Writer Michael Fumento investigates: "Big Sugar vs. the Alligators and Egrets."

January 01, 1997  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Economy

Poor Al Gore. Even when he correctly diagnoses a problem, he just can’t come up with a solution that doesn’t include Big Government — even when Big Government is the problem in the first place.

Case in point: the threat to one of the world’s most magnificent and important eco-systems, the Florida Everglades.

This threat is primarily from sugar farming, which uses up more and more of this precious land every year. Far worse, huge amounts — as much as 80 percent — of the phosphorous used in fertilizing sugar cane in Florida drains into the Everglades.

This sets off a chain reaction, stimulating growth among bacteria and algae and also fostering the growth of cattails which choke off the marshes, ruining nesting places and destroying animal food supplies. Thousands of acres have been overrun by these super cattails.

The farming has also dramatically reduced the flow of fresh water from Lake Okeechobee into the Everglades, again damaging the eco-system.

Gore’s solution to this is a tax-and-spend Democrat’s solution to all problems — raise taxes and spend them. Tax all sugar growers a penny a pound and spend the money to buy as much as 140,000 acres back from farmers to convert them back to marshlands. His explanation is that we already subsidize sugar 18 cents per pound, so really we’d just be cutting their subsidy.

Alas, the situation isn’t nearly that simple.

In fact, the government does not directly subsidize sugar. It does guarantee sugar farmers a minimum of 18 cents return per pound, but it never pays any of that out. Rather it enforces import restrictions to prop the price of sugar up. Sugar in this country currently wholesales for about 23 to 24 cents a pound, about twice the cost globally.

So what Gore is proposing isn’t holding back a bit on a subsidy, it’s just a tax, and one that will leave the import restrictions completely intact.

Yet it’s the import restrictions that are the real cause of the problem. By artificially inflating the production value of sugar, they encourage industry to grow far more crops than they otherwise would. In 1981, 334,000 acres of Everglades were used for sugar farming; today the number is about half a million acres.

Get rid of the protections and farming in the Everglades will plunge. If this puts sugar cropland back to its 1981 level, it will give us back 166,000 acres of wetlands — 26,000 more than the Gore proposal. It will also greatly reduce the price that Americans pay to prop up Big Sugar’s profits. In all, the sugar program is estimated to cost consumers $1.4 billion a year.

But what if this doesn’t go far enough in helping the Everglades? Then step two would be to levy a tax on the polluters themselves, the farms in the Everglades. Taxing beet farmers in Louisiana to pay for damage caused by cane farmers in Florida is hardly fair, nor does it accomplish the purpose of discouraging environmentally harmful farming.

"I hate Big Sugar!"

Actually, steps one and two will complement each other. That’s because by getting rid of the import restrictions, the price of sugar cane farmland in the Everglades will drop considerably. Far less tax money would be needed to buy up crop land and turn it back to the egrets, eagles, and alligators.

Big Sugar will scream that this is all terribly unfair. Competition? Why, it’s downright un-American! Further, 420,000 American jobs will be lost, they claim, as the American sugar industry folds. Actually, the USDA says that sugar farmers employ about 46,000 people nationwide, including perhaps 15,000 in Florida. In any case, the sugar industry would hardly fold and the government could use lowering our sugar import restrictions to pry open markets in other countries which would create American jobs.

Unfortunately, both the House and the Senate have just thrown away chances to reduce or eliminate Big Sugar’s protection. That may have something to do with all the sweet green stuff the industry spreads around. Together, the sugar cane, sugar beat and corn sweetener interests contributed almost $12 million to candidates for federal office from 1979 through 1994, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics.

But if the Clinton Administration wants to do the right thing, there’s still time to insist that the new farm legislation does so. If only it can get over its belief that Big Government is the solution to a problem that Big Government’s largesse to Big Sugar created in the first place.