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CPBJ Extra Blog

Sugar babies

Jim T. Ryan
Jim T. Ryan

This sweetener could end up leaving a bad taste in your mouth.

In this week's Business Journal, my colleague Brent Burkey and I had the opportunity to interview U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican and Pennsylvania's junior senator.

One part of that conversation was about the U.S.'s standing sugar program, which limits how much sugar can be bought on the international market and imported. Sen. Toomey is a proponent of eliminating the program to allow food manufacturers to buy their sugar on open markets and avoid higher prices from American producers.

Throughout the interview, in the back of my mind was the lingering thought, how is it sugar prices elsewhere are so low?

To some degree, it's because countries such as Thailand and Brazil — the two largest producers — are planting ever more sugar cane to meet demand. Thailand's sugar harvest is up 10 percent, a record, according to Bloomberg.

In Brazil, they're planting so much sugar cane that it might cause regional climate and temperature fluctuations, according to Scientific American. That's a whole lot of sugar cane.

Although, looking at this U.S. Department of Agriculture analysis, it looks like sugar consumers could be headed for higher prices on the world market, too. That's because even though production is high and prices are low, consumption is closing the gap. When demand rises, so does price, eventually.

But it's not the candy that'll choke you.

Here's a list of the world's largest sugar producing countries. And here's a list of the world's worst offenders in abusive child labor practices. Unfortunately, some of the countries on these lists match up. Even if we don't do business with some of the worst, others with significant child labor issues are countries we trade with regularly.

Does it mean that every ounce of sugar imported came off the backs of 7-year-olds wielding machetes? No. Does it mean the companies that want better prices on an open market are responsible for these offenses? No.

However, as with other commodities, price factors in one part of the world affect prices in the rest of the world. That means world sugar prices are low in part due to the use of abusive child labor and other abhorrent practices.

Let's keep in mind, it's estimated that mere pennies and dimes more per garment would be the cost of better standards in places like Bangladesh, where a garment factory recently collapsed, killing hundreds of workers.

Of course, the problems of world production — be it sugar or garments — are far more complex than price alone. But if we are to seek out open markets to improve our economic standing, we have a larger obligation to press for the improvement of the world's people as a condition of doing business with us.

If you went to a U.S. factory as a potential client and found open abuses of law, would you do business with that company? Probably not.

The U.S. is the world's largest economy. If that weight alone isn't enough to press our concerns for the fair treatment of children and workers, then we most certainly should do so out of moral and ethical obligations.

Jim T. Ryan covers Cumberland County, manufacturing, transportation and workforce issues. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at You can also follow him on Twitter, @JimTRyanCPBJ.

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