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Free trade, fair prices needed to control sugar

To express his pleasure about one thing or another, the late Great One, Jackie Gleason, would bellow, “How sweet it is.” He might have been referring to the deal sugar growers have with the federal government. And they’re not about to let a little thing like free trade or basic fairness threaten that deal.

At the International Sweetener Symposium held earlier this month in Vail, Colo., U.S. sugar producers met to discuss the future of the industry and the challenges it faces. Chief among the challenges, it seems, is competition from foreign sugar producers. Actually, it’s only possible competition. The U.S. government has strict limits on how much sugar can be imported into this country, based on historic levels. And those who benefit most from this sweet deal — sugar growers — are in no hurry to share the wealth.

From a free-trade standpoint, our system is better than the systems of many nations. The feds don’t give direct subsidies to sugar farmers. Instead, U.S. policies prop up sugar farmers by limiting the amount of sugar on the market, thereby keeping prices artificially higher than the market would set them. The higher prices also ensure farmers can pay back loans they’ve received from the feds.

According to North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad, the biggest threat to American agriculture, including sugar, is unfair trade. That likely can be said of most industries and is a valid point. Where we take issue with Conrad, however, is his definition of unfair trade. He and the American Sugar Alliance say American farmers can compete with other nations’ farmers, but not their national treasuries. We’re with them so far.

But when Conrad speaks of free trade being a good thing in academic discussions, and a bad thing when it’s put into practice in such a way as to affect American farmers, he seems to be talking out of both sides of his mouth.

“As an academic matter, free trade is good, but this is not an academic matter. This is a real-life matter and real people’s lives will be traded away,” he told symposium attendees representing sugar growers and processors.

“It’s just not fair to ask a sugarbeet farmer from North Dakota to compete with the treasury of a foreign country. Foreign producers’ governments are behind them. Ours should be behind our producers, too,” Conrad said.

So, according to the senator, government interference abroad should be countered with U.S. government interference at home. As a member of the Senate Finance Committee responsible for monitoring trade policy, Conrad undoubtedly knows his ideas won’t entice any foreign governments to cut back on farm subsidies to gain greater access to U.S. markets.

Conrad worried aloud that if the feds go ahead with the Central American Free Trade Agreement and other pacts to reduce trade barriers, it would mean the end of the U.S. sugar industry. We’re not insensitive to the hardships that would likely mean for the 146,000 workers in that industry, but perhaps their energies would soon be put to better use in a different line of work. It’s not easy to change one’s way of life, but many have done it before and more will change in the future as economic reality requires.

It might have made sense to provide local sources of sugar by growing sugarbeets in northern climes in the past, when transportation wasn’t as efficient as what we have today, but transportation technology enables us to buy food from all over the globe. That being the case, shouldn’t consumers be able to buy where they get the best deal and let the market set the price? The feds should be involved in markets only to negotiate with other governments to let all farmers compete fairly in the free market.