U.S. Sugar Policy and Prices

The price of domestic raw cane sugar and the price of refined beet sugar both have direct implications for current United States (U.S.) sugar policy. Nearby futures settlement prices for raw cane sugar and a price range for wholesale Midwest refined beet sugar (free on board factory as quoted each week in Milling and Baking News) are considered the two primary mechanisms to evaluate sugar market dynamics. Figure 1 depicts monthly per pound sugar prices, which as of April 2022 were 42.00 cents for beet sugar and 36.66 cents for raw sugar. According to USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) data, the U.S. wholesale beet sugar price has ranged since 2008 between a low annual average of 28.84 cents a pound in 2012/13 and a high annual average of 55.81 cents a pound in 2010/11 (October-September fiscal year). Furthermore, the USDA ERS reports that U.S. raw sugar price has similarly ranged from a low annual average of 21.00 cents a pound in 2012/13 to a high annual average of 38.46 cents a pound in 2010/11. 

Figure 1. U.S. Refined Beet Sugar and Raw Sugar Prices (cents per pound), 2008-2022. 

Source: USDA ERS

Both U.S. beet sugar and raw cane sugar prices rose significantly from 2009 to 2012. A combination of tight domestic sugar supplies and announcements that the USDA would not allow for an increase in sugar imports prior to the end of the marketing year resulted in the raw sugar price in FY 2010 increasing 74% and the refined beet sugar price increasing by 50%. These price increases in the U.S. market occurred simultaneously as world sugar prices began to increase three-fold. The major sugar-exporting countries of India and Brazil reduced global supplies as adverse weather and prices for biofuels reduced exportable surplus in each country. Since U.S. sugar refiners import sugar under obligations of the sugar program, refiners had to compete against these higher prices that foreign supplies were receiving in the world market, hence increasing the domestic price paid to entice imports. However, the world sugar price fell from 30 cents per pound in 2011 to 23 cents in 2012 and then to 18 cents in 2013, lowering any supportive impact on U.S. sugar prices. 

For the period 2008-2014, sugar imports from Mexico enjoyed virtually unhindered access to the U.S. domestic market via NAFTA. At its peak in 2013, sugar imports from Mexico came in over 2 million STRV, accounting for 66 percent of total U.S. imports for sugar. Consequently, increases in the amount of U.S. raw sugar supplies caused domestic raw sugar prices to decline. As a result of Mexico’s increased raw sugar shipments, sugar producers in the U.S. filed an anti-dumping and countervailing duty case of injury with both the U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC) and the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) in March 2014. According to ITC findings, there was determination that the U.S. sugar industry had sustained significant economic injury from Mexico’s action.  With the ITC’s findings, both the U.S. and Mexico entered into a suspension agreement with the key constraint of limiting the supply of imported sugar from Mexico. Additionally, terms were put in place specifying both minimum price and maximum quantity requirements on Mexican sugar destined for the U.S. market.  

Another issue of concern for the domestic sugar industry arose in 2016 when legislation was proposed that would require the display of genetically engineered ingredients on food labels. Perception from this proposed legislation induced an excess in beet sugar supply relative to the supply of cane sugar. This scenario brought about a contraction in the price spread between cane and beet sugar. With the ensuing price contraction for beet sugar, the sugar industry took advantage of large inventories in beet sugar as shown in Figure 2. With passage of legislation establishing national labeling guidelines for food products containing GMO ingredients, beet sugar deliveries began to increase thus drawing down extant beet sugar supplies to such an extent that by 2018 the historical margin between U.S. beet and cane sugar had been reestablished.  

Figure 2. U.S. Sugar Inventories, by source. 

Source: USDA ERS

Of the major events impacting domestic U.S. sugar prices, adverse weather events in October of 2019 played a significant role when flooding disrupted both the planting and harvesting of sugar beets. This disruption induced both a sudden and precipitous drop in U.S. beet sugar production, forcing many processors to declare force majeure. These actions caused refined beet sugars to increase by 26 percent per pound (35 cents per pound to 44 cents per pound) from September to November 2019. With improved crop conditions in FY 2021, prices retreated to settle around 36.5 cents per pound.

In comparison with other major agricultural commodity markets, domestic policies for world major sugar producers are more prevalent and play a greater role than is the case for other agricultural commodities. Since there is a greater level of variation in sugar policy from country to country, the retail price of sugar reflects this in the world futures contract price. According to USDA data, from 2009 to 2017, the average monthly world price for raw sugar averaged 19.23 cents per pound. For the period 2009 to 2017, sugar prices have experienced a fair amount of volatility ranging from a low of 13.42 cents per pound in 2015 to a period high of 28.42 cents per pound in 2011. Figure 3 illustrates the imported price that refiners in the U.S. paid for foreign raw sugar (including freight costs). In essence, when the import tariff on raw sugar (to include freight) is coupled with the world raw price, a price ceiling is established on the U.S. raw market. From Figure 3, the U.S. raw price (blue line) has approached the foreign landed price (grey line) as increases in the world raw price track appreciation in the domestic market. 

Figure 3. Raw Sugar Prices (U.S. futures, World futures, and World futures sugar imported into U.S.)

Source: USDA ERS

References:

Sowell, Andrew R. and Ronald C. Lord. Sugar and Sweeteners Outlook, SSS-M-387, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, November 17, 2020.

USDA ERS. (2022). Sugar & Sweeteners Background.  https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/crops/sugar-sweeteners/background/.

Deliberto, Michael. “U.S. Sugar Policy and Prices“. Southern Ag Today 2(31.1). July 25, 2022. Permalink

Associate Professor, Department of Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness

Louisiana State University Agricultural Center

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