatens U.S. Soft Drinks

The Sudanese government's response to proposed U.S. sanctions intended to force an end to the bloodshed in Darfur was short, sweet … and fizzy.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday in Washington, Sudan's ambassador the United States denied government-funded militias were killing civilians in Darfur, and threatened to cut off exports of gum arabica, a key component in soft drinks, if the Bush administration imposed economic sanctions.

"See how many people are dying in Darfur -- none," said Ambassador John Ukec Lueth, who then went on to say that economic sanctions would hurt all the people of Sudan but none more so than those suffering in Darfur.

Ukec held his press conference Wednesday, a day after President Bush pledged to impose new sanctions against Khartoum and called on the United Nations to follow suit.

The Sudanese government has long denied it sponsors or supports the Janjaweed, an Arab militia that the United States accuses of perpetrating genocide against black African herdsmen in Darfur, Sudan's western province.

With a bottle of Coca-Cola raised above his head, Ukec surprised reporters when he threatened to cut off imports of gum arabic, an emulsifier made from the acacia tree that adds to the fiziness of sodas.

"I want you to know that the gum arabic, which runs all the soft drinks all over the world, including the United States, mainly 80 percent is imported from my country," Ukec said.

"I can stop that gum arabic and all of us will have lost this," he said.

Ukec's threat raised a series of important questions, not least among them: Do we really have to choose between our lofty desire to save innocent lives and our desire to have a Coke and a smile. Do we have to deal with a pariah state for the fun of creating geysers of Mentos and Diet coke in our backyards?

Can Sudan actually be, as one reporter asked the ambassador, "suggesting that if the U.S. sanctions stayed in place, that the [Sudanese] government may expel Coca-Cola or stop the export of gum arabic and bring down the Western world?"

The good news: no, no and no.

Sudan does continue to supply the world with about 80 percent of its gum arabic. A decade ago, nearly 80 percent of all the gum arabic imported into the United States came from Sudan, but a lot has changed since then.

For starters, Coca-Cola, the world's largest soft-drink maker, does not purchase any gum arabic from Sudan.

"As a matter of policy, we don't disclose where we source our ingredients," said Kari Bjorhus, a spokeswoman for Coca-Cola. "But we don't buy gum arabic from Sudan." Pepsi, the world's second-largest soda producer, however, refused to comment for this story.

Commerce Department documents indicate that the United States has decreased its reliance on the Sudanese product over the last several years.

In 2006, America imported 12 percent, or $6.2 million worth, of its gum arabic from Sudan. That figure represents a 54 percent drop year over year from 2005. Most gum arabic, nearly 38 percent, is now imported from Chad.

Even if Sudan did cut off gum arabic imports, analysts say, there is little to worry about. "I don't think its going to make a big ripple," said Michael Bellas, chairman of Beverage Marketing. "There are so many alternative sources these days. Both Coke and Pepsi have, I'm sure, looked for substitutes," he said.

The United States might have to worry less about Sudan cutting off gum arabic exports than Sudan has to worry about the United States cutting off imports. In January, when Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was named speaker of the House, she floated a plan to ban U.S. companies from importing the emulsifier.

U.S. trade concerns, like U.S. sanctions, however, might be moot. Thursday, an official in the Sudanese finance ministry told Reuters that the country did such little business with the United States these days that sanctions would have little impact.

"It doesn't have that much effect on the economy. We don't have direct economic or trade relations with the United States," the official told Reuters.

"Our economy is shifting from the USA and Europe to the East. We have almost 70 percent of our foreign trade with the East," he said.

Most of Sudan's economy is no longer dependent on agricultural goods, but oil exports to China.

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