"Deal to Save Everglades May Help Sugar Firm" | New York Times | March 7, 2010: "Documents and interviews suggest that the price tag and terms of the deal could set back Everglades restoration for years, or even decades. ... The governor’s [Crist's] ambitious plan to reclaim the river of grass, as the famed wetlands are known, is instead on track to rescue the fortunes of United States Sugar. ... "
Title: Sour Deal: Federal Sugar Subsidy
Source: Charleston Gazette (South Carolina) letter to the editor
Date: October 24, 1999
In "The Sweet Hereafter", in the November Harper's, writer Paul Roberts documents the long-term costs of subsidizing sugar.
Three counties south of Lake Okeechobee produce more than half the nation's sugar cane. Cane fields have destroyed the natural saw-grass marsh over an area the size of Rhode Island. Every acre is irrigated and drained with a costly series of pumps, dams, dikes and canals. Tax dollars pay for it all.
Federal sugar programs keep domestic prices at least 50 percent above world market prices. Artificially high prices encourage sugar growing in what would otherwise be economically marginal swampland.
"Like Elvis or sex," Roberts writes, "sugar is everywhere and in everything - our economy and politics, our language and demographic makeup, our physiology and mass psychology, and, of course, our diet".
Roberts dates Florida's sugar boom to the Cuban revolution. Shortly after Fidel Castro came to power, the United States embargoed sugar, cigars and everything else made in Cuba. To replace lost imports, Florida's sugar-cane acreage jumped tenfold by the mid-1960s.
The biggest victim was the Everglades. The annual breeding population of elegant wood storks dropped from 20,000 in 1960 to 1,800 today. The endangered Cape Sable seaside sparrow population dwindled from tens of thousands to 3,500. Biologists say this vanishing bird shows the declining health of the Everglades.
The key reforms are reducing phosphorus runoff from cane fields and restoring natural water flows.
But sugar cane cash still has the upper hand with politicians from both parties. Consider these facts:
In 1992, the Fanjul family, with vast holdings in Florida and the Dominican Republic, began playing both sides of the political game.
Pepe Fanjul was vice chairman of the Bush-Quayle Finance Committee. Alfy Fanjul backed Clinton and Gore and hosted a $120,000 fund-raiser.
After Clinton won, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt came up with a plan to save the Everglades very similar to one created by Alfy Fanjul. Taxpayers got to pay more than half the $700 million it would cost to filter pollutants from water flowing to the Everglades.
In 1996, sugar interests spent $25 million in an advertising campaign to successfully counter an environmental campaign run by Save Our Everglades.
In 1998, sugar interests in Florida spent $26 million on state political efforts from winning referendums to electing Republican Jeb Bush as governor.
Between 1990 and 1998, sugar interests spent $13 million on presidential and congressional races.
Today, domestic producers sell sugar at 22 cents a pound. Producers in most other nations get 8 cents. America's artificial price prop adds $1.4 billion to the shopping bills of U.S. consumers each year.
People like the Fanjuls get the best of both worlds. Owning half of all sugar lands in the Dominican Republic, they raise sugar cheaply, import it, then sell at artificially high U.S. prices.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., calls the federal sugar subsidy program "one of the most invidious, inefficient, Byzantine, special-interest, Depression-era federal programs".
Vice President Al Gore's plan to restore the Everglades over 20 years would cost taxpayers $8 billion. His program is backed by several environmental groups. But, Roberts point out, Gore's bill does nothing to regulate or curtail the vast sugar fields that created the problem in the first place. And the Fanjuls keep raising money for the Democrats.
Maybe the obstacles are just too great. Unions back sugar because they fear thousands of jobs could go overseas. Politicians back sugar because they get paid so well. And, all the while, Americans are paying nearly three times too much for sugar.
Shireen I. Parsons