U.S. Sugar Program Costs Another $1.75 Billion

The state of Florida announced yesterday that it will pay $1.75 billion to buy out the nation’s largest sugar producer and 300 square miles of land it owns north of the environmentally sensitive Florida Everglades. Although most news stories ignored the connection, the deal is yet another cost Americans continue to pay for our misguided agricultural programs.

The company selling the land, United States Sugar, has for decades benefited from a federal program that guarantees a minimum price for United States Sugar’s crop through a system of loan guarantees and strict import quotas. This means American families and sugar-consuming industries are typically paying two to three times the world price for sugar.

The sugar program also imposes damage on the environment, which motivated yesterday’s announcement. Like other farm programs, the sugar program encourages over-production. In the case of United States Sugar, that means the extraction of fresh water that would otherwise flow naturally into the Everglades, and the over-application of fertilizers that artificially raise the phosphorous content of the runoff, causing a sharp decline in periphyton, such as algae, that supports bird and other animal life in the Everglades. [For more about the environmental damage caused by U.S. farm programs, see my 2005 article published by the Property and Environment Research Center.]

In large part because of the damage caused by subsidized domestic sugar producers, Congress allocated $8 billion in 2000 for cleaning up the Everglades. Florida’s purchase of United States Sugar was just the latest installment in an ongoing clean-up operation.

Of course, Congress could have avoided much of this mess years ago by repealing the sugar program. If Americans had been free to buy sugar at world prices, our domestic sugar industry would have been smaller and more efficient with a much smaller environmental footprint. Converting the sugar-cane fields to more environmentally friendly uses would have been much less expensive because the annual subsidies would not have been capitalized into the value of the land.

When the Democrats took power in Congress in 2007, they pledged themselves to be in favor of reform, fiscal responsibility, and protection of the environment. Yet the new farm bill that Democrats voting overwhelmingly in favor of last month, and that their likely presidential candidate Barack Obama endorsed, strikes out on all three counts.