Editor’s Note: Not even a global pandemic could keep the adamant U.S. sugarbeet industry from convening —albeit virtually — in 2021 for the annual American Sugarbeet Growers Association meeting.
Pictured on these pages are several of the speakers who addressed the meeting audience. A tip of the cap goes to the ASGA staff and their production crew for pulling off a flawless, unique and professional virtual meeting. The 2022 ASGA annual meeting will be held in Scottsdale, Arizona Jan. 30 – Feb. 1.
House Agriculture Committee Outgoing Chairman Collin Peterson was the first speaker of the meeting. Over Peterson’s 30-year tenure, he has protected the sugar program and the beet sugar cooperatives. He was highly respected by both Republicans and Democrats for his knowledge of intricate ag trade policy. Peterson helped pull numerous farm bills across the finish line and was a key player in getting sugarbeet growers a WHIP+ payment.
“For many years, he was the greatest champion for sugar policy in the House of Representatives,” said ASGA president, Dan Younggren. “His departure leaves a gaping hole that will take a team of congressional members to fill.”
Although Peterson will be watching “from the sidelines,” as he put it, for the next farm bill, he gave his advice for how to best prepare for the 2023 farm bill.
The beet sugar industry has been very persistent in meeting with and educating members of Congress about the industry. Peterson added that one of the reasons sugar has been so successful is because the industry "has a story to tell and it’s a compelling one, especially with Democrats, because you’re a cooperative,” he said.
Peterson warned potential environmental regulations from the Biden administration could affect much of the ag sector.
“The (Biden) Administration is going to be pushing climate change,” Peterson said. “I don’t know what argument we make for the sugar industry on how it helps with climate change, but that's going to be an important aspect.”
Peterson also said another target for the upcoming farm bill could be a possible push for payment limitations on crops. Overall, however, his outlook was positive.
“I’m glad we’ve got a good program for sugar. My attitude would be, keep what we’ve got. And don’t let them undermine you,” he said.
“I appreciate the relationships we’ve had. You guys have been great and have supported me,” said Peterson in closing about the sugar industry. “You taught me a lot and you’re not going to get rid of me quite yet. My heart is still with you guys.”
U.S. Senator John Hoeven, R-N.D., touched on a variety of topics from WHIP+ to ag research to key issues for the Senate Ag Committee.
Hoeven was an instrumental part in securing the WHIP+ funds for sugarbeet growers in 2020 following the production challenges in 2018 and 2019. “It was tough but really important,” noted Hoeven. Sugar had not typically been included in that type of disaster assistance so one of the keys in getting that funding was adding additional language authorizing that sugarbeet growers be included in the WHIP+ coverage, Hoeven explained.
Hoeven has also been a leader in obtaining millions of dollars in additional research funds for agriculture over the last few years. Hoeven said that remains “very important and a huge priority.”
“What (the researchers) are doing is amazing and remarkable. It has made a huge impact on agriculture and we need to continue to support it,” he said.
When questioned by Luther Markwart, executive vice president of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association, about the key issues facing the Senate Agriculture Committee, Hoeven replied that the Committee has to make sure the programs that are advanced are farmer-friendly. “As we approach all of these different issues, all the way from crop insurance to conversation programs, first and foremost, those programs have to be farmer-friendly,” he said. “I think there is a lot we can get done if we always keep that focus.”
Chairwoman of Senate Agriculture Committee Debbie Stabenow briefed the audience, virtually, on opportunities in the 117th Congress for the Senate Agriculture Committee. She noted that she expects the Biden Administration’s USDA to put an increased emphasis on combatting the climate crisis. “I expect they will do so in a way that’s friendly to producers,” she said. “Including policies that are flexible and based on practices that many (growers) have already adopted, like cover crops and reduced tillage.”
Regarding the upcoming farm bill, Stabenow said that the industry needs to return to the principles of risk management, bipartisanship, and building coalitions that helped lead to 87 “yes” votes for the 2018 farm billing during a time of hyper-partisanship. “That will be our goal again,” she added.
Elisabeth Lacoste is an agro-economist and has been the director of the International Confederation of European Beet Growers (CIBE) based in Brussels, Belgium since 2006. CIBE defends and represents the interest of around 140,000 sugarbeet growers in Europe, as well as beet growers in Switzerland and Turkey.
Lascoste touched on critical threats facing the European Union Beet Industry and their global implications. European beet growers are experiencing their third consecutive year of white sugar prices being below the EU reference threshold, equating to very low beet prices, Loscoste explained.
There was hope for a significant market recovery in 2020-21, however, impacts from COVID-19 have made those hopes vanish.
As a result of sugar prices being below the reference threshold for consecutive years, seven sugar factories have close in the EU since 2019.
Lascoste addressed that the EU is also facing increasing climatic, agronomic and regulatory threats to their industry. “EU farmers are faced with a huge campaign against the use of pesticides,” she said. Furthermore, around 20 substances used with plant protection productions in sugarbeets have been banned and an additional 20 substances may also be banned in the future.
“These decisions were made without a full economical or environmental impact analysis,” Lascoste said.
One of those banned substances were neonicotinoids. The result of the banning of neonicotinoids in France is a 30% decrease in average sugarbeet yield in 2020. “France has gone back 20 years in terms of beet productivity because of this ban,” Lascoste stated.
To counter these bans, Lascoste said the industry is running a campaign highlighting the sustainability EU growers practice.
Courtney Gaine, president and CEO of the Sugar Association, has become a regular presenter at the ASGA annual meeting over the last several years. Gaine spoke about the area on which the Sugar Association will be focusing in 2021.
First, the association is working to defend and differentiate sugar in the marketplace. The reformulation efforts to decrease or cut out sugar have been ramping up, as they have been over the last few years. “Sugar is unique. It is the gold standard of sweetness. Nothing can replace it and it’s important that consumers are made increasingly aware of that,” said Gaine.
As concerns over processed food increase among consumers, Gaine added that it's important for the sugar industry to help spread the message that sugar is considered minimally processed. “Making consumers aware of how simple and natural the process of sugar is will be important,” she said.
A big win for the sugar industry came in December when the FDA released new dietary guidelines, which included added sugars comprising of 10 percent of calories per day, compared to the alternative option which would have put added sugars at six percent.
“This was a huge victory for our industry, but we have a long road ahead of us to ensure that in the future, such unscientific recommendations don’t see the light of day like they have,” said Gaine.
Overall, 2020 was considered a good year for sugar as COVID-19 lockdowns led to increased snacking, baking and retail sales, but Gaine warns that COVID-19 could be cited as a reason to reduce the consumption of sugar in 2021 and beyond.
For the past 15 years, Phillip Hayes has led a communication strategy for the U.S. sugar industry on farm trade and legal issues facing domestic sugar producers. Hayes highlighted recent public relations efforts and previewed what the industry plans for the new year.
The first step in Hayes’ PR plan for 2021 is all about education. “We need to make sure policymakers have a proper base from which they can make critical policy decisions in the future,” he said. “We will be working hard during this first quarter to explain how sugar’s no-cost policy works, why it’s so essential to our business, and why it backs tons of good-paying U.S. jobs.”
The second priority for the industry’s communication effort will be a continuation of an initiative that was started a couple of years ago. The American Sugar Alliance will continue to make an effort to make sure policymakers have a chance to meet the people of the sugar industry.
“Not everybody in D.C. loves U.S. sugar policy, however, I have yet to find a single person who does not love U.S. sugar farmers or sugar workers after they get a chance to know you,” said Hayes. “You are the industry’s secret sauce. When you talk passionately about what you do for a living, and the policy that supports your job, people stand up and take notice.”
The third step of the plan is to share the story of the massive sustainability effort the industry has undertaken to become more efficient and environmentally friendly.