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The Lethal Costs of Big Sugar

Sweet Poison

by ALAN FARAGO

“Drastic Measures”, in the Financial Times (April 25, 2014) details a dramatic shift in health care priorities and the effect of putting the first significant, coordinated pressure on sugar consumption: ”… governments are waking up to the rising costs of illnesses such as diabetes and cancer that have increased alongside obesity. ‘The discussion of sugar linked to dietary concerns has been has been gathering momentum,’ says Stefano Natella of Credit Suisse. “The related global healthcare costs are at an all-time high–the bill is $500 billion or over 10 percent of global healthcare spending — as are obesity and diabetes levels.”

The way that smoking leads to tobacco farmers, the path to the current health care crisis begins with sugar producers. In the United States, the obesity and diabetes epidemic point to Florida where sugar billionaires tied massive subsidies in the Farm Bill to subsidies for corn fructose. When earlier this year the World Health Organization reduced the recommended daily sugar intake by half, to the equivalent of six teaspoons of sugar a day, billionaire sugar barons in West Palm Beach and Coral Gables paid closest attention. Florida sugar producers have a global reach — with operations proliferating in low-cost labor nations like the Dominican Republic, but their intense focus is the Florida proving ground where a sophisticated mobilization of economic, social, and political resources maintains the aura of Big Sugar as good corporate citizen.

Big Sugar is quick to repel environmental and community indignation in Florida — as well as decades of lawsuits over its pollution of the Everglades — , but it hasn’t decided what direction to take with respect to emerging science on the crisis triggered by its products.  While Republican members of Congress rant and rave about the costs of the Affordable Health Care Act, none complain about the toll on consumers’ health through excess consumption of sugar.  Thirty years ago, 1 in 20 kids were obese. Today, it’s 1 in 5.

The Institute for Responsible Nutrition notes that 77% of grocery store items contain added sugar; “Food companies know that the more sugar they add, the more people buy.”  In Great Britain, policy makers are considering a sugar tax. In Florida during the first Clinton term, when Big Sugar faced a tax that would have forced the industry to pay for polluting the Everglades, it enlisted among its chief supporters the churches and leaders in the African American communities of Florida, appealing to minorities disproportionately bearing its high costs.

A recent investigative series by the Tampa Bay Times disclosed that Florida’s top GOP politicians, including Gov. Rick Scott and senior Republican legislators, were flown to all-expenses paid hunting trips to the King Ranch in Texas by U.S. Sugar. Through its Florida subsidiary, the King Ranch is a major sugar and citrus producer and bridges sharply contested water policies in both states: in Texas, where water rights go with land title and in Florida, where the public commons are supervised by the state’s nine water management districts, each administered through a board of gubernatorial appointees.

Florida’s top Republicans attempted to reassure the public that no state business with their hosts was discussed, but it is impossible to dispel the myriad ways that Big Sugar freely undermines the ideals of its base; a heavily subsidized industry that dedicates a portion of its profits to control state and federal regulations that might otherwise protect Americans and the fading Everglades.

Daniel Ruth, for the Tampa Bay Times, opined, “It’s merely an idea, but perhaps the oath of office for our state’s elected panhandlers should be rewritten to read: “I do solemnly swear that I will support, protect and defend the sugar industry interests of the state of Florida; that I am duly compromised to hold office under the legalized bribes of various vested interests in this state, and I will well and faithfully perform the duties of a compliant shill and will to the best of my abilities follow the hunting laws of the great state of Texas for which I am about to board an airplane for an all-expense-paid trip by agricultural lobbyists to butcher unsuspecting critters, so help me (a lot!) the Republican Party of Florida.” (Visions of sugar dance in legislators’ heads, August 20, 2014)

Big Sugar reacted with predictable indignation to the outrage triggered by the Tampa Bay Times disclosures. Florida House Agricultural Chair, Matt Caldwell, wrote in the Fort Myers News Press: “Unfortunately, for much of the last 30 years, an all-consuming obsession with sugar farmers prevailed in Lee County government. As statewide policy makers looked for solutions to heal the Everglades and our estuaries, the inability to see past this obsession meant we stopped getting invited to the table… If we want to continue to have that seat, we must enable constructive leaders, not destructive naysayers. The old politics of division will not solve our woes.”

It is not just the GOP. Democrats are also loathe to tie the costs of Big Sugar to the domestic health care emergency because of the enormous impact of campaign contributions to members of Congress and state legislatures where sugar is grown. According to the website of the Center For Responsive Politics, “sugar is the only industry in the entire agribusiness sector that has consistently supported Democrats in the last two decades.” When Michele Obama tried to move her popular “Get Moving” campaign towards the sugar problem, she was warned off by White House policy makers.

The only surprise in extravagant largesse parceled by Big Sugar to its political allies is that it is ever discovered at all.

Although the entire nation is afflicted by the “corporations are people” results of Citizens United — blowing the doors off campaign finance rules — Florida is a special case. “How-low-can-we-go” is the Florida meme, and it is linked to producing as much sugar as possible on hundreds of thousands of acres that were historically part of the Everglades.

In 1996, Florida voters approved a Constitutional amendment holding sugar polluters to be responsible for cleaning up their farm runoff, laden with excess phosphorous. In the last session of the Florida legislature — nearly twenty years after the measure had been passed, Florida Republicans decided to side-step public outrage by proposing a measure to clean their farm runoff by capping and then reducing the tax sugar polluters pay at $25 per acre; a fraction of what the polluters should be paying for its share of destruction of the Everglades. The 1996 amendment instructs that Big Sugar is primarily responsible; interpreted by some that sugar should pay fifty plus one percent of cleanup costs associated with its mess.

“Those special taxes since 1995 have raised enough to equate to about 12 percent of the nearly $2 billion spent building 57,000 acres of stormwater treatment areas, which filter polluting phosphorus from stormwater runoff.”  (Sugar industry accused of dodging Everglades clean-up costs, Sun Sentinel, June 15, 2014) 12 is a long way from 51 percent.

For Big Sugar, it is always someone else’s fault: dairy and cattle ranches upstream or municipalities and coastal sprawl spreading inland from the coasts. Except for Big Sugar’s intransigence, there would be land enough to cleanse and store the millions of acre feet of water that are periodically pulsing into the Everglades and estuaries; fouling both. Florida’s waters are such a mess one wonders if God hasn’t reached down in exasperation of paradise lost and with His Thumb smudged out the value of homes and real estate values because of water pollution.  As though that weren’t enough, toxic algae blooms —  even flesh-eating bacteria — are proliferating in waterways contaminated by agricultural runoff. Sugar’s response; you can’t prove it has anything to do with us. The entire governmental investment for Everglades restoration, spending billions of taxpayer moneys and hundreds of thousands of agency hours in the multi-decadal effort, is a work-around of Big Sugar.

Last June, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law the latest work-around: “Instead of increasing the $25-per-acre charge on sugar-cane and other growers as environmental groups had long sought, lawmakers last year opted to maintain the current charges through 2026 — 10 years beyond when the tax was set to start declining. After 2026, the tax begins to decline, eventually dropping to $10 per acre.”

Gaston Cantens, Vice President of Florida Crystals, crowed, ”For two decades, the Florida sugar industry has worked together with policymakers, environmental advocates, and other stakeholders in the best interest of Florida … This agreement is a continuation of that successful collaboration and spirit of cooperation we know will get the job done for restoration.”

Representative Matt Caldwell walked point for Big Sugar on the bill. ”A few months later, Caldwell’s re-election campaign received $4,750 from U.S. Sugar and $500 from King Ranch. Soon after, Caldwell registered for his first ever Texas hunting license.” Caldwell would not answer any follow up questions. (Why won’t FL GOP leaders talk about hunting trips to King Ranch in Texas?, Tampa Bay Times, July 25 2014)

Last year, Gov. Rick Scott appointed a top executive from the King Ranch subsidiary to the governing board of the water management district, the taxing entity that is shouldering most of the state’s portion of costs related to Everglades restoration.

Cynical industry manipulation of public processes, with billionaires at their campaign contribution joysticks has crippled government agencies, forcing Congress through the Farm Bill and state legislatures through lax regulations to keep intact sugar’s protected status. In June 2013, George Will, the conservative columnist, bemoaned in the Washington Post, “The provisions by which Washington transfers wealth from 316 million American consumers to a few thousand sugar producers are part of a “temporary” commodity support program created during the Great Depression. Not even the New Deal could prolong the Depression forever. It ended. But sugar protectionism is forever. The Senate recently voted 54 to 45 against even mild reforms of the baroque architecture of protections for producers of sugar cane and sugar beets.”

So why haven’t environmentalists decried Big Sugar as the same kind of destroyer as Big Tobacco? Environmentalists are hunkered in their silos, hoping for some opening in the iron curtain drawn over the Everglades and Florida politics by Big Sugar. They ought to join forces with public health experts to provide a clear accounting:  to the multi-billion dollar costs of cleansing farm runoff in Florida, add the recruitment through farming practices of the most toxic substance known to mankind: methyl-mercury, then add the potentially lethal use of one of America’s largest fresh water sources, Lake Okeechobee, as Big Sugar’s reservoir, plus the unsustainable practice of exhausting the soil through its farming practices; these are still dwarfed by the public health costs of excess sugar.

“Sugar has become the new tobacco,” says Simon Capewell, professor of clinical epidemiology at Liverpool University, one of the founders of Action on Sugar, a UK campaign group formed in January. “Everywhere, sugary drinks and junk foods are pressed on unsuspecting parents and children by a cynical industry focused on profit not health.”

It is time for environmentalists and taxpayers to embrace the one tactic that hasn’t been tried — teaming up with health care professionals and experts fighting the costs associated with excess sugar consumption. Dr. Robert Lustig’s video, “Sugar: The Bitter Truth”, has been viewed on YouTube nearly 5 million times. The public is ready for a very clear message: sugar poisons democracy, poisons the Everglades, and poisons people.

Alan Farago is president of Friends of the Everglades and can be reached at afarago@bellsouth.net