ASGA Executive Vice President Outlines Priority Areas for the Coming Year
The Agricultural Act of 2014 was signed into law by President Obama on February 7, bringing to conclusion the overdrawn, exhaustive process that actually began back in 2010 with the first U.S. House Agricultural Committee hearings. Fittingly, the American Sugarbeet Growers Association Board of Directors was gathered in Tampa, Fla., on that signing day, in advance of the ASGA annual meeting, and as a group viewed the signing live on C-Span.
So how long will ASGA sit back and relax now that the new farm bill has been signed into law? A more-accurate phrasing of that question would be: How long did ASGA sit back and relax? The answer: about one week. As ASGA members mingled in Tampa during their 2014 annual meeting, appointments were already being made to meet with members of Congress and their staffs. Association leaders were back in D.C. in mid-February, thanking House and Senate members for their support of sugar in the new farm bill and simultaneously working to ensure none of the sugar provisions would be jeopardized during the appropriations phase.
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That’s one of ASGA’s main priorities in 2014, noted Luther Markwart, the group’s executive vice president, in his closing remarks to association members on February 11. While there’s always a plethora of challenges facing the sugar sector, Markwart focused on five priority areas on the association’s agenda for the coming year:
• Addressing the Mexico Import Problem —
The unrestricted exports of sugar from Mexico into the United States have been a major reason for the past year’s dramatically lower sugar prices, Markwart pointed out. “Clearly, that is the source of many of the challenges we face going forward,” he stated. “We’ve been working, we are working — and we’re going to continue to work as fast as we can to address and fix that problem.”
• Defending Sugar Provisions of the Farm Bill —
Though sugar came out of the farm bill process in good shape, threats remain. “As the appropriations bills move forward, we have to guard against attacks during that process,” Markwart emphasized. “So our job is to go back to members [of Congress] and say, ‘Thank you, thank you. And now that we have a farm bill, if anybody tries to mess with it, say no. Vote against that.’ ”
Another message to Congress, Markwart added, concerns the past year’s sugar market collapse. When sugar prices were higher, he pointed out, “our opposition was saying, ‘We’re getting killed out here. Sugar prices are more than 70% higher than they used to be. We need some relief. Change the sugar policy!’
“But then, without changing anything in the policy, the price of sugar collapsed by more than 50%,” Markwart noted.
“So we have to re-educate those members [of Congress] and say, ‘What you've been hearing from our customers is no longer true. The price has collapsed — and those prices are at levels [similar] to the mid-1980s.’ ”
It is true, Markwart said, that the sugar policy has incurred some cost after more than a decade of operating at no cost to the federal treasury. “But who’s to blame? Mexico. Because of what Mexico has done and because this market has collapsed, our farmers are struggling and our customers are doing great. That’s the simple message we need to send.”
Though the ink is still drying on the 2014 farm bill, ASGA is already looking ahead to 2018. “You don’t start educating members of Congress a year out from the farm bill,” Markwart emphasized. “This industry has the reputation of being the best of any commodity group because we do this every year.” He reminded his ASGA audience that support of their political action committees is “absolutely critical” in this process.
‘You don’t start educating members of Congress a year out
from the farm bill. This industry has the reputation of being the
best of any commodity group because we do this every year.’
• International Trade —
More than a quarter of the sugar consumed within the United States already comes from foreign sources, Markwart pointed out — with over half of that arriving from Mexico. “We are the largest importer of sugar in the world,” he said. “But we can’t take on the subsidies of other countries. We have to minimize the access of additional sugar under proposed trade agreements.”
The Doha Round of the World Trade Organization (WTO) began back in 2001. The WTO is all about market access, reducing domestic supports. “Only in the context of WTO can reductions in domestic farm programs be forced and export subsidies be eliminated,” Markwart said. While the WTO needs to be continually monitored, the ASGA leader does not foresee significant movement on the WTO front during the coming year.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is of more-immediate concern, as some of its member nations (e.g., Australia) are large exporters of sugar. The wide-ranging TPP negotiations, which have been going on for several years, have included expansion of the sugar exports to the United States. The domestic sugar industry has met with current and previous U.S. Trade Representatives and their negotiators, “and they understand how sensitive this issue (granting more access to the U.S. market) is to us,” Markwart said.
Also, “this agreement with 12 countries is only a footprint,” he added. “They want to get this agreement done; and once it’s done, you’ll begin to add more countries, like Thailand and China. So this agreement is critically important simply because of its size and because countries like Australia and Thailand are big players in it.” Though TPP negotiations are scheduled to conclude sometime in 2014, that timeline may well be on hold since Congress has not yet granted fast track authority to the Obama Administration.
• Crop Insurance —
There’s not much on the ASGA plate in terms of crop insurance during 2014. One notable item, Markwart reported, is “we want to move those final planting dates back by 10 days so that we’re able to plant a little later and not be
penalized by loss of coverage.”
• Biotech Labeling —
The Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act was introduced in Congress in April 2013 and has since triggered intense lobbying by both proponents and opponents. It would require labeling of all genetically engineered foods at the federal level.
The Coalition for Safe Affordable Food, of which the American Sugarbeet Growers Association is a member, has since come out with proposed amending of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act in regard to biotechnology. Of the five main amendment areas, probably the most important, Markwart noted, calls for a federal pre-emption over state or local labeling laws.
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Editor & General Manager of The Sugarbeet Grower