ORLANDO — A cave drawing in Spain at Cuevas de la Araña, dating back about 9,000 years, show that people’s love affair with sweets has persisted through time, a U.S. Department of Agriculture policy advisor said at the American Sugarbeet Growers Association’s annual meeting.
The second day of the ASGA annual meeting in Orlando was packed with heavy topics like sugar policy and markets, as well as retirement speeches by outgoing board members and a retirement tribute to a longtime ASGA employee.
On the policy front, Dylan Daniels, a senior policy advisor with the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service’s Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs, and Carlann Unger, an economist with the USDA Farm Production and Conservation’s Economic and Policy Analysis Division, explained how the sugar program is managed and what could be changing.
Unger showed the January 2024 World Agriculture Supply and Demand Estimates report to illustrate how the U.S. maintains the a consistent stocks-to-use ratio for sugar. She also showed what types of imports are coming into the U.S., including “high-tier” imports that are charged a higher tariff. With world sugar prices driving domestic sugar prices up, it can make economic sense for users to bring in high-tier sugar, she explained.
Daniels explained more about how the U.S. got to a system of “high-tier” and “low-tier” sugar in its tariff-rate quota system. In the system, a certain amount of sugar imports are allowed from certain countries with a “low-tier” tariff, while imports beyond those quota amounts require a “high-tier” tariff.
Daniels started off his talk by showing a picture of the “Man of Bicorp” cave drawing, which depicts a person balancing on a ladder and harvesting honey amid wild bees — willing to risk danger to gain access to sweets.
Moving to relatively more recent history, Daniels traced the history of sugar policy in the U.S. going all the way from colonial times, when sugar taxes were among the precipitating factors in the Revolutionary War all the way to the modern day tariff-rate quota system that determines how much sugar can come in to the U.S. from which countries before tariffs go into effect.
Daniels also outlined changes that could be coming to the system. Over the years, the world sugar picture has changed while the U.S. system of allocations under the tariff rate quota system has stayed the same. That means that several countries on the U.S. allocation list either no longer produce sugar or no longer export sugar to the U.S. So every year, the tons of sugar that would come from those countries has to be reallocated to other countries.
Under complaints from a couple U.S. senators about the system, the Government Accountability Office completed a study on the program, with recommendations that the system be evaluated for its effectiveness toward maintaining sugar supply and its cost effectiveness to the government. Daniels said coming up with a revised system is a good goal, though one that will be difficult to complete.
Room to grow
Craig Ruffolo, vice president of McKeany-Flavell Co. Inc., addressed the ASGA regarding markets for sugarbeets and sugar cane and explained where there may be room for the beet sugar to grow. He said he believes the U.S. sugarbeet industry should expand to take care of more domestic needs. In order to do so, he said it’s important that the industry also counters a false narrative that cane sugar is somehow healthier or more natural than beet sugar. Additionally, because of long-solved quality issues from the 1950s, some food formulas specify only cane sugar, even though beet sugar would do the exact same job.
“I think it’s bunk. There’s no difference,” he said.
ASGA Executive Vice President Luther Markwart asked whether cane sugar’s ability to market as non-GMO and use the “butterfly logo” of the Non-GMO Project makes a difference to consumers. Ruffolo said that there may be “pockets” of consumers for whom such biotechnology fears are important; but most people do not seem to care.
“I don’t think it’s as big of a deal as it was once,” Ruffolo said.
Markwart and Zack Clark, vice president of government affairs for ASGA, explained what the organization and its political action committee have been working on in the past year, including advocating for changes in policy in the farm bill, advocating against harmful changes brought up by opponents of sugar policy — including one proposal that made its way to the floor of the U.S. House — and educating lawmakers and regulators about the importance of U.S. sugar and a strong sugar program.
On the education front, Clark explained that a majority of members of the House and a good chunk of the Senate have never voted on a farm bill. That has meant many hours of building relationships with lawmakers and staffers, providing connection and education, which Clark said the sugarbeet industry does better than anyone in ag.
Clark explained that he was happy to see Nick Storer join the ASGA as vice president of science and innovation. Storer started in his new position on Jan. 1 after 25 years in crop protection with Dow and Corteva. Storer will be in the trenches on matters of science important to growers and the industry.
Storer introduced himself at the meeting, telling about his background growing up in a rural area in the United Kingdom and coming to the U.S. to finish his doctorate. He worked on both science and regulatory fronts in his past jobs and said he now is looking forward to getting to know farmers and their needs.
To round out the meeting, retiring board members gave their goodbye addresses, including outgoing president Nate Hultgren of Minnesota, who urged his fellow growers to take a “pro-food stance” rather to connect with consumers. Neil Rockstad, a Red River Valley sugarbeet grower, now takes the reins on a two-year term as president.
The ASGA also recognized longtime director of administration Pam Alther, who is retiring after 20 years with the organization. Markwart and others described Alther as the “glue” of the organization, and she has done the heavy lifting behind putting on events like the annual meeting. Alther presented Markwart with his own bottle of glue as a way of “passing the torch” as she retires.
Jenny Schlecht is the director of ag content for Agweek and serves as editor of Agweek, Sugarbeet Grower and BeanGrower. She lives on a farm and ranch near Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 701-595-0425.
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