Foreign Food Dependence: A History Lesson
It’s hard to imagine food rationing was part of daily life in the United States, especially when you can go into your grocery store of choice and buy everything from a steak to a sack of sugar.
That wasn’t the reality more than 70 years ago during World War II when German U-boats prowled the Atlantic and Japanese carriers came within an ace of achieving supremacy in the Pacific so they could carry out raids on the U.S. West Coast.
Back then, America didn’t have a nationwide domestic sugar industry and the Western States relied on shipments from the Philippines and Hawaii.
But the Japanese conquered the Philippines and ships in Hawaii normally used to ship sugar were needed for the war effort.
The country’s supply of sugar was cut by a third, and sugar was officially rationed in May 1942.
The government’s Office of Price Administration issued 123 million copies of War Ration Book One, which contained stamps people could use to buy sugar. The rationing did not end until supplies were normalized in 1947, two years after the war’s end.
“Sugar was so important and so scarce that it was the first crop on the rationing list, and it was the last crop off the rationing list,” Phillip Hayes, spokesperson of the U.S. sugar industry group American Sugar Alliance (ASA), said in an interview with Farm Policy Facts.
The lesson of that conflict became clear – depending on others for food is a recipe for disaster – and it helped establish the modern-day U.S. sugar industry and U.S. sugar policy.
Fast-forward the situation to today.
“There is a movement to once again make America more dependent on subsidized foreign sugar suppliers by gutting current U.S. policy and threatening domestic production,” said Hayes. “If folks think food scarcity is a thing of the past, just look at Europe.”
After losing a case in the World Trade Organization to top sugar exporters Brazil, Australia and Thailand, the European Union (EU) overhauled its sugar policy in 2006 in favor of foreign suppliers.
Subsidized imports quickly flooded the EU market and drove domestic producers out of business, explained Patrick Chatenay, an economist based in England who once worked for Saint Louis Sucre, France’s second biggest sugar producer.
A study by Chatenay on the topic found that 83 EU sugar mills closed following the policy shift, leading to 120,000 jobs lost. And when worldwide supplies contracted years later and expected imports failed to materialize, Europe didn’t have homegrown supplies to fall back on.
The result, noted Chatenay, was a sugar shortage and a 20 percent price hike for EU consumers on sugar containing products.
“At considerable cost to stakeholders and without any measurable benefit to the consumer, the European Union has thus put at risk the safety of its supply of sugar,” he concluded. “Surely, there are lessons to be pondered here as American policymakers look to decide on the future of the U.S. sugar policy.”
That lesson, explained ASA’s Hayes, is simple. “Keep U.S. policy strong to ensure America isn’t held hostage to Brazil, Mexico and other heavily subsidized producers.”
The thing to remember, sweetener industry officials say, is that sugar is not merely a luxury found in cakes, cookies or chocolate bars. It is a food staple needed in bread, yogurt, cereal and other healthy foods.
“Sugar, whatever its form, is a source of the carbohydrates essential to our health and well-being,” a report by the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization noted.
“It is a sweetening, coloring and bulking agent and a preservative. It can alter boiling and freezing points, affect the flavor and smell of foods, and add bulk to foods,” it said.
Not many Americans are left who can remember first hand the challenges faced during rationing, but Hayes says ASA hopes to send a gentle reminder to lawmakers as they debate the future of farm policy.