Sugar war pits farmers against candy-makers

Lobbyists for and against a federal sugar program are preparing for a bitter floor fight over the farm bill.  

Industries that use sugar in their products are sending lobbyists to Capitol Hill to brief aides on legislation that would reform price and trade protections for the domestic crop. 

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Sugar producers are countering with a massive ad blitz that takes aim at “Big Candy’s Greed.” 

Both sides in the subsidy debate say U.S. jobs — and the very survival of their industries — are at stake.

“We are not trying to put the [sugar] growers out of business. We are trying to have our own businesses survive,” said Liz Clark, the vice president of government affairs for the National Confectioners Association, which includes brands like Hershey, Mars Chocolate, Wrigley and Jelly Belly. 

Candy companies argue federal support for sugar is distorting the market and trade deals, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, while driving up prices. They plan to lobby for big policy changes in this year’s farm bill.

“The thinking is this year — with almost 100 new members in Congress — that there is an appetite for reform,” Clark said. “We are optimistic that we will get this done.”

The arguments against the protections don’t fly with U.S. sugar growers, who say their industry will crumble if federal supports are removed.

“Absent U.S. sugar policy, we would be essentially wiped out by foreign suppliers who are not necessarily more efficient than us but are much more heavily subsidized than us,” said Jack Roney, director of economics and policy analysis at the American Sugar Alliance. “We are on the ropes considering how low our prices have gone down.”

Last week, a coalition of U.S.-based sugar growers, processors and refiners ran several print ads in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and Beltway publications taking aim at what they call “Big Candy’s Greed.”

Roney said the group ran the ads because lawmakers are beginning to focus on drafting a new farm bill, which was not finished last Congress.

“We are going to see a repeat of what happened in 2012 since Congress couldn’t get a farm bill done last year,” Roney said. “This is a time of intense congressional interest in [agricultural] policy.” 

The sugar growers, made up of sugar cane and sugar beet farmers, are a powerful lobbying force, with friends in high places on Capitol Hill.

Lawmakers like Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), ranking member on the House Agriculture Committee, have fought to defend the sugar program in the past. 

But the candy-makers and their allies aren’t exactly slouches in the lobbying game. 

The confectioners’ trade group helps lead the Coalition for Sugar Reform, which includes groups like the American Bakers Association and the Sweetener Users Association. The group also includes big-name business lobbies like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and watchdogs like the Consumer Federation of America.

The coalition has thrown its weight behind the Sugar Reform Act. The legislation would lower price supports for sugar and give greater flexibility to quotas for sugar imports.

Clark led a congressional briefing with lawmakers’ staff this past Friday to discuss the Sugar Reform Act in hopes of building support for it.

Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Reps. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.), Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Danny Davis (D-Ill.) introduced the bill in their respective chambers. 

Andrew Wimer, a spokesman for Pitts, said the lawmaker is looking forward to including his legislation as part of the farm bill this year.

“We feel like the House as a whole would be supportive of reform of sugar policy. We look forward introducing the legislation as an amendment on the floor when the farm bill comes up,” Wilmer said. 

Shaheen similarly plans to introduce the Sugar Reform Act as an amendment to the farm bill when it’s on the Senate floor, according to Mark Gordon, a spokesman for Shaheen.

Shaheen offered the same bill as an amendment to the farm bill last year. Though it failed to pass, 46 senators voted in favor of it. 

The fight over agricultural policy could be coming soon to Washington. Once budgetary battles have been resolved, lawmakers are expected to move quickly to farm bill legislation.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, has indicated that she plans to mark up a new farm bill in April this year.

The House Agriculture Committee will be renewing its farm bill efforts in short order, according to a committee spokeswoman, noting that it’s soon to discuss a specific timeline but that sometime in the spring or early summer is possible for a markup.