About 350 growers, spouses and affiliated industry personnel gathered in Long Beach, Calif., on February 1-3 for the American Sugarbeet Growers Association’s 2015 annual meeting. While there was a slowdown still in effect at the nearby ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, it was “full speed ahead” for the ASGA agenda.
On these pages, we provide photos and message highlights of several invited speaker presentations, as well as a summary of Wyoming grower and ASGA President John Snyder’s closing remarks (page 11).
The 2016 ASGA annual meeting is scheduled for February 7-9 in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Serving with Snyder on the ASGA Executive Committee is Vice President Galen Lee of Idaho. Current chairmen and vice chairmen, respectively, of other ASGA committees are as follows:
The always-popular Jim Wiesemeyer, senior vice president at Informa Economics, returned again to the ASGA meeting to discuss the political and agricultural outlook for the coming year. Wiesemeyer’s wide-ranging presentation addressed U.S. and world economies; “wild cards” such as Russia, Iran, the U.S. budget and the debt limit; House, Senate, state and presidential elections; President Obama’s State of the Union address; energy topics like the Keystone Pipeline and the Renewable Fuels Standard; the possibility of significant tax reform; farm policy — both the current farm bill and next one; and trade, including TPA, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Cuba and the Mexico-U.S. sugar situation.
Wiesemeyer stressed that the U.S. is the “growth engine” for the global economy. With 60-70% of U.S. growth coming from consumer spending, sustaining strong consumer confidence is key to the sustainability of growth in annual gross domestic product.
Why is an effective safety net for agriculture still so important? Wiesemeyer ticked off several reasons, including the prospect of higher interest rates, a higher U.S. dollar’s effect on exports, the possibility of higher crop yields in 2015, lower prices (depending on carryover levels), and such barometers as land values and cash rents.
“We need some shared responsibility” between the two major parties in Washington, D.C., Wiesemeyer stated, adding that he actually was “a little more upbeat than I was a year ago” regarding the possibility of Republicans and Democrats cooperatively getting some substantive work done. “Sugar will be the least of peoples’ concerns” this fall, he suggested, given the large web of issues on lawmakers’ plates.
As of 2008, all restrictions on sugar trade between the U.S. and Mexico were eliminated under the terms of NAFTA. As of 2014, however, the two nations were caught up in a difficult trade dispute. At its center is the merging of two very different marketing systems. Craig Ruffolo, vice president of Oakland, Calif., market intelligence firm McKeany-Flavell, educated the ASGA audience on how the Mexican sugar market is structured and functions, as compared to the U.S. system, and how those differences have contributed to the problems existing as of 2014/15.
Not surprisingly, it comes down to “following the money.” While U.S. sugar producers have ready access to credit through banks, their Mexican counterparts are, on average, small-acreage growers who do not have such access and cannot finance their own crop inputs. Thus, the sugar mills must do so — which in turn complicates their own cash flow. The mills then often look to trade houses for a needed infusion of capital, sometimes cutting deals at price levels they normally would not entertain. Ultimately, that means their customers must prepay for sugar — a basic departure from how the U.S. seller-buyer system works.
The U.S. is a net sugar-importing country, Ruffolo reminded his audience, with actual import needs fluctuating somewhat from year to year, depending upon domestic beet and cane sugar output. While imports of Mexican sugar beyond their Tariff Rate Quota allocation alleviate the supply crunch, higher levels of imports also simultaneously pressure U.S. market prices — which ultimately led to the U.S. sugar industry’s antidumping and countervailing duty cases against Mexico, filed last year.
“Managed trade could help control U.S. market price volatility,” Ruffolo observed. The dilemma comes in being able to manage that trade in a way that is not particularly injurious to the sugar industries of either nation. Unless the lack of security in the Mexican sector (i.e., absence of ag loans to farmers or mill operators) is changed, it will be difficult to bring these two markets closer (integrated) without some form of a managed market, he concluded.
Bob Cassidy, sugar industry legal counsel with the Washington law firm Cassidy, Levy & Winton LLP, traced the timeline of the U.S. industry’s antidumping (AD) and countervailing duty (CVD) cases against Mexico, for which petitions were initially filed in March 2014. He updated the ASGA audience on developments since then, including the December announcement by the U.S. Department of Commerce that it had finalized agreements with the Mexican government and that nation’s sugar exporters to suspend AD and CVD investigations on U.S. imports of Mexican sugar. Two U.S. cane sugar refiners — Imperial Sugar and AmCane — requested the U.S. International Trade Commission to determine whether the AD and CVD suspension agreements completely eliminate the injurious effect of the dumped and subsidized imports. The agreements remain in effect during that review, with the ITC being required to make its decision by late March.
Barb Fecso is sugar program manager with the Sweeteners Analysis Staff of USDA’s Farm Service Agency. Her focus is administering the domestic sugar program, providing guidance in the formulation and implementation of national sugar policies and procedures, and working on economic and budgetary impact analysis of programs relating to sugar and honey.
Along with comments about the priorities and challenges of administering the sugar program, Fecso also spent some time discussing the antidumping and countervailing duty case with Mexico. “The only way the suspension agreement works is if there is [satisfactory] monitoring and compliance,” she noted.
Don Phillips, trade advisor for the American Sugar Alliance since 2002, spoke on “Trade Horizon: 2015.” Much of his presentation centered on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which he termed “the flagship trade agreement of the Obama Administration.” TPP is the only international trade negotiation likely to be completed this year, Phillips said. Twelve countries have participated in TPP negotiations, including the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Chile, Peru, Australia and New Zealand, as well as the Asian nations of Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. Its 22 chapters encompass a broad range of issues, including ag market access, textiles, intellectual property, labor and the environment.
Regarding sugar specifically, the biggest issue is market access insisted upon by Australia — the only major TPP exporter of sugar. Michael Froman, the U.S. Trade Representative, has signaled a need for some flexibility on that issue, but simultaneously indicates he is not inclined to undercut the U.S. sugar program in the process. The American Sugar Alliance is monitoring TPP very closely, Phillips said, noting that the Obama Administration would like to conclude negotiations by mid-year. Phillips also briefly updated his ASGA audience on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the proposed free trade agreement between the U.S. and the European Union. He termed TTIP as “highly controversial in the EU [but] not yet on the U.S. radar screen.” There are huge differences in agriculture and regulatory areas, he noted, with neither the U.S. nor EU sugar industries being favorable toward TTIP.
As to the interminable WTO, very little is likely to transpire in 2015, Phillips said, though the ASA will continue to monitor it.
Texan Larry Combest served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1985 to 2003 and was House Agriculture Committee chairman from 1999 to 2003. He now is a partner in the lobbying/consulting firm of Combest, Sell & Associates, one of whose clients is the American Sugar Alliance. Combest recapped the 2014 elections, noting that the big congressional gains by Republicans resulted in the lowest number of House seats being held by Democrats since 1928 — and, a tie for the lowest number of Democratic Senate seats during that same 86-year period.
In his comments on implications of the 2014 elections for rural America and the future of farm policy, Combest emphasized that it remains “vitally important” for ag groups to work on building coalitions. While he praised the sugar sector’s track record, not every segment of ag was equally focused on coalition development during the last farm bill, he said. “Nobody can do it better than the people you have working for you” in Washington, he told his audience. “You are to be commended for sugar’s effectiveness in D.C.”
“Redefining and Reclaiming the GM Conversation” was the topic of Karil Kochenderfer’s presentation at the 2015 ASGA annual meeting. Kochenderfer, principal in the Washington area-based consultancy firm LINKAGES, formerly led the Grocery Manufacturers of America’s national and international program on biotechnology for several years.
“We benefit from biotechnology in every aspect of our daily lives” — from medicine to textiles, from biofuels to foods, Kochenderfer emphasized. The consensus within the global scientific community, she added, is that “GMOs are as safe as their conventional counterparts.” Plus, their use contributes major benefits, such as reduced crop loss due to weeds and insects, reduced use of pesticides, lower greenhouse gas emissions, reduced nitrogen loadings to waterways — and enhanced product quantity and quality, coupled with enhanced producer “quality of life.”
However, Kochenderfer added, proponents of GMOs have fallen short in one key category: communications. Opponents have successfully convinced millions upon millions of people that GMOs are inherently harmful, despite what the science says, thus creating a climate of fear. She encouraged her ASGA listeners to become part of the “redefining and reclaiming” of the GM conversation. When speaking with fellow citizens, local media and other entities, acknowledge their concerns, but politely yet firmly “stand your ground,” Kochenderfer said.
Laura Rutherford and her husband, Roy, live and farm in northeastern North Dakota, producing sugarbeets, soybeans, dry beans and wheat. She has become a national spokesperson and blogger for the beet sugar industry on the safety of and need for biotechnology — especially as it relates to sugarbeet producers. Rutherford spoke to the ASGA audience on the topic “The Sweet Truth About Genetically Engineered Food.”
Following an overview of the history of plant breeding — from selective breeding through mutagenesis to genetic engineering — Rutherford outlined the regulatory process that genetically modified crops must go through, as well as the various scientific groups that support genetic engineering. She then turned to sugarbeets specifically, pointing out that extensive testing has shown that the sugar from Roundup Ready® beets is identical to that from conventional sugarbeets. “Consumers want safe, nutritious and affordable food,” she summarized, adding that “no credible evidence exists linking a food safety or health risk to the consumption of GE foods.”
Rutherford highlighted four major challenges for food production and emphasized the role of GE crops in meeting those challenges: (1) a fast-growing global population, (2) climate change, i.e., greenhouse gas emissions, (3) competition for water, and (4) limited land area and fewer farmers.
Rutherford encouraged those interested in scientific information on genetically engineered crops to visit the websites www.gmoanswers.com, www.academicsreview.org and www.cast-science.org. She also is on the Sugar Industry Biotech Council: www.sugarindustrybiotechcouncil.org.
David Shaw (Mississippi State University) and George Frisvold (University of Arizona) are not from sugarbeet states. But their presentation — titled “Resistance Weeds Are a ‘Wicked Problem’ ” — certainly resonated with their ASGA audience, given the sugarbeet industry’s obvious interest in glyphosate resistance. By “wicked,” Shaw and Frisvold were referencing problems that have no clearly definitive formulation or solution set, no clearcut “true/false” or “good/bad” answers. There are multiple potential, viable causes; plus, an intolerance for ineffective solutions.
The number of U.S. acres with glyphosate-resistant weed populations nearly doubled from 2010 to 2012, Frisvold noted. He characterized the herbicide resistance evolution as a biology problem, a technology problem — and, a human problem (i.e., human behavior). Understanding the socioeconomic dimensions of the problem and moving toward more systems-based solutions were two areas of exploration at the Herbicide Resistance Summit II, hosted by the Weed Science Society of America last September in Washington.
“You as the producer are at the center of the weed management community,” Shaw emphasized to his ASGA listeners, pointing out that farmers are the final decision makers. He encouraged producers to continually increase their understanding of resistance, to pay more attention to details (such as post-treatment monitoring, controlling escapes and post-harvest control when needed). Taking a more longterm view of operations is paramount, he added, i.e., developing multi-year, system-wide stewardship plans.
Commodity and farm organizations likewise have a very important role to play, Shaw and Frisvold emphasized. They encourage such groups to form strategic alliances across crops and across geographic regions to better influence on legislation and ag-related agencies. In the final analysis, the herbicide resistance problem “will only be managed through the combined efforts of all parties involved,” they stressed: growers, industry, universities, retailers, dealers, consultants, commodity groups, government, landowners and more.
A sugarbeet pilot project is actually being formulated to address this issue in a comprehensive manner. Developed under the auspices of ASGA (and with Frisvold and Shaw as members of the advisory group), the project will employ a community approach, exploring how to effectively engage, educate and change farmer behavior to embrace and implement best management practices (BMP) to delay the onset and/or progression of herbicide resistance in diverse sugarbeet production areas. The pilot is focusing on beet locales in Idaho, Minnesota and Michigan, working with groups of growers in a contiguous area. The goal is to develop and implement community strategies for preventing or mitigating the evolution of herbicide resistance. (Watch for discussion of this project in future issues of The Sugarbeet Grower.)
Andy Briscoe, president and CEO of The Sugar Association, Inc., brought along the football helmet that he keeps in his Washington, D.C., office. The reason? “This helmet reminds me of the need to always stay on the offense,” he informed his ASGA listeners.
The Sugar Association’s primary focus areas are, Briscoe noted: (1) the promotion of sugar; (2) accuracy in labeling to help consumers understand what is sweetening their foods or beverages, and (3) responding to the disparagement of sugar. Meeting those objectives involves a variety of programs in the arenas of science, public policy and public relations. “Basically, we’re talking about fighting back against the attacks on sugar,” Briscoe said.
Under The Sugar Association’s programmatic strategy “umbrella” fall activities such as monitoring all nutrition science directly and indirectly to sugar; consumer and health professional education; defending sugar in all federal nutrition policy and food labeling initiatives; dispelling myths about sugar; a proactive defense of sugar in the media; and, finally, sugar promotion via social marketing.
In the end, The Sugar Association’s key messages boil down to: (1) Sugar is all natural. (2) Sugar has just 15 calories per teaspoon. (3) Sugar is an important ingredient that has been used safely for more than 2,000 years. (4) Sugar is a sweetener you can actually pronounce, not a “chemical soup alphabet.”
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Editor & General Manager of The Sugarbeet Grower