Sugar industry chafes under competition from other sweeteners

Satisfying America's sweet tooth has gotten more complex. Americans are consuming more sweeteners - and different kinds of them. Some industries - like producers of corn and low-calorie sweeteners - have benefited from the change.

But the standard sweetener industry - sugar - has been losing. In 1975, for example, the average United States consumer ate 124.2 pounds of sweeteners, 72 percent of which was sugar. Last year, the average American ate 132.9 pounds, but sugar's share was only slightly more than half the total.

Nor is the future for sugar particularly bright. If current trends continue, prospects for US sugar will be stagnant at best, according to a new report on the sweetener industry. And more trouble may lie ahead, economists warned sugar growers and processors at a conference here last week.

''If current sugar price policies are continued, sugar production will trend downward, interrupted only when world prices are high,'' says Dr. William C. Motes, director of the new study, which was commissioned by domestic sugar growers and processors. According to that study, sugar could account for only 42 percent of the sweetener market by 1992.

The industry's woes stem from what amounts to a revolution in how Americans sweeten their food.

The soft-drink industry has been the driving force behind the change. Corn sweeteners have replaced sugar as the dominant sweetener in soft drinks, mainly because they are cheaper. Meanwhile, a boom in diet soft drinks has created a rising market for low-calorie sugar substitutes.

The immediate question hanging over domestic sugar growers and processors is whether sugar will be included in the 1985 farm bill. Sugar programs are a continual source of controversy.

Like most countries around the world, the US protects its domestic producers with import quotas and duties. The result is that US consumers and industrial users pay much more for sugar than the world price. On Monday, domestic No. 12 sugar sold at 21.71 cents per pound; the same product on the international market (No. 11) was 4.10 cents per pound.

This disparity is especially great now because of a drastic slump in international prices and the high value of the dollar, says James Fry, managing director of a London commodity studies company. Sugar refiners and users, eager to buy at the world price, argue that they and the average consumer should not have to pay the higher domestic price.

Producers and processors disagree. According to Dr. Motes, more than three-fourths of the sweeteners consumed in the United States are found in beverages and other foods, rather than as table-top sugar. And changes in wholesale sugar prices had ''almost no discernible'' effect on the retail prices of these foods in the short-term, the Motes study says.

Any such changes in retail prices of foods containing sweeteners would be long term, adds Robert D. Barry, project leader for sweetners at the Economic Research Service of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Retail prices would go down only in the short term if wholesale-price drops were fairly sharp and consistent, he says.

Furthermore, subsidized exports and the political complexities of the world market have depressed prices so much that the domestic industry could not survive without price protections, even though US sugar producers are more efficient than those of other nations, these economists say.

But some parts of the US industry are faring worse than others, Dr. Barry adds. Some beet processors are in trouble while returns to sugar growers appear relatively healthy. He cites a new USDA study that found that growers' cash flow in 1983 averaged $218 per planted acre of sugarbeets and $191 per planted acre of sugarcane. The average in '83 for corn was $16, for wheat, $23, and for soybeans, $70.

To make their case for price supports, domestic growers and processors have gained a valuable ally in corn growers and corn sweetener manufacturers. The joint sweetener symposium held here was evidence that these two competitors have found that joining forces is to their advantage.

''It became increasingly apparent that 'united we stand, divided we fall,' '' says Raymond Stanhope, a vice-president at the A. E. Staley Manufacturing Company, a large producer of corn sweeteners based in Decatur, Ill.

Even with its price advantage over domestic sugar, the major corn sweetener could not compete with current world prices, he says.

Prospects that world prices will rise anytime soon were dimmed in June when efforts to negotiate a new international sugar agreement collapsed. The current agreement runs out this year.

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