The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the U.S. sugar program, is facing a conundrum. Sugar users citing increased cane sugar demand and some refiners citing tight raw cane supplies are seeking increased raw cane imports while beet sugar supplies are readily available. An increase in raw cane imports would displace domestic beet sugar, potentially creating an overall sugar oversupply and pushing beet processors into forfeitures.

On May 5 a group of 45 U.S. Senators and Representatives in a letter requested U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack “immediately” use his authority to make adequate sugar supplies available at reasonable prices.

The U.S.D.A. has long said it will act “cautiously” when deciding to increase the tariff-rate quota (T.R.Q.), which may be done from April 1 to the end of the marketing year Sept. 31 without invoking an “emergency” clause. At the same time, the U.S.D.A. is mandated by Congress to run the sugar program at no cost to U.S. taxpayers, which it usually does, although opponents contend U.S. consumers (industrial and retail) pay higher prices for sugar due to restrictions that limit lower cost imports.

But it’s not that simple.

Sugar cane harvest
Users want more cane sugar, but total supplies seen as adequate.

First, not all cane refiners are short of raw sugar. It is mainly those who depend heavily on imported raws that are experiencing a shortage. Those with domestic sources of raw sugar are not seeking additional raw cane imports and at least one of those has confirmed it has refined cane sugar available.

Bulk refined cane sugar prices were quoted May 13 by Food Business News at 33c to 36c a lb f.o.b. plant on the East coast, still 1.5c a lb below year-ago levels, although some offers are as high as 38c a lb. Bulk refined beet sugar was quoted at 30c to 31c a lb f.o.b. Midwest, down 4c from last year with talk some large sales may be below 30c a lb while some offers are as high as 33c a lb. Nearby domestic raw sugar futures are near 28c a lb. All are above forfeiture levels of 24.09c a lb for refined and 18.79c a lb for raws.

Some in the trade contend the refiners seeking additional raw cane imports are in an oversold position and can’t deliver on contracted refined cane sugar sales, although it should be noted those refiners must run well below capacity without adequate imports.

Supporting the side for increased raw cane imports is apparent increasing demand for non-bioengineered cane sugar over beet sugar, which is almost entirely from bioengineered seed. The U.S.D.A. a month or so back noted increased demand for cane and sagging demand for beet sugar, but also noted the rate of increase for cane was slowing and the rate of decrease for beet also was slowing. The Hershey Co. was the first and most visible major sugar user to announce it would use only non-bioengineered sugar. A few others have followed and there’s been lots of talk, in part prompted by the labeling law in Vermont that goes into effect July 1 requiring foods containing bioengineered ingredients be labeled as such.

One major beet sugar producer conducted its own study on the level of switching from bioengineered beet sugar to non-bioengineered cane sugar and determined the overall shift at the current time was not as great as indicated by the amount of press coverage concerning the debate.

Many in the trade expect beet sugar to regain some demand as the price spread between beet and cane sugar widens. Historically cane sugar has traded about 1c to 2c a lb above beet sugar; that premium has widened to as much as 4c a lb in some markets.

Another twist was added May 10 when the U.S.D.A. projected 2016-17 (beginning Oct. 1) U.S. beet sugar production to increase 0.5% to a record 5.09 million tons and cane sugar output to decrease 6.4% from this year. Despite the decrease in domestic cane sugar, higher imports next year, mainly from Mexico, will result in the total supply of cane sugar nearly the same as this year.

The increase in beet sugar may indicate producers aren’t overly concerned about losing more demand to cane sugar.

On May 5, the U.S.D.A. also announced the 2016-17 raw sugar T.R.Q. at the minimum required under World Trade Organization agreements and unchanged from 2015-16, and a 22,046-ton increase in the 2015-16 specialty sugar T.R.Q. (not raws), which disappointed sugar users and select refiners who had been seeking as much as a 500,000-ton increase in the imported raw T.R.Q.

So the U.S.D.A. in its administration of the U.S. sugar program has its work cut out in determining if it can increase raw cane imports without throwing the total market into oversupply. It would appear, at least at this point, that total sugar supplies are adequate under the current rules in which the U.S.D.A. must work, which would preclude an increase in the raw sugar T.R.Q.