Longstanding U.S. sugar policy pummels consumers and taxpayers in three ways: We subsidize growers, pay higher food prices and then pay even more for environmental damage sugar production causes in South Florida. The only winners are Big Sugar and the politicians who rake in its campaign cash. With a new farm bill coming up in Congress, now is the time to reset the board on sugar policy to allow market forces to set sugar prices and bring relief to Floridians who are paying dearly for this sweet deal.
An amendment to the new farm bill, the Sugar Policy Modernization Act, would reform price supports that keep domestic sugar prices artificially high. Studies show that American-grown sugar costs up to twice as much as other countries’ sugar. The outdated policy also limits the amount of sugar that can be imported, slaps a tariff on imports that exceed certain quotas and requires the Agriculture Department to buy back excess sugar to prevent prices from plummeting. It’s a formula that guarantees perpetual profits for U.S. growers by pick-pocketing U.S. consumers.
Floridians are robbed even more. The two main growers in Florida, U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals, are responsible for millions of gallons of phosphorous used on their farms annually running downstream and causing enormous harm to the Everglades. Guess who pays to clean it up. And don’t forget the green algae that befouled beaches on both Florida coasts during the summer of 2016. That polluted water came from Lake Okeechobee and should have filtered south as nature intended — through sugarland. Instead, it was diverted to the east and west, creating a neon green nightmare for tourism-reliant businesses.
Sugar growers and their defenders point to the jobs that would be lost if prices crashed. Some estimates say sugar production is responsible for 30,000 jobs in Florida, many of them concentrated in the high-poverty area around the Everglades. But like other protectionist actions, for every job saved, one more (at least) is lost. Candy makers and others have been moving operations overseas to escape high domestic prices and taxes on imports.
One factor explains the staying power of such malevolent policies. Between 1994 and 2016, the sugar industry spent $57.8 million in direct and in-kind contributions to state and local political campaigns. So far this election cycle, no other U.S. senator has taken more money from Big Sugar than Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, who is in a heated battle for re-election. His challenger, Republican Gov. Rick Scott, has reaped millions in contributions from sugar interests over the years. Not surprisingly, Nelson has done little to break the industry’s grip on the domestic market, and Scott surely wouldn’t do any better.
The only House member from Florida who has committed support for the Sugar Policy Modernization Act is Rep. Brian Mast, a Republican who represents an area from Fort Pierce to Palm Beach. The farm bill and the sugar modernization proposal is scheduled to be taken up this week in the House. It’s long past time for Florida’s elected representatives to stand up to the industry and do what’s best for the state’s job market, environment and consumers.
There’s no valid argument for continuing to prop up the sugar industry in favor of the broader economy, and everyone except the growers and the politicians they enrich seems to understand that. Reforming the federal sugar program is a rare point of unity among such disparate groups as environmentalists, consumer advocates and free-market adherents. That’s because crony capitalism is never in the public interest.