Eating U.S. Sugar

It’s the kind of fait accompli that most environmentalists believed would be necessary to break the money lines keeping “Big Sugar” in the business of destroying the Everglades, and yesterday it happened, in the form of a tentative agreement for the buyout of U.S. Sugar Corp. For decades federal subsidies have financed the lobbying efforts of U.S. sugar growers to argue against cleaner water and Everglades restoration. The subsidies, in the form of complicated price guarantees and import restrictions which have ended up costing U.S. consumers almost $2 billion annually, began with a political motivation — the initiation of the Cuban sugar embargo — and seem to be ending with one: Florida Republican governor and whispered VP candidate Charlie Christ declared the agreement “as monumental as the creation of our nation’s first national park, Yellowstone.” Truth be told, Mr. Governor, Yellowstone Park wasn’t an environmental disaster recovery effort.
The real story is that foreign competition finally ate the sugar growers’ lunch. No amount of price support could adjust for the twenty year decline in sugar prices started when Brazil and Thailand ramped up production. And increasing local efforts to get Big Sugar to clean up its act by filtering waste water further reduced the cash flowing into owners’ pockets. The fact is that U.S. Sugar wouldn’t have lasted, but it’s longer, slower shut down would have meant decades more of environmentally abusive operation.
300,000 acres of Florida land will still be under the stranglehold of subsidized sugar after U.S. Sugar is shut down in seven years. Flo-Sun, the company owned by the Cuban-American Fanjul family, controls 180,000 of those acres, and they are known for effectively playing both sides of the political game.
I think that it was more than political expediency that caused Governor Christ to announce the deal only days after publicly changing his mind on support for offshore drilling. It was the realization that it would be much cheaper for Florida to eliminate the primary cause of Everglades pollution than it would be to continue the failed effort to achieve the goals of the Everglades Restoration project started in 2000. Why it took so long to come to that conclusion is anyone’s guess.
Related stories:
The New York Times (Be sure to take a look at the map of sugar-growing lands, which act as a lid on the waters of Lake Okeechobee, water that historically flowed south to the Everglades and eventually Florida Bay.)
The Associated Press

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  • john weis

    Maybe the same set of economics will someday come into play regarding the 4 Snake River dams that have been prime salmon killers. The amount of wasted money going into the efforts to maintain the dwindling fish stocks is enormous, and is, along with transportation subsidies, far in excess of the value of those dams. Time to breach. Maybe the Everglades situation can be framed into other equally important bodies of water.

  • john higley

    Just a non-political observation. I noticed in the press photo released that the Gov. was wearing a hook and hackle shirt.

  • Marshall Cutchin

    That’s a positive thought, John. Of course the government would rather spend lots of money over a longer period of time than think about any kind of financial or environmental balance sheet. But maybe if Everglades restoration moves fast enough now it will at least show what the possibilities are.

  • Jason Merenda

    This is great to hear. If these subsidies would have been removed long ago the market would have forced Big Sugar out.

  • First, our esteemed Governor is Charlie Crist, not “Christ”. I think Crisp might have been more like it since he seems to be “toast” as a VP choice. My real beef with Charlie is that all my tax dollars are going to be used to clean up the mess they created. Ironic isn’t it. This is a step in the right direction. A small step. Next we need to get politicians to hire some firms that can really clean the place up and not just be a friend of a firend of Charlie’s or Jeb’s. Don’t forget about all the other stuff around there that is affecting the Glades. You have the power plants at Indiantown and a lot of other destructive growers and water users. The South Florida Water Management District is also culpable. This is Florida – politics are king. Read Carl Hiaasen.