Sugar Wars

  • Published on May 5th, 2010


While a candidate for the Senate, Barak Obama famously and presciently described the invasion of Iraq as a “dumb war.”  That would also be a good descriptor for the five “Sugar Wars” that have been fought in the US sweetener industry over the past several decades.  The combatants include the US Sugar beet industry, the US Sugarcane industry, the US Corn industry, a nascent biofuel industry, and food activists.

Sugar War I: US Sugar vs World Sugar

After World War II, the domestic US sugar industry (cane and beet) got Congress to create high tariffs on imported sugar with the excuse that the domestic industry had to be protected as a matter of “food security” during trade disruptions from future wars.  Americans paid well over the world sugar price for decades and foreign sugar was largely excluded. 

Sugar War II: US Sugar Crops vs US Corn

The trade protectionism provided the “price floor” that allowed the corn processors to develop the process for turning corn starch into “Corn Syrup” or High Fructose Corn Syrup(HFCS).  They could not have justified the research and capital investments without the artificially high sugar prices.  Over time, the “cost learning curve” and the every increasing productivity of corn allowed HFCS prices to drop lower than those of cane or beet sugar.  Eventually the processed food market shifted away from those crops, severely reducing the acreage that was grown.  The “protection” of the domestic sugar crops actually contributed to their demise and they lost that “war.”

Sugar War III: Food Activists vs US Corn

As Obesity reached epidemic proportions, the food activists displayed the classic American proclivity to seek simplistic and corporation-blaming answers (as opposed to the idea that a range of poor individual choices might be involved).  Even though obesity was also on the rise in parts of the world that don’t eat HFCS, the press and the blogosphere latched onto this as the latest bogeyman in the food supply.  All it took was a few questionably designed “scientific” studies and there was a groundswell of people who “knew” that HFCS was not only the cause of obesity but a range of other maladies.  Anti HFCS campaigners began to put pressure on food companies, and even though the science does not really support it (Even food activist Marion Nestle rejects this nonsense), companies with consumer brands responded (as they usually do) by caving into the pressure.  “No HFCS” became the latest in the history of schemes marketing non-existence.  It is a sad commentary on a society when it obsesses more about what isn’t in its food than about the plight of people around the world who don’t even have the food they need.

Sugar War IV: US Cane Sugar vs US Beet Sugar

The next Sugar War was between the cane sugar and beet sugar industries.  Even though the two sources of sugar (sucrose) are chemically identical, the cane sugar industry was not above nasty marketing tactics.  They threatened to play the non-GMO card when Sugar beets belatedly got the chance to be herbicide resistance (If you ever tried to grow Sugar beets you would understand why there was almost 100% adoption in a year.  Weed control in this 18-month crop is very difficult).  Instead, they got the beet sugar industry to put up with the marketing slogan, “100% pure cane sugar” implying that this was somehow superior.  Many brand-sensitive food companies started using that label as another way to pander to the anti-HFCS hysteria.

Sugar War V:  US Cane Sugar vs Alternative Energy

The unintended effect of Sugar War IV was to get in the way of the development of a very good alternative transportation fuel.   “Tropical Sugar beets” (non-GMO by the way) have been developed by Syngenta scientists in India.  These are amazingly productive plants that can produce huge amounts of sugar in parts of the Southeastern US that really are not very good for growing food crops.  It would be expensive to build new sugar processing plants in the early stages of getting that biofuel crop going – a classic chicken/egg issue.  The logical thing would be to start by using existing cane sugar plants to process the beets for ethanol production.  The plants refused because it might compromise their ability to sell to the brand-sensitive food companies that want to make the “100% pure cane sugar” claim. 


So a combination of trade barriers, brand protectionism, deceptive marketing, simplistic and unscientific thinking, and consumer manipulability led to this series of Sugar Wars that were all– in the words of our president – “dumb!”

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Sugar cube image from Uwe Hermann

About the Author

Born in Denver, now living near San Diego. Agricultural scientist for 30+ years with a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology. Have worked for Colorado State University, DuPont and Mycogen and for the last 13 years consulting for all sorts or companies, universities and grower groups. Experience in biological control, natural products, synthetic chemicals, genetics, GMOs and agronomic practices. Have given multiple invited talks on the interaction between agriculture and climate change (both ways)