In Show of Big Sugar’s Influence, Price Supports Continued in Farm Bill

With $72,250 in campaign contributions, Sen. Bill Nelson is sweet on Big Sugar. (Photo: Flickr.)

By Trevor Aaronson
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

This year’s farm bills in the U.S. House and Senate will cut back on many of the subsidies for the nation’s agriculture industry. But the price supports that benefit the domestic sugar industry won’t be affected, demonstrating just how powerful Big Sugar is on Capitol Hill.

During debate Wednesday, Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Patrick Toomey, R-Penn., sponsored an amendment that would have have limited sugar price supports that result in higher food costs. Their colleagues in the U.S. Senate rejected the measure 45-54.

Big Sugar can thank its many friends in Washington, D.C., for that vote. According to an analysis by political money tracker MapLight, members of the U.S. Senate received $637,830 from the sugar industry from  Jan. 1, 2011, to Dec. 31, 2012. U.S. House members took in nearly $3.2 million from Big Sugar during that time. The biggest benefactor of Big Sugar’s political money is Florida’s senior senator, Democrat Bill Nelson, who received $72,250 from the industry, according to MapLight.

Continued price supports will benefit Florida’s $1.3 billion sugar industry, which is tucked into the off-the-beaten-path Everglades Agricultural Area. But those price supports won’t benefit you. In her September 2012 story for the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, reporter Amy Green explained how price supports inflate the cost of sugar by as much as 41.5 percent. These sugar price supports squeeze your wallet every time you buy groceries.

As Green reported:

Behind every candy bar and can of soda is a complex government program of import tariffs and farmer loans establishing the price of sugar. The program, which has been in place in one form or another since shortly after the founding of the United States, is responsible for the success of Florida’s $1.3 billion sugar industry, the nation’s largest producer of sugar cane.

That success, according to government and independent studies, comes at a cost to consumers every time they shop at grocery stores. The studies, including a report by the Government Accountability Office, conclude the sugar program inflates the U.S. price of sugar, costing consumers about $2 billion annually in increased food prices.

Following the vote Wednesday to maintain the price supports, Sen. Toomey, whose home state of Pennsylvania is home to chocolate producer and wholesale sugar buyer Hershey’s, told Politico: “We subsidize a handful of wealthy sugar growers at the expense of everybody in America.”