WASHINGTON — U.S. sugarcane and sugar beet farmers are bracing for a flood — but not one caused by the weather. Rather, it's a flood of imported sugar from Mexico. Record production and imports are poised to sweeten the U.S. market a bit too much.
"This is a lot of sugar for our country to cope with," said Jack Roney, the director of economics and policy analysis at the American Sugar Alliance, an industry group of U.S. sugar producers. "Prices are dropping to levels not seen since the 1980s, and the USDA is trying to avoid the consequences of that catastrophe."
To deal with the glut, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has taken the unusual step of retiring sugar import credits and purchasing more than 100,000 tons of sugar, which allowed it to take 330,000 tons of surplus sugar off the market.
The plan, which cost $43.8 million, weaved through a maze of sugar policy, transferring purchased sugar from the Agriculture Department to refiners in an attempt to lower foreign imports. In return, refiners surrendered import credits that had been awarded to allow them to bring in sugar from overseas.
The Agriculture Department expects the plan to save it an estimated $66.9 million by avoiding loan forfeiture costs from its sugar loan program. But many surrounding the industry say the move doesn't make up for what they charge is outdated policy.
Brian Mabry, acting coordinator of the department's communications office, said officials had to take action among "atypical market conditions this crop year, including record yields and increased imports."
Mexico's recent sugar surplus is causing problems for the U.S. market because that country has unlimited access to the U.S. market, because of provisions that are part of the North American Free Trade Agreement. A June Agriculture Department report predicts that Mexico will export its record sugar surplus to the United States, shipping more than 1.9 million tons into an already-saturated market this year.
"It's really become one market only separated by the costs of moving product around," said Tom Earley, vice president of Agralytica, a Washington food and agriculture consultancy.
Sugar prices are nearing levels unseen since the 1980s. Prices have fallen to 16 cents per pound for raw sugar. U.S. prices peaked at an average of 38 cents per pound in 2011, after having fallen to 18 cents in 2000.
Protecting the domestic market from heavily subsidized foreign sugar producers — such as those in Mexico, where the government owns a 20 percent stake in the sector — is a priority for the American Sugar Alliance. "We have a U.S. sugar policy for one reason only, and that's foreign subsidization," said Phillip Hayes, the alliance's director of communications. But opposition to the safety nets enacted under the U.S. sugar program rose to new levels during this year's debate over a new five-year farm policy. Many confectioners and candy companies view the surplus plan as a patch for outdated policy.
"The fact that the current sugar program is forcing the USDA — and ultimately American taxpayers — to pay a $44 million down payment for excess sugar ahead of expected loan forfeitures later this summer underscores exactly why this program needs to be reformed," said Jennifer Cummings, a spokeswoman for the Coalition for Sugar Reform.