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Eating U.S. Sugar

Posted on June 25 2008

It’s the kind of fait accompli that most environmentalists believed would be necessary to break the money lines keeping “Big Sugar” in the business of destroying the Everglades, and yesterday it happened, in the form of a tentative agreement for the buyout of U.S. Sugar Corp. For decades federal subsidies have financed the lobbying efforts of U.S. sugar growers to argue against cleaner water and Everglades restoration. The subsidies, in the form of complicated price guarantees and import restrictions which have ended up costing U.S. consumers almost $2 billion annually, began with a political motivation — the initiation of the Cuban sugar embargo — and seem to be ending with one: Florida Republican governor and whispered VP candidate Charlie Christ declared the agreement “as monumental as the creation of our nation’s first national park, Yellowstone.” Truth be told, Mr. Governor, Yellowstone Park wasn’t an environmental disaster recovery effort.
The real story is that foreign competition finally ate the sugar growers’ lunch. No amount of price support could adjust for the twenty year decline in sugar prices started when Brazil and Thailand ramped up production. And increasing local efforts to get Big Sugar to clean up its act by filtering waste water further reduced the cash flowing into owners’ pockets. The fact is that U.S. Sugar wouldn’t have lasted, but it’s longer, slower shut down would have meant decades more of environmentally abusive operation.
300,000 acres of Florida land will still be under the stranglehold of subsidized sugar after U.S. Sugar is shut down in seven years. Flo-Sun, the company owned by the Cuban-American Fanjul family, controls 180,000 of those acres, and they are known for effectively playing both sides of the political game.
I think that it was more than political expediency that caused Governor Christ to announce the deal only days after publicly changing his mind on support for offshore drilling. It was the realization that it would be much cheaper for Florida to eliminate the primary cause of Everglades pollution than it would be to continue the failed effort to achieve the goals of the Everglades Restoration project started in 2000. Why it took so long to come to that conclusion is anyone’s guess.
Related stories:
The New York Times (Be sure to take a look at the map of sugar-growing lands, which act as a lid on the waters of Lake Okeechobee, water that historically flowed south to the Everglades and eventually Florida Bay.)
The Associated Press

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