Congress should repeal sugar program

Just days after Congress passed a $956 billion farm bill with rubberstamp extension on its generous subsidies to sugar growers, we learn sugar consumption increases risk of cardiovascular death by 30 percent. Our sugar-infused diet is slowly killing us.

The farm bill’s only policy language in Section 1301, known popularly as the Sugar Program, is “Continuation of current program and loan rate.” The sole changes are revising subsidy payments up by five years, the duration of the legislation. The misguided objective and equally misguided support structure of the sugar program are unchanged despite the overwhelming medical evidence sugar is unhealthy at any “loan rate.”

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Congress’ lavish sugar subsidies cause growers to overproduce sugar cane, sugar beets, and corn, from which high fructose corn syrup is derived, and to push processed sugar as an ingredient, “added sugar,” in everything from infant formula to processed vegetables to yogurt to processed fruit juices and soft drinks. Result is record levels of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other chronic ailments. American Heart Association guidelines suggest consumers limit added sugar consumption to 5 percent, or less, daily.

While sugar appears naturally in fruits, unnatural processed sugar appears throughout the processed food chain for hundreds of products because the Florida-based U.S. Sugar, long ago, sold food processors on the myth consumers prefer sweetened foods. Not all food processors are now listening to this discredited argument and food labels with “No Added Sugar,” which give consumers valuable dietary information, can be found on retail store shelves.

Sugar subsidies have, for decades, posed economic and trade problems for Washington. Congress grants U.S. Sugar a monopoly market by imposing prohibitive tariffs on sugar–producing nations so low cost producers are denied U.S. market entry. Mexico, as a result of NAFTA, has unrestricted market access for it sugar yet Washington protects domestic sugar producers from lower prices.

Washington also manipulates and limits market access from other sugar producers under World Trade Organization requirements to protect domestic sugar. Congresses' market protection for U.S. sugar producers is excessive and unparalleled in its defiance of fundamental free market trade commitments to world suppliers. 

As trade disputes over sugar reached Capitol Hill, U.S. Sugar has fought for special industry status to justify continued government protection and excessive production subsidies to growers. It would be folly for Congress to designate sugar with such a protected status.    

City initiatives, like those in New York and San Francisco, to reduce sugar consumption through higher taxes on sugared foods and beverages is an important message for Congress that says cities are taking leadership in the fight against unhealthy sugar policy even as Congress ignores the matter and refers to such initiatives as “Nanny state” interference.

“Nanny state” measures to reduce sugar consumption are working and sugar consumption has fallen in recent years by as much as 25 percent. Market leader Coca Cola will soon, I predict, alter its much guarded formula to move away from processed sugar to a healthier ingredient.       

Congress rubberstamped the tobacco section of many farm bills for decades to the health detriment of millions of people. Now, the Food and Drug Administration regulates tobacco. The FDA should regulate sugar as well. They should do so now and not wait five years for new farm legislation. Congress to repeal the sugar program from the farm bill. 

Patterson, longtime Washington diplomat and agricultural economist, is a San Francisco-based food policy writer and speaker.

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