‘Big Sugar’ Podcast Exposes How Subsidies in the Farm Bill Harm Us All | Civil Eats

‘Big Sugar’ Podcast Exposes How Subsidies in the Farm Bill Harm Us All

Host Celeste Headlee wants the public to understand how decades-old subsidies for sugar companies benefit billionaires at the expense of the environment, farmworkers, and the nutrition of the nation.

celeste headlee and the cover image of the podcast

The podcast Big Sugar tells the story of sugarcane production on American soil. Over the course of nine episodes, host Celeste Headlee speaks to Caribbean sugarcane cutters who worked in Florida and the lawyers who fought for millions of dollars in what they calculated as lost wages. But beyond sugar and labor, as Headlee says in the first episode, the podcast is “really about civil rights, inequity, racism, and backdoor deals.”

Men from Jamaica tell her how excited and proud they were to board a plane and come to the United States on work visas. And then, they discovered the dangerous, painful, and relentless work of cutting cane. “Cutting sugar cane is like you’re going to a war,” one man told her. These men were housed in shoddy barracks with inadequate food and little freedom to come and go. “It’s just like I was in prison,” another one said.

For contrast, Headlee visits West Palm Beach Island, Florida, where the Fanjul family has docked its yacht, not far from Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home. Brothers Alfy and Pepe Fanjul left Cuba when their family lost its sugarcane empire to Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959. But with the assets they managed to take out of Cuba, they invested in Florida Crystals, the company that made them billionaires, in part thanks to farm bill sugar programs.

Federal support for sugar production goes back to the colonial era. In modern history, it’s the 1981 Farm Bill that usually gets referenced as the origin of the current system, which includes loans for both sugar beet and sugarcane production, limits on imports, and a target price system that can make the price of sugar in the U.S. as much as twice the world price.

Unlike other commodity programs, like for corn and soybeans, where the farmers can receive payments directly, with sugar, it’s the processors who get the benefits. University of Nebraska economist John C. Beghin has estimated, in a report for the conservative American Enterprise Institute, that while the burden on the federal budget is low, the overall cost to the American people is between $2.4 and $4 billion. Instead of taxpayer dollars funding a subsidy that the government then doles out, American consumers underwrite this support by paying higher prices for all things sugary.

Beghin also notes the program benefits only about 4,000 sugar producers (both cane and beet) and a “few privately held sugar refining companies,” including the Fanjuls.

Sugarcane is perennial and grows primarily in Florida, Louisiana, and Texas, while sugar beets are an annual crop that can be grown in a rotation with other crops. The most productive region for sugar beets is in the Red River Valley on the border of North Dakota and Minnesota, but sugar beets grow in 11 states.

During farm bill reauthorization years like this one, congress often makes changes to existing programs or introduces new ones. In 2018, though, almost all the changes to sugar policy simply extended the existing programs through 2023.

In addition to labor concerns, the sugarcane industry is criticized for environmental impacts, especially for the practice of burning fields, which pollutes the air and causes health problems. Critics also claim that federal supports for sugarcane discourage other uses of the land, including conservation, and cost local residents even more in environmental cleanup.

The podcast is based on the Vanity Fair article “In the Kingdom of Big Sugar” by Marie Brenner, originally published in 2001. At that time, she estimated the Fanjul family received about $65 million a year in sugar subsidies. Banner also appears in the podcast.

Civil Eats recently spoke with Headlee, a journalist, author, and the president and CEO of Headway DEI, a nonprofit that works to bring racial justice and equity to journalism and media, about the podcast, the farm bill, and the family TIME magazine dubbed “the first family of corporate welfare.

Why was now the time to do this podcast?

The most immediate peg is that the farm bill only comes up for reconsideration every five years, and it’s up for reconsideration this year. We wanted to make that deadline because most Americans don’t pay much attention to the farm bill, even though it involves billions and billions of dollars in taxpayer money. And we wanted to call attention to sugar subsidies.

The other thing is that so many of the issues that were involved in Marie Brenner’s article—the way [workers are] treated, income inequality, environmental issues—not only have gotten worse, but are now just exponentially more serious than they were in 2001.

She was interviewing people who were saying, “Look, this is why this case is really important.” And here we are 20 years later going, “They were right. That case was really important.” And [the workers] lost, and that’s not great. But some of the issues that were at play there were immigrant visas and how we treat those workers, the disparities between corporate power and wage workers, racism and literal wage slavery, and the rape of the environment by corporations who have found ways to manipulate the political process so they don’t have to be accountable. I mean, does any of this sound familiar?

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What was important in 2001 is so much more important now. And we have come to the point at which it’s no longer a really good story for Vanity Fair, we have to sit up and pay attention. This is the future of our planet. It’s the future of society. So, it’s pretty urgent.

You have this fantastic line in Episode Five: “If the Affordable Care Act is the sexy stiletto of law, the farm bill is a size 14 Croc.” As you say, most taxpayers don’t pay much attention to it. How much did you know about sugar subsidies in the farm bill before you got involved with this project?

I have known quite a bit about the farm bill, and many of the subsidies have bothered me. I know more than I should about corn subsidies and ethanol and corn syrup. There’s a lot of things in public society that people don’t have time to pay attention to. Every once in a while, they bubble up and become important to the point where we, as journalists, have to say, “Okay, now is the time when you have to pay attention.” And when it comes to the sugar industry and the farm bill, this is one of those times.

Do you think there is potentially more appetite for this conversation around subsidies and industries involving immigrants of color as laborers than during other farm bill years?

With this podcast, we’re trying to tell the story in such a way, and in such a comprehensive way, that we can really explain how broad the impact of this industry is. It has been operating under the radar for so long, and it’s had such an incredible impact on so many parts of our lives. The point of this podcast is to bring this to everybody’s attention. It’s basically to make the fish aware of the water.

This has been going on for a very long time. These subsidies were created during World War II. And we have, ever since then, been paying these billionaires to plant sugar. The taxpayers are paying them to plant the sugar, we’re paying more [for sugar] in the grocery store [than other countries].

“I really want to make people aware of what this has cost us, again and again and again. And I hope at that point people will say ‘enough’.”

We are paying for the environmental impact of that sugar growing when they decide to do it on the cheap and just burn their fields down. We are paying and paying and paying and then we’re paying for the health care costs because they manipulated the research to make it look as though sugar was good for you.

I really want to make people aware of what this has cost us, again and again and again. And I hope at that point people will say “enough.”

Do you have specific suggestions for how the subsidy program could be reduced or amended? Are there proposals out there that might be part of farm bill discussions?

We talked to people who feel that the sugar industry should be held to account in the same way the tobacco industry and the pharmaceuticals industry were. In other words, through civil court cases in which they are sued and forced to pay for the damage they’ve done to the environment, for misleading the public on the health effects of sugar, etc.

We have talked to people who have said that they should no longer incentivize the planting of sugar because the American public will buy sugar no matter what. There’s no national security interest in enticing people to plant sugar, which I think is a strong argument.

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I think that the biggest takeaway for me is that this shouldn’t be a rubber stamp. It should not be a foregone conclusion that the sugar program in the farm bill doesn’t even get discussed or debated. The U.S. sugar barons are so savvy when it comes to politics, and so powerful, they donate to both Republicans and Democrats, liberally.

The American people need to demand that if politicians are going to vote for this, if they’re going to hand over billions of dollars in our taxpayer funds to these people who own 50-foot yachts, they need to explain themselves, and there needs to be a damn good reason.

Did you have a favorite part of putting together this podcast, something that really stands out for you?

“We just need to stop treating the people that we rely on as though they’re our enemy… They deserve respect, and [proper] treatment, and fair pay.”

One of my favorite parts was speaking to the Jamaican cutters. Their stories were horrifying—I’m not gonna lie about that—and upsetting, and it was hard to listen to. But at the same time, they’re so honest and plainspoken, and they just tell you the truth. Without embellishing, without saving your feelings, without hesitation. They just tell you what happened to them. These are people who have incredible stories to tell. And they deserve better—so much better.

How do you think the immigrant farmworker visa program could be improved?

We just need to stop treating the people that we rely on as though they’re our enemy. These are people whose work we need and who do incredibly difficult work for us that our citizens don’t want to do. And they are working their hearts out and we treat them horribly. And if we would simply acknowledge the fact that we need their labor and treat them with gratitude and respect, we would all be a lot better off. They deserve respect, [proper] treatment, and fair pay.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Amy Mayer has been covering food and agriculture for more than a decade. She currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She previously worked at Harvest Public Media. She produced the 2011 documentary Peace Corps Voices, which aired in over 160 communities across the country, and has written for The New York Times, Boston Globe, Real Simple and other outlets. Amy has a bachelor’s degree in Latin American studies from Wellesley College and a master’s degree from the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. Read more >

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  1. Matt L. Barron
    Here is a letter to the editor I just had published in a local paper:

    Rep. Richard Neal’s sugar money leaves consumers with sour taste
    Unlike the Red River Valley of Minnesota and North Dakota, no sugar beets are grown in Massachusetts. And neither do we grow sugarcane like the states of Florida and Louisiana. But during his years in Congress, Rep. Richard Neal (D-Springfield) has had no problem voting to maintain a costly government sugar program that benefits a handful of giant sugar processors and less than 6,000 farmers.
    First enacted 89 years ago, the U.S. sugar program uses import quotas, marketing allotments, price supports and tariffs to artificially raise the price of sugar. One think tank called the program a classic government-created cartel.
    Rep. Neal has decided that siding with the sugar lobby can pay off for him with succulent donations of campaign contributions from the industry. Between 1999-2018, Neal has voted numerous times against cutting sugar price supports and reducing sugar loan rates and in 2018 against an amendment to begin dismantling the outdated sugar support program.
    Here in Massachusetts, approximately 13,400 jobs are generated among the 436 establishments that produce breads and bakery products, chocolate and chocolate confectionery manufacturing, ice cream and frozen desserts, snack foods, breakfast cereals, soft drinks and other products. The U.S. Census Bureau says that our current sugar program has killed some 123,000 jobs between 1997 and 2015 and the Department of Commerce estimates that for every sugar-producing job protected through high U.S. sugar process, about three manufacturing jobs are lost.
    These lost jobs don’t seem to bother Rep. Neal who has fattened his campaign war chest on sugar industry cash. Between 2000 and 2014, Neal pulled down $16,000 in PAC checks from seven groups like American Crystal Sugar Co., a Minnesota-based sugar beet cooperative and the Florida Sugar Cane League, which represents large sugar conglomerates such as Florida Crystals and the U.S. Sugar Corporation.
    In his July 2023 campaign finance report covering the second quarter of this year, Neal is showing a total of $14,500 in campaign cash from five sugar PACs including The Amalgamated Sugar Co. ($1,500), American Sugar Cane League ($1,000) and American Crystal Sugar Co. ($10,000).
    Rep. Neal’s support for this corporate welfare program makes him a special interest sweetheart while his constituents pay higher prices for food at the grocery store.

    Matt L. Barron

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