The Sugar You Eat Is Actually Controlled By A Very Powerful Industry

January 14th 2015

There is one area where both political parties agree: sugar.

But this policy is anything but sweet.

The US government, paid off by Big Sugar lobbyists, has continued a policy that has economic and environmental costs and does not hold sugar producers accountable. These policies create artificial incentives to grow sugar cane, particularly in Florida, and the result is that the government is paying Big Sugar to destroy the environment.  

The support for the sugar industry is not new, and, in fact, dates back to the Great Depression. The US wanted to be independent of foreign sugar traders so it created protections for American sugar producers by placing quotas on foreign imports and artificially increasing the domestic price of the good. Today, the US gives commercial farmers a price guarantee, and if the domestic price of sugar is below this price, the government will purchase the sugar and sell on the world market at a loss. (And guess who pays for that? That’s right—taxpayers). As a result, domestic sugar prices are often double than those in the international market. For example, in 2013, the price of sugar in the US was 43.5 cents per pound, and the international price was only 26.5 cents. These high prices create incentives for domestic sugar farms to produce as much sugar as possible, knowing the government is there to help.

The damage done by sugar 

In the US, sugar is commercially grown in Florida, Louisiana, Texas, and Hawaii. Sugar cane, however, is mostly grown in Florida. Before 1920, there was no sugar production in Florida. The environment in the Everglades is soggy wetland with low-nutrient soil and thus not naturally suited to produce sugar. To make that environment sugar-friendly, commercial farmers alter the water level because sugar requires low water levels. Water from Lake Okeechobee is diverted and parts of the Everglades are drained to grow help grow sugarcane. The natural flooding cycle is consequently disrupted -- some parts of the wetland are oversaturated and other parts are undersaturated.

Since soil in the Everglades is low in nutrients, farmers compensate with fertilizer. Lots of fertilizer. This fertilizer-loaded topsoil is carried by rainwater runoff into the Everglades and increases the concentration of phosphorus in the water. In fact, about 62 percent of phosphorus in the region comes from water draining off sugarcane farmland. The increased nutrients from fertilizer runoff also allow for certain nonnative species of plants, such as cattails, to thrive. These biological invaders endanger wading birds, which cannot land in these tall grasses, and further harms the ecology. The government recognizes this environmental calamity; unfortunately the sugar lobby is too powerful to regulate.

The Power of Big Sugar

With the amount of political clout and influence that sugar producers have on government officials, it is hard to know who is regulating whom. In 1996, Vice President Al Gore proposed a penny-a-pound tax on sugar producers that would go towards restoration of the Everglades. Hours later, sugar baron Alfonso Fanjul called President Clinton. The bill was dropped. Nearly two decades later, the government still cannot rein in Big Sugar.

The government even pays farmers to “voluntarily” stop polluting. The Obama Administration’s campaign to clean up the Everglades does not require any action from farmers. The 2012 White House Report "Restoring America’s Everglades" states that “population growth, development, the excessive drainage of wetlands, and the resulting changes in water flow and quality have caused great stress to this fragile ecosystem.” According to the report, commercial farms are not a point source of pollution. There is no mention of the two largest sugar farms (US Sugar Corp and Flo-Sun), which occupy over 385,000 acres, or 27 percent, of the land. When the report mentions farmers, it is only to stress the $370 million dollars that has gone towards “voluntary conservation activities on private working lands.” There is no compulsory action. The policy is not targeting the source of problem, but rather paying farmers to voluntarily make changes. The administration has dedicated over $1.5 billion towards the project, but, in order for policy to be effective, the US must address the source of the problem: Big Sugar.

This is not a partisan issue. According to Florida Watchdog, in 2012, Flo-Sun (which is owned by sugar magnates, the Fanjul brothers) contributed nearly $50,000 to Marco Rubio’s Senate campaign and made significant contributions to both Republican and Democrats in Florida state government. Yes, both Republicans and Democrats are taking payouts from Big Sugar. In fact, donations by the sugar lobby (which amounted to as much as $6 million in 2014) are almost evenly split between the two parties. In fact, even when Congress was voting to cut other agricultural subsidies in the Farm Bill, both liberals and conservatives voted to protect the sugar protection laws.

Business versus business

And while some of the rational for supporting the import-quota is to protect American jobs, the sugar protectionism actually does more harm then good. According to a US Department of Commerce report, for every sugar-producing job that is saved with high sugar prices, three jobs in confectionery manufacturing jobs are lost. Most of this loss is due to relocation to other countries, such as Canada or Mexico, where sugar prices are lower. The National Confectioners Association, for example, calls for sugar reform to lower sugar prices. Companies, such as Jelly Belly, based in Fairfield, Calif., have begun to outsource to countries such as Thailand, where sugar prices are cheaper.

So if sugar protectionism is hurting the environment and the economy, how can we justify it? For once I am going to have to side with my dentist, the sugar’s just not worth it.  

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