Jim Simon of the American Sugar Cane League said that preservation of the 2014 Farm Bill as passed by Congress is critical to maintain agriculture’s standing in the United States’ economy.
"It’s important to keep the safety net for the sugar program that rarely costs the taxpayer a single penny,” Simon said. "As long as the USDA is allowed to maintain our national sugar policy, American sugarcane and sugar beet farmers have an opportunity to compete. When too much foreign sugar is dumped on the American market, the only purpose it serves is to push established and efficient American farmers out of business.”
Simon made his remarks at the 32nd annual International Sweetener Symposium in Santa Ana Pueblo, New Mexico in response to recent attempts to alter sugar policy as set forth in the 2014 Farm Bill. Simon and other Louisiana sugar industry representatives as well as international sweetener interests attended the August 3-5 meeting.
"As long as American farmers, Louisiana’s sugarcane producers included, are given a fair opportunity to compete, the domestic food supply will be stable and safe,” he said. "Farming interests are unified when it comes to the Farm Bill. Farmers support each other and rely on a long range Farm Bill to plan their future production needs and expenses.”
Simon said that current projections show that domestic sugar policy will cost $0 over the course of the current farm bill.
Other farming organizations attending the Symposium supporting the Farm Bill included the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) and the National Farmers Union (NFU).
"Unfortunately, there are groups from both the far left and far right that want to cut holes in farmers’ safety net and they will use every opportunity to do so,” said Mary Kay Thatcher, director of public policy with AFBF. "Such efforts threaten rural economies and imperil America’s ability to feed and clothe itself, so we must all continue to work together to mount a unified defense of the recently passed Farm Bill.”
NFU President Roger Johnson agreed that unity would be essential moving forward.
"The agricultural community will have differences from time to time,” Johnson said, "but we all agree that a strong farm policy is important and we must fight any effort to unilaterally disarm and give heavily subsidized foreign competitors a leg up.”
Other highlights from the Sweetener Symposium that affect Louisiana sugarcane growers and millers:
– A senior U.S. trade official said the government will not consider unreasonable sugar market access demands by foreign nations in the ongoing Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, thus solidifying its commitment to the smooth operation of no-cost U.S. sugar policy.
"The U.S. sugar market is the world’s largest sugar market and our country has sugar agreements with 41 different countries,” Simon said.
– While other food manufacturing sectors industries declined during the recent recession, the biggest companies that produce sugar containing products (SCPs) saw their stock prices increase up to 300 percent between 2000 and 2012.
Jack Roney, an economist with the American Sugar Alliance observed that, "If you correct for inflation, food manufacturers are paying 36 percent less for sugar today than they did three decades ago. Meanwhile the cost to produce that sugar – things like labor, healthcare, fuel, and farm inputs – has spiked, placing pressure on farmers, processors, and refiners.”
Regarding jobs, Roney said over the same three decades, more than half of all U.S. cane and beet factories have closed as a result, and that more than 100,000 sugar related jobs have been lost since 1994.
"The key to saving what is left,” he said, "is to maintain a strong U.S. sugar policy and ensure the U.S. market is not further eroded by subsidized foreign industries in trade deals.”
– Consumers are being overwhelmed with information about the food they purchase and eat every day – with sugar in the middle – and it’s fueling confusion and changing the way different generations shop.
"The landscape for sugar is challenging for both the industry and consumers who are being inundated with information which can be confusing,” said Dr. Courtney Gaine, vice president of scientific affairs for the Sugar Association. "What’s concerning is that the U.S. dietary policies for sugar that are on the table right now are not evidence-based, but rather are emotions-based.”
Matt Wilson, manager of global consumer insights, General Mills, said consumers’ buying decisions are being affected and causing food manufacturers to look closer at their products.
"We’re witnessing a wellness trend in food that’s dominating the consumer conversation, with an awareness and concern over sugar consumption growing. At the same time, while there’s an increasing interest in a natural sweetener that overlaps with this wellness trend, indulgence is not declining.”
Simon said the Sweetener Symposium provides a forum for varied sugar interests to meet and discuss the state of the industry but remarked that the discussion doesn’t immediately affect the Louisiana sugarcane grower.
"Right now, Louisiana growers are making preparations for planting and harvesting operations,” Simon said. "They are mainly interested in price and we are waiting on the final rulings on our trade dispute with Mexico. Louisiana producers operated in a weak position in 2014 because NAFTA provisions allowed Mexico to flood our market. We’ll probably be in the low price realm again for 2015.
"We’ve reached a tentative agreement with Mexico and we’re hopeful that the settlement will be good for everyone involved,” he said.
Simon said a Department of Commerce ruling is expected September 17 that may or may not affect the negotiated settlement. The International Trade Commission will issue its final report November 2.
Louisiana’s 475 sugarcane growers and 11 mills produced 1.5 million tons of raw sugar in 2014.