THE Florida Everglades is rapidly deteriorating, largely as the result of sugar-cane farming and various artificial disruptions of natural water flows.
Since 1988 the federal government has been seeking to force sugar growers to cover part of the costs of repairing the fragile south Florida environment. Unfortunately, the Clinton administration is showing far more compassion for corporate welfare recipients than for consumers or the environment.
In July the administration and Florida sugar growers reached a tentative agreement to finance an Everglades cleanup. United States Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt hailed the agreement as opening the way to ``the largest, most ambitious ecosystem restoration ever undertaken.''
The agreement has been praised as a triumph of the ``polluter pays'' principle. In reality, it is another fraud on the American public and another potential danger to the Everglades.
Several of the largest Florida sugar producers have, since the agreement, complained that the government has shown bad faith. The agreement may be revised, and its details suggest that the Clinton administration has almost totally caved in to the sugar industry and will likely cave in again in any future Everglades cleanup pacts.
Under the agreement Florida sugar growers would pay $232 million to $322 million in cleanup costs over 20 years. (The final cost remains to be determined.) On an annual basis, this amounts to between $11.6 million and $16.1 million a year.
While sugar producers claim that this would be a heavy burden, it is almost invisible compared with the federal sugar subsidies they receive.
US sugar import quotas and the Agriculture Department's sugar price-support program load American sugar growers with subsidies. The world sugar price is roughly 11 cents a pound; the US price is 22 cents a pound. Based on the difference between US and world sugar prices, Florida growers receive a government benefit of 11 cents for each pound of sugar they harvest.
The state's sugar-cane producers will harvest an estimated 3.5 billion pounds of sugar this year. Thus, the total federal subsidy to Florida cane producers will amount to roughly $380 million this year.
The pact between the US government and the sugar growers acknowledges that sugar farming accounts for many of the Everglades's environmental problems. Yet, under the Clinton administration agreement, the federal sugar program would continue providing Florida sugar farmers between $24 and $33 dollars in benefits for each $1 that sugar farmers paid to reduce the environmental damage of their farming practices.
The US Department of Commerce has estimated that the sugar program costs American consumers $3.5 billion a year in higher prices. Based on Commerce's estimate, the amount that Florida sugar farmers would be required to spend in order to reduce the environmental harm of sugar production is less than 1 percent of the annual cost of the US sugar program to American consumers.
The pact is expected only to decrease the rate of the destruction of the Everglades. The first federal lawsuit to reduce agricultural pollution of the Everglades was filed in 1988. Since then more than 30,000 additional acres of Florida land have been put to sugar production. Florida sugar producers had record harvests in 1991 and 1992. This is proof that federal sugar subsidies are far more effective at increasing sugar production than federal legal and regulatory pressures have been at reducing pollution.
If it were not for the federal subsidies, there would be little or no cane-sugar production in the US. Third-world nations have an overwhelming competitive advantage in sugar production - due to climate, lower costs of land, and the availability of cheaper labor.
There is no reason why the US must produce its own sugar cane. Sugar is cheaper in Canada primarily because Canada has almost no sugar growers - and thus no trade restrictions or government support programs. Paying lavish subsidies to produce sugar in Florida makes as much sense as creating a federal subsidy program to grow bananas in Massachusetts. The only thing that could make American sugar-cane farmers competitive on the world market would be massive global warming.
After more than five years of litigation and negotiation between the government and sugar growers, little or nothing has been achieved to reduce the pollution of the Everglades.
President Clinton could yank the plug on Everglades pollution by working forcefully to abolish the federal sugar program, yet he has voiced no criticism of sugar subsidies. How many more alligators should we sacrifice to further pad the wallets of a handful of rich sugar plantation owners? The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.