Sugar reform effort voted down in Senate

by Ron Sterk
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WASHINGTON — In a vote of 54 to 45 the Senate voted down an amendment to the farm bill seeking to overhaul the U.S. sugar program late on May 22, meaning the sugar program will remain basically unchanged from its current form once a new farm bill is hammered out.

Referred to as the Shaheen amendment on the sugar program for its main sponsor, Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, the amendment had 18 other bipartisan co-sponsors. It sought changes to the program that Ms. Shaheen said was “the only program in the farm bill that hasn’t been reformed” in comments on the Senate floor just before the vote. The changes would have involved domestic supply restrictions and price support levels meant to affect supplies and prices. A similar amendment to the farm bill last year failed with 46 yes votes.

Ms. Shaheen, among others, earlier in the year proposed legislation to cut funds for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to purchases surplus sugar, and in February proposed stand-alone legislation similar to the amendment that was defeated May 22.

The Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry approved its version of the farm bill — the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2013 — on May 14, and the House Committee on Agriculture approved its version — the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013 — on May 15. The Senate began debate on its version of the bill on May 20, while the full House was expected to debate its version in June. It was hoped by members of both houses that final versions could be sent to conference committee and a compromise bill could be voted on before the August recess.

The current farm bill, the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008, expired Sept. 30, 2012, but was extended one year because a new bill could not be finalized last year when the Senate approved its version but the full House never voted on its version.

In the House version of the new farm bill, the only changes to the sugar program were dates, striking “the 2012 crop year” and inserting “each of the 2014 through 2018 crop years” in three references and simply replacing “2012” with “2018” in two other references. There were no changes to the substance of the program. The Senate version of the new bill also had no substantive changes to the sugar program, which in some aspects is unchanged from its 1938 inception.

Lobbying from sugar users and producers has been intense. Users claim the sugar program nearly doubles the price of sugar to U.S. consumers and has resulted in lost jobs as some candy manufacturers have moved operations to other countries or gone out of business. Producers claim the program has resulted in more stable sugar supplies, provides a safety net for growers and that world prices are often lower because of subsidies in origin countries, which would put U.S. growers at a disadvantage should import restrictions be lifted.

Current cash bulk refined sugar prices in the United States are around 27c a lb, slightly above five-year lows due to surplus supplies this year both domestically and globally. Current nearby world raw sugar futures prices in New York are around 17c a lb, compared with domestic raw sugar futures prices around 20c a lb.

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