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'Don't fall out of love with sugar'

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Sugar has been a huge part of David Berg's life. It's part of just about everyone's life, even though they may not realize it, he said.

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David Berg, President and CEO of American Crystal Sugar Company, presents an overview of the history of sugar to guests at the International Sugarbeet Institute on March 17, 2016 at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, ND. (Nick Nelson/Agweek)

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - Sugar has been a huge part of David Berg's life. It's part of just about everyone's life, even though they may not realize it, he said.

"Don't take sugar for granted," Berg said.

Berg, CEO of American Crystal Sugar, a Moorhead-Minn. based cooperative, spoke March 17 at the 54th International Sugarbeet Institute in Grand Forks, N.D. The two-day event, which rotates annually between Grand Forks and Fargo, N.D., began March 16.

An estimated 1,500 to 1,800 people and about 120 companies, exhibiting more than $5 million of products, participated.

The Red River Valley of western Minnesota and eastern North Dakota is the nation’s leading sugar beet growing region, and the Institute sometimes is billed as the nation’s largest sugar beet trade show.

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American Crystal Sugar is the nation’s largest sugar producer. Most of its beets are grown in the Red River Valley.

Berg has worked for American Crystal Sugar Co. since 1987 and has led the company since March 2007. He will be retiring at the end of August.

The company recently named Tom Astrup as its new president, a post that Berg held in addition to being CEO. Berg remains in the latter role until he retires, when Astrup becomes CEO, too. Astrup was vice president of operations.

Area sugar beet growers know Astrup and are confident in his leadership, said Duane Maatz, executive director of the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers, based in Fargo. Maatz attended the Sugarbeet Institute.

Berg mentioned his retirement only briefly and in passing during his talk at the Sugarbeet Institute. He was asked to speak at the event because he's nearing retirement, and he decided to speak on the history of sugar because the subject has always interested him, he said.

His talk began with the first recorded consumption of sugar in Asia 10,000 years ago, and examined how consumption eventually spread to Europe. He looked at sugar's role in the English Industrial Revolution and the slave trade, among other things.

For centuries, sugar has had a deep impact on economic development and political events, he said.

"Many governments recognize its availability is too important to leave to market forces," he said. "That's still very true today."

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Today, some people not directly involved in the sugar business "see our product as something that is almost trivial," though a broad historical perspective shows it's not, he said.

'Sugar is cheap' "Let's be honest,” Berg said. “Sugar is cheap. It's so cheap that consumers in nearly any country at almost any level of income can afford as much as they like to eat. While sugar consumption today varies from country to country, it's safe to say that sugar is available and affordable to essentially everyone on this entire planet."

Sugar has become so common, even pervasive, that it’s sometimes taken for granted, he said.

"We may have fallen out of love with sugar,” he said. “You might think to yourself, we've never been in love with sugar.”

But sugar is a "unique and tremendous product," he said. "It tastes wonderful all by itself, and it makes almost any other product taste better. (And) it's very cheap."

"Here's my takeaway: Don't take sugar for granted. Don't fall out of love with it."

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