March 1, 2017 - For the past couple of years the supply of sugar from beets has been rising while prices have dropped, expanding a rift between beet and cane sugar producers and spurring government and industry analysts to consider whether USDA can continue treating the two commodities as one.

Economic Research Service economist Mike McConnell says his agency is considering whether it should change longstanding policy and begin producing separate projections for cane and beet sugar deliveries and supply and use balances.

The recent increase in beet sugar stocks is mostly attributed to two years of bumper crops, but demand has also been rising for cane sugar from food and candy companies because it isn’t produced with genetically modified plants. The situation has put increased demand on cane sugar, while adding to the surplus of sugar from beets.

When the USDA calculates the stocks-to-use ratio for sugar, it does not break the commodity down into cane and beet, but McConnell made the calculations to help show the growing split between the two types of sweeteners, which in the end have the same chemical composition.

The results, which he presented last week at USDA’s annual Outlook Forum, were dramatic. For beet sugar, the stocks-to-use ratio for the 2016-17 marketing year came out to 36.53 percent, up from 26.85 percent the previous year and 15.85 percent the year before that, indicating growing ending stocks. For cane sugar, the results were the polar opposite. The 2016-17 ratio was just 0.47 percent, a massive drop from 10.86 percent in 2015-16 and 14.26 percent in 2014-15.

Meanwhile, other data showed a significant split in price and deliveries, with numbers rising for cane sugar and dropping for beet sugar, according to McConnell.

“We began to see a sustained split between those two markets beginning in 2016 when refined cane prices increased on a sustained basis and beet prices were falling,” he said. McConnell remembers looking at the situation a year ago and wondering “whether this was just a temporary blip or if there was a sustained difference. I think over the past 12 months it’s been confirmed at least that the trend is continuing. It’s not just a temporary blip.”

Michael Scuse, former acting deputy secretary for the USDA and currently commissioner of the Delaware Department of Agriculture, warned that the imbalance between cane and beet could have an effect on the next farm bill. Beet and cane, he added, “need to find a way to be creative to work together and not be at odds with one another.”

In 2013, the USDA had to come into the market and buy up $260 million worth of sugar to help push up depressed prices. With Congress beginning debate on the 2018 farm bill, Scuse warned that should not be allowed to happen again.

But when asked if USDA needed to take action to make sure that there was adequate cane sugar available in the U.S. – not just overall sugar, which is the current USDA goal – he didn’t have an answer.

“That adds to the dilemma,” Scuse said, wondering aloud whether the government has an “obligation to cane refiners to ensure that they’re running at capacity so they can be profitable?”

Scuse was also critical of companies that are demanding only cane sugar because it’s not genetically modified.

“That’s unfortunate that we’re going in a direction that we don’t want to go, but that’s led to another level of complexity in dealing with the sugar program,” he said at the Outlook Forum.

That complexity could be reduced in the coming years, according to Val Giddings, a senior fellow at the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation. He said he expects that within a few years genetically modified cane sugar will begin entering the U.S. market, likely mixing with non-biotech supplies.

Once that happens, he said, the two sugars will be indistinguishable, removing any perceived benefit to companies that buy GMO sugar for their donuts, bread and chocolate bars.

“Genetically engineered sugarcane is on the way,” Giddings said. “I have been in the labs where these things are being produced in Costa Rica, Indonesia and in Brazil. We could see commercial production in Brazil within the year.”

Just because Brazil is expected to begin planting biotech sugar cane this year, doesn’t mean it will necessarily reach the U.S. immediately, Giddings and others said. GMO sugar from overseas will likely first be used for industrial purposes like ethanol. But eventually, in two or three years – especially if other countries begin planting it – the crop will make it into the U.S.

Brazil is allowed to export about 153,000 metric tons of sugar to the U.S. annually under a tariff rate quota system that is administered by the U.S. Trade Representative.

And once that sugar enters the U.S., there will be no way to tell it apart from non-biotech cane sugar, Giddings said.

“Genetic engineering is a breeding method,” he said at the Outlook Forum last week. “There are no breeding methods in your food. Breeding methods are not ingredients.”

And that means that food and candy companies will have a much tougher time demanding only non-biotech sugar. “Sugar is sugar is sugar,” Giddings said.

Eventually, he said farmers in the U.S. will be planting biotech sugarcane, but that may take much longer.

“It’s going to be biotech cane all over the place,” he said. “The existing conventional cane production is going to be obsolete and it’s all going to be biotech. How long it’s going to take for that to happen is the question.”