The eye of the free-trade hurricane in the Americas is sugar, a multi-billion dollar business that has global producers crying foul while U.S. consumers buy homegrown, albeit protected--and pricier--sugar. At issue is access for foreign growers across the region. Few trade agreement issues are riddled with as many loopholes, especially for Brazil and the United States, two top sugar producers. U.S. Sugar Corp. Vice President Robert Coker spoke with LATIN TRADE Correspondent Alex Easdale about how the U.S. sugar industry competes.
Do you view free trade as a threat to the U.S. sugar industry?
I am not threatened by free trade. In fact, I propose free trade. Out industry is a proponent of free trade negotiated at the WTO [World Trade Organization], which will ensure a level playing field. This will in turn allow the most-efficient producers to compete. If you try to get ahead of the WTO process, then you create further imbalances in a system managed by 120 countries. Every country that produces sugar has programs to protect its sugar. In that context, 10 to 15 countries negotiating an agreement is not fair since there is government intervention in all of the countries with which we negotiate. I believe that U.S. Sugar is one of the world's most-efficient producers and would compete very well with a level playing field. There have been 23 U.S. sugar producers that went out of business because they could not compete domestically.
What do you mean exactly when you refer to a level playing field?
Well, currently, [the United States is] required to bring in about 1.25 million tons of foreign-produced sugar. If you produce too much sugar, U.S farmers have to out back on production and if you give additional market access to others, the CAFTA [Central America Free Trade Agreement] countries for example, this threatens out industry and we have to lay off our workers. In the U.S. we have a whole series of laws and values: We pay people a fair wage, have laws against child labor, etc. In some developing countries, there are children working twelve-hour days in the fields. They are different standards. We have labor and environmental standards that most countries do not have.
If other countries improved their labor and environmental standards...