Sugar industry challenges growing
Competition and low sugar prices putting pressure on local sugar growers
by Lynda Edwards
February 4, 2014
Louisianans may wonder why sugar prices are at record lows yet the price of popular candy bars continue to rise.
“Look on the back of a candy bar wrapper and you’ll see that not much sugar is actually used in the ingredients,” American Sugar Alliance policy director Jack Roney told a crowd of hundreds of sugar farmers, mill and refinery owners as well as their workers.
The Sugar Cane League summit was overflowing Tuesday as hundreds listened to speakers urge them to hang on for another year of bruisingly low prices and ferocious Brazilian and Mexican competition, not to mention artificial sweeteners. Roney also described how the state’s 483 sugar farms and 11 sugar mills produced 1.59 million tons of raw sugar in 2013 despite two snaps of freezing weather during harvest.
“It’s amazing you’re all sitting here, a miracle so many of you survived,” Roney said, suveying the standing-room-only audience.
“The long term future does look bright. There is excitement, even fright, over how sugar production will keep pace with consumption in the long term.”
One audience member described hearing a newscast Tuesday morning that mentioned a study showing that sugar caused heart attacks. But the newscaster launched into breaking news about Justin Bieber rather than discuss the study.
“By that time, I was ready to have a heart attack,” the man said and the crowd laughed.
Roney said he thought it would be more helpful if a study included all heart risks such as sodium intake, stress, lack of exercise and obesity rather than focus on a single food.
He later told the Daily Advertiser he sees the growing middle class in China and India as game changers. He said that consumer studies show that as African, South American and Asian “developing nations grow more affluent and people can afford a food as a treat, not just subsistence, they instinctively reach for sweets. They experience the pleasure of a luxurious treat with something sweet more than with a salty or savory snack.”
But America has lost half its sugar mills since the 1980s and B&T Farms’ Dale Berard from Breaux Bridge says equipment, fertilizer and fuel prices have so outstripped sugar’s profits, this could be the worst struggle he has faced in his career. Roney partly blames the North American Treaty Organization for allowing Mexico to own a fifth of its sugar sector while flooding the U.S. to compete with Louisiana product.
By the way Louisiana sugar cane farmers talked Tuesday, it’s clear they are not working for riches or easy dollars. Their crops are craved, loved, shunned and demonized worldwide. Through it all, they say they feel they are helping Louisiana’s economy as much as oil or rice.
Despite all obstacles, Berard’s daughter Kassi, a University of Louisiana at Lafayette graduate working for her master’s in business administration, said she enjoys helping her dad with his fields and attended the summit with him. Another summit attendee, Manuel Brito from Jeanerette, said he has put several children through college by working for the sugar cane industry. He is proud of his work and plans to stay in the industry as long as it exists in Louisiana.