Features International Sugar Journal

A level playing field in global agricultural policy: Quest for the holy grail?

I have had the honour of working for farmers my entire professional career – for all American farmers during my 15-year tenure at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and, for the past 32 years, for American sugar farmers.

In a most basic sense, the purpose of my work has been to help enable our farmers to pass their farms along to their sons and daughters. I have worked at this long enough, and our work has generally been successful enough, that I have been gratified to see this goal realized many times. It has been a thrill, and is deeply satisfying, to have worked with more than one generation of many of our noble sugar-farmer families.

Representing current practitioners of the ancient art of farming in a developed country, a country with a justified reputation as a global leader in advanced technologies poses special challenges. Developed-country farmers come up against the myopic notion that farming – a “low-tech” endeavour – should be left to the developing world. Let the developed world concentrate on advanced technologies.

The notion of leaving farming to the developing world is shortsighted in at least two respects.

First, farming is not low-tech. It is a high-tech, capital-intensive industry. Global-positioning-system directed planting and harvesting; remotely sensed measurement of soil and plant moisture, fertilizer, and crop-protection needs; and sophisticated development of the most durable and productive seed varieties are just a few examples. Feeding a growing world population with limited land and water resources and minimal chemical intervention is not just an aspiration.  It must be a reality.

Second, farming in the developed world is needed and is responsible. Developed-country farmers supply, for example, one-fourth of the world’s sugar each year. And capital investment, research success, high yields, and stringent government-imposed standards for a worker, consumer, and environmental safety have made developed-country farmers almost certainly the world’s most sustainable.

U.S. sugar producers are among the world’s most efficient, despite facing social standards, and costs, that are among the highest in the world. Our producers are justifiably proud that they are producing more sugar on less land and using fewer resources than they have in the past. The United States is producing 16% more sugar on 11% less land than 20 years ago. Our sugar yields per acre are up 29% while the volume of our agricultural chemical use is down.

I recall a conversation with a Florida environmental activist who was eager to shut down the state’s sugar industry because of its supposed threat to the Everglades. I noted the U.S. market was dependent on Florida for about a fifth of our needs and that we would have to turn instead to imports from developing countries such as Brazil, which dominates world sugar trade and has expanded its agricultural production as it has tragically reduced the breadth of the Amazon rain forest. I asked how we improve the global climate by shifting production from a country with the highest environmental standards to countries with far lower standards. His response, “that is not our intention,” was hardly satisfactory.

In European agriculture now there is great concern about the proposed EU-Mercosur trade agreement – 22 years in the making – and the unlevel playing field it suggests. EU farmers are facing increasingly strict, possibly unsurvivable, new environmental standards under the Green New Deal, while trade agreements are opening the EU market to products produced in countries with far lower standards. If the playing field were level, the imports would be subject to the same production standards as those imposed upon EU producers.

Countries have been understandably loathe to negotiate increased import access to their agricultural sector. Domestic food security is not just a social welfare goal but a national security imperative in many countries, particularly those with vulnerable populations and fragile government regimes.

Many of us recall the riots and political instability around the world that resulted from poor crops and a spike in food prices in 2007-2008. Some countries were criticized for not honouring their food export commitments during that period, but who could blame these countries for being committed to feeding their own people first?

This is why trade agreements on agriculture have been so difficult to come by. Some countries may bow to the rules of comparative advantage and decide to import widgets that another country can produce more cheaply and risk an occasional widget shortage. But no country can long survive a food shortage.

It took eight years to negotiate the multilateral Uruguay Round Agreement on Agriculture, which was completed in 1994. Despite prodigious efforts, there has been no comprehensive WTO agreement on agriculture in the 27 years since then. Given nations’ understandable commitment to food security, this is not surprising. The Covid pandemic’s exposure of the vulnerability of global supply chains, and the fundamental need to strengthen domestic supply chains, no doubt reinforces countries’ reluctance to surrender domestic food production to promised supplies from foreign producers.

Intelligent, fair trade agreements are possible. We must avoid a global “race to the bottom” – penalizing the countries with the highest government-imposed social and environmental standards and costs and rewarding the countries with the lowest. Trade agreements can, and must, be designed to reward countries for raising their standards, not for lowering them.

In that endeavour, responsible, sustainable developed-country producers must not be sacrificed. Unilateral disarmament – “leading by example” – has never worked and never will. There’s an old Irish saying: “Everyone wants to go to heaven. But no one wants to die to get there.”

The American Sugar Alliance supports comprehensive, multilateral WTO negotiations to eliminate government intervention on the world sugar market – all countries at the table, all programs on the table. We support a “zero-for-zero” resolution in the United States Congress in which we commit to eliminating the U.S. sugar program when other countries eliminate their sugar-market interventions.

I will not see a global level playing field for agriculture in the twilight of my career. But I would argue that, for the benefit of the world’s consumers, and its climate, and its most productive and responsible farmers, this Holy Grail is worth the continuing quest.


Jack Roney

Director of Economics and Policy Analysis at the American Sugar Alliance. Retiring in August 2021.