There are things that raise eyebrows in the public health community.
One of those things is when the sugar industry is happy.
While they’ve had a lot to smile about lately—including the delay of an FDA rule requiring added sugar to be listed on packaged food nutrition labels—most recently, it’s President Trump’s trade talks with Mexico.
The preliminary agreement struck between the US and Mexico last month, seen as a prelude to NAFTA renegotiations, effectively reduces the amount of refined sugar Mexico can export to the United States, allowing US refineries to remain competitive. In return, Mexico has the option to supply any excess demand for refined sugar in US markets. (Refined sugar is the white, granulated stuff most of us know as sugar; it’s made from raw sugar harvested from sugarcane or beets.)
The US has long had import quotas and other mechanisms securing price guarantees for refined sugar, but producers argued that these were undermined when Mexico was allowed unrestricted access to the American market in 2008 through what was called a loophole in NAFTA—leading to the dumping of subsidized refined sugar into the US market. Following claims of unfair trading practices filed by American producers in 2014, Mexico agreed to limit the price and volume of its sugar exports, but US sugar producers still felt trade laws had been violated. Had the US and Mexico not reached an accord last month, Mexican companies may have been subject to financial penalty as a result.
I’m not here to comb through the finer points of these negotiations, because I’m not qualified to do so. Nor will I propose that we ban sugar and hope the industry folds, because I plan on having ice cream this weekend. As long as Americans produce, process, and consume sugar, we will need to negotiate trade in sugar.
That said, I’m concerned by this banner emblazoned this week on the home page of the American Sugar Alliance, which represents sugar producers and refiners.
Let’s talk about money and corporate influence.
Of course, it’s misleading to suggest there was no sugar deal for many years. As Daniel Pearson, chairman of the U.S. International Trade Commission under former president George W. Bush, noted, “Prior to 2008 and after 2014, it was a very tightly controlled market.”
But that aside, I’d like to focus on the power and political influence of the sugar industry. The mission of the American Sugar Alliance, per their website, is to “ensure that sugar farmers and workers in the US sugar industry survive in a world of heavily subsidized sugar.” To aid in their quest for survival, they’ve managed to pull enough quarters out of the couch to spend no less than $2.17 million annually on lobbying between 2013 and 2016. These expenditures are second only to those of American Crystal Sugar, whose total spending topped $3.24 million in 2016. These two groups claim the number one and two spots for highest lobbying expenditures in the category of “crop production and basic processing,” which includes sugar, fruit, vegetables, cotton, grains, soybean, honey, rice, and peanuts.
In the case of this particular deal, a spotlight also shines on the cozy relationship between billionaire Wilbur Ross, Trump’s commerce secretary, and Jose Fanjul, longtime Republican donor and part owner of a sugar and real estate conglomerate that includes the Domino Sugar and Florida Crystals brands. Though the two have never conducted official business together, they’ve run in the same social circles for years and have frequently been guests in each other’s homes. (Hilary Geary Ross describes their “gloriously perfect” vacation in the Dominican Republic here.) At a July fundraiser for then-candidate Trump in Mr. Ross’s Long Island home, Mr. Fanjul took a seat on the exclusive “host committee.” It was later reported that he made donations to the Republican party and the Trump campaign in amounts of $94,600 and $5,400, respectively.
To be clear: I’m not claiming that the sugar industry and its kingpins are the only ones with deep pockets, that they are solely responsible for the outcomes of the trade deal between US and Mexico, or even that this is an inherently disastrous agreement. Nor do I believe that our government agencies are solely a vehicle for the interests of big business; on the contrary, I’m inclined to believe that most federal employees and political appointees lead and serve with integrity.
But we now have a president who has demonstrated an unyielding interest in dismantling and renegotiating fundamental food and agriculture policy—trade and otherwise—with enormous financial implications for some of the biggest and most powerful players in our food system, and we need to pay attention. We’re talking about an industry that has manipulated and influenced nutrition research for over fifty years to shift the onus of disease from sugar to fat. Not to mention agribusiness, which boasts lobbying expenditures on par with defense—totaling over $2 trillion over the last 20 years. These industries are deeply invested in making sure these policies work in their favor, and where there’s a will, a whole lot of capital, and a few friends in high places, it isn’t far-fetched to imagine that there is a way.
Undue industry influence on President Trump’s policy agenda will almost certainly allow the corporate consolidation of our food system to continue to snowball, and in doing so, will move us further than ever from achieving an equitable, sustainable, and health-promoting food system. History has provided us with too many examples of the self-interest of sugar, Big Ag and the food industry to believe otherwise.
We all lose when industry drives policy.
It will not improve the health or wellbeing of our children.
It will not contribute to our communities, our farms, or our local economy.
And it can go unchecked without the awareness and intentional engagement of those of us who stand to lose the most. This sugar deal is done, but there are other battles to fight. At UCS, we’ll continue in our efforts to stand up for science and the public good, from defending climate science and clean air protections at the EPA to fighting the nomination of a USDA Chief Scientist with no scientific background. Because if corporate interests and anti-science ideology drive public policies, we all lose.