Rubio, Bush and the coming war on Big Sugar

It’s time for another story on government farm subsidies and their intersection with presidential politics. But for the first time in a long time we’re not talking about ethanol. Today the topic shifts from King Corn to Big Sugar. There has been a less reported push for some time now to roll back the huge government subsidies and favoritism shown to the sugar lobby since before most of you reading this were born. Club for Growth, Heritage, and prominent members of Congress who oppose subsidies have been trying to crack this egg for a while now with essentially no success. But as the Washington Post reports, a new and rather unexpected player has entered the fight against Big Sugar… and it’s King Corn himself.

For decades, it’s been an unspoken rule among Washington’s agricultural lobbyists: advocates for one crop do not attack other crops, so that everyone’s benefits can be protected.

But a leading member of the traditionally united community plans to do just that: the Corn Refiners Association is about to invest heavily in an effort to unwind the lucrative breaks afforded to sugar, which are among the most generous in U.S. agriculture.

The Corn Refiners, representing companies that produce high-fructose corn syrup, just hired 10 outside lobbyists for an aggressive, unorthodox attack on the federal sugar program just a year after a new farm bill was signed into law. Their first target is the agriculture appropriations bill, now moving through a House committee…

While other crop subsidies have withered, Washington’s taste for sugar has been constant. The sugar program, which has existed in various forms since the 1930s, uses an elaborate system of import quotas, price floors and taxpayer-backed loans to prop up domestic growers, which number fewer than 4,500.

It may sound rather odd to see one heavily subsidized farm industry going after another one, but there’s not much of a mystery here. Aside from being served on the cob or being forced into your gas tank, another huge use for corn is the production of high fructose corn syrup, (HFCS) which has long – and successfully – sought to replace sugar in food products. But in recent years there has been an organized effort, particularly on the Left, to warn people of the health risks of HFCS. This has been particularly effective in their battle to stop people from drinking so much soda, most of which uses it instead of real sugar. The manufacturers have been listening, and companies like Coke and Pepsi have already been experimenting with going back to real sugar.

With that in mind, King Corn clearly feels that it’s time to hit Big Sugar where it hurts most… in the wallet. But enlisting Washington in the fight is going to be difficult because of the massive influence of the sugar lobby. (Which also explains their long time success in keeping the hands of reformers off of their subsidies.) And if you’re fighting Big Sugar, you are fighting the family of Alfy and Pepe Fanjul, the people who control a shocking percentage of the world sugar market and head up companies like Domino and Florida Crystals. They are the third largest company in Florida and have interest in other areas such as the sugar beet farms of the Midwest. They are huge power players who have the support of well rewarded politicians in both parties. (This includes Al Franken, by the way.) They’ve also been the targets of accusations of all sorts of bad behavior up to and including running a modern day slave ring.

In terms of GOP politics, both Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio are long time supporters of Big Sugar, and small wonder. The usual line from the lobby is that their corporate welfare is vital to jobs in Florida and to keep their sweet products affordable. (Rather ironic, since the government helps them limit supplies and establish a price floor.)

The new legislation mentioned in the WaPo article is going to turn into a bone of contention on the campaign trail, and conservatives will be forced to take a stand on corporate welfare and subsidies in general. Is anybody powerful enough to crack the wall of Big Sugar? I wouldn’t bet on it, but then I’m something of a pessimist by nature.