NPR Story
9:05 pm
Sat July 27, 2013

Sugar Subsidy Spurs Battle Between Growers And Candy Makers

Originally published on Thu July 25, 2013 2:55 pm

The average American consumes nearly 40 pounds of refined sugar a year.

Behind all those sweets, a heated battle is taking place over whether the government should continue a program to help out sugar growers.

Candy manufacturers say the program keeps the price of sugar artificially high, and want to see it ended.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Bill Wheelhouse of Harvest Public Media reports.

Reporter

Copyright 2013 WBUR-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wbur.org.

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson. It's HERE AND NOW.

The average American consumes nearly 40 pounds of refined sugar per year. And behind all those sweets, there is a heated battle taking place about whether the government should continue a program to help out sugar growers. From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, Harvest Public Media's Bill Wheelhouse explains.

BILL WHEELHOUSE, BYLINE: That is the sound of money at Pease's Candy store in Springfield, Illinois. Almost every time someone comes here, something made with sugar goes out the door.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Do you have a pound of the cashews?

WHEELHOUSE: The smell of fresh chocolate is everywhere, but candy store sentimentality is just the opposite of what's going on between candymakers and sugar growers in over whether the federal government should continue its sugar program. The 79-year-old program keeps the price of sugar higher in the U.S., primarily through government restrictions on supply, occasional buybacks and controls on imports.

Jack Roney is with the American Sugar Alliance. His group represents growers of sugar beets in the U.S. and cane sugar growers in Hawaii and three Southern states. And he says the program is vital because most other countries, including Mexico, heavily subsidize their sugar production.

JACK RONEY: But we need to have some kind of buffer to the subsidized foreign sugar, otherwise, we would be wiped out by farmer producers who are not more efficient, but who are subsidized.

WHEELHOUSE: But at Pease's Candy store, owner Rob Flesher says that kind of government intervention means the cost of sugar is often double the international price.

ROB FLESHER: It affects the cost of every product I buy, everything from the things that we make, the things that we just buy, candy bars, hard candy, any of that kind of stuff.

WHEELHOUSE: Whether it's a small candy store or big company like Nestle, American candy manufacturers are urging Congress to get rid of the program as a component of the farm bill being hashed out this summer. Both sides have spent money on lobbying and advertising. One of the sugar industry's points is that homegrown sugar is part of the nation's food security, highlighted here on this industry video.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Multinational food makers want artificially cheap sugar to boost corporate profits, even if it means jeopardizing 142,000 U.S. sugar jobs and America's food security.

WHEELHOUSE: But Iowa State University agricultural economist John Beghin calls that concern baloney.

JOHN BEGHIN: We're not buying sugar from Iraq or Syria or a crazy country somewhere in the Middle East. So we're buying sugar from Brazilians, from very stable and predictable trade partners. So there is no political risk.

WHEELHOUSE: Beghin says his studies show up to 20,000 new jobs would be created across the country if Congress nixed the sugar program. And he says each American consumer would save $10 a year. That may not sound like much, but add it together, it's nearly three-and-half billion dollars. But the Sugar Alliance's John Roney says the overall price of sugar has dropped a bit in the last two years, and he did not see candy manufacturers passing savings on to consumers.

RONEY: We look at what's happened to the price of sugar on the grocery store shelf, and we look at the price of products that are highly sweetened, that - and we find that the prices for those products have continued to rise.

WHEELHOUSE: Want proof of that? Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture purchased surplus sugar for $43 million in order to prop up the price. It's the first time that type of direct intervention has been needed in 13 years. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Bill Wheelhouse in Springfield, Illinois.

HOBSON: That story came to us from Harvest Public Media, a public radio reporting project that focuses on agriculture and food production issues. Coming up, a young immigrant who is trying to get citizenship is more concerned about getting her parents citizenship in the U.S. That's next. HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.