The Frontal Cortex

The Danger of Cheap Sugar

Thomas Friedman’s take on energy policy grows more urgent by the day. In his latest column (Times $elect), he aims at American agricultural subsidies for sugar farmers. If I could eliminate one government subsidy or tariff – here the effect is equivalent – this would be it. Not only are we paying farmers to make us fat – the last thing our food needs is more sugar or corn syrup – but we are preventing the importation of cheap ethanol and hampering the development of impoverished tropical countries, whose sugar farmers can’t compete with artificially cheap American sugar. It’s not often that a single policy has three negative consequences. And it’s all the fault of the Iowa caucus, a meaningless political event that, because no one wants to piss of Iowa corn farmers, all but guarantees the continued existence of this terrible tariff.

Thanks to pressure from Midwest farmers and agribusinesses, who want to protect the U.S. corn ethanol industry from competition from Brazilian sugar ethanol, we have imposed a stiff tariff to keep it out. We do this even though Brazilian sugar ethanol provides eight times the energy of the fossil fuel used to make it, while American corn ethanol provides only 1.3 times the energy of the fossil fuel used to make it. We do this even though sugar ethanol reduces greenhouses gases more than corn ethanol. And we do this even though sugar cane ethanol can easily be grown in poor tropical countries in Africa or the Caribbean, and could actually help alleviate their poverty.

Yes, you read all this right. We tax imported sugar ethanol, which could finance our poor friends, but we don’t tax imported crude oil, which definitely finances our rich enemies. We’d rather power anti-Americans with our energy purchases than promote antipoverty.

P.S. I just wrote to my congressman about sugar subsidies. So should you.


  1. #1 E. Powers
    September 20, 2006

    If I may add one more negative implication: that the Everglades still bears the brunt of the environmental impacts associated with sugar in the middle of its ecosystem. Not only is it cut off from its main source of water but the Everglades Agricultural Area has yet to reach the low nutrient water quality goals for the discharge back into the system. Tack on the rapid soil depletion, polution and atmospheric deposition from burning the fields, and the sad reality that when sugar IS through there it will probably be converted to retirement communities rather than restored.

  2. #2 _Arthur
    September 20, 2006

    You missed a Big Politics angle: Cuba
    I read in The Economist that here in Canada we pay sugar $0.10 less a pound for sugar, and our Coca-Cola is made from sugar instead of corn syrup.

    The US trade embargo against Cuba prevents the US from obtaining cheap sugar from Cuba, AND FORBIDS TO PURCHASE SUGAR FROM ANY COUNTRY THAT TRADES SUGAR WITH CUBA.

    All that, just to spite Fidel Castro; the destruction of the Everglades for heavily subsidized sugar crops is a small price to pay.

  3. #3 SteveA
    September 20, 2006

    “Bush” hates poor people.

  4. #4 bigTom
    September 20, 2006

    This has been going on since way before Bush-1. It’s not just Iowa corn farmers, but also North Dakota sugar beets. At least it may have
    reduced sugar consumption, since US food companies have to pay more than the world price for sugar (or its equivalents). Farm subsidies (they are even worse in Europe) have greatly hurt developing countires. But all politics is local, and local farmers count for more than foreigners and

  5. #5 Left_Wing_Fox
    September 20, 2006

    Sorry Arthur. You may be right about the relative price of sugar, but Coca-Cola does _not_ use can sugar in it’s soft drinks. It’s Corn Syrup.

    Check the labeling. Unless there’s regional differences in the bottling plants, the label says “Sugar-glucose/fructose”. That’s the official canadian labelling requirement for “corn syrup”. If it says “sugar-sucrose”, then that’s cane sugar.

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