EDITORIAL: Sugar keeps its sweet deal in Senate farm bill

Sugar is sweet, but the sugar industry is sweeter when it comes to getting what it wants in the federal farm bill. The Senate this month passed its version of the legislation. The bipartisan bill is about $24 billion less expensive than the farm bill of 2008. Nonetheless, it will cost about $955 billion over 10 years, and sugar supports will remain intact. Sugar is the only commodity program that remains untouched in the farm bill now under consideration.

There's much to dislike in this farm bill. It takes only meager steps to change the wasteful way the United States distributes international food aid, despite worthy efforts by the Obama administration to reform that program. It consolidates conservation programs in a way that could undermine environmental goals and cuts food stamps in a way that could harm the neediest.

All that said, the goal of Senate legislation was to bring down spending, and it does that -- distributing the pain fairly broadly. And because few California farmers have been beneficiaries of the many programs that were cut, it could put them at relative advantage.

The bill, for example, ends direct payments to farmers -- traditional farm subsidies -- in favor of crop insurance. With a few notable exceptions for crops such as cotton and rice, California farmers haven't benefited greatly from direct payments, but they do use crop insurance.

California also produces nearly half of U.S.-grown fruits, nuts and vegetables, and California has been fighting for years to prioritize these "speciality" crops, which are generally more healthful than, say, corn and sugar. The Senate bill extends key fruit and vegetable programs that California sought in 2008, a big plus for the state.

From a health standpoint, it may appear beneficial that the Senate didn't touch the sugar program, which, perversely, drives up sugar prices. This is accomplished through price support loans, marketing controls and import quotas that help maintain an artificially high price for U.S.-grown sugar.

The trouble is, that doesn't necessarily result in Americans consuming less sugar. It drives the candy industry overseas or prompts soda and sweets manufacturers to switch to alternatives, such as high-fructose corn syrup.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein and others in the Senate attempted to modestly reform the sugar program but could not overcome the clout of the sugar industry.

As bad as the Senate bill is in some ways, the House version is sure to be worse. It is likely to transfer even more wealth from the federal treasury to agribusiness interests, while cutting programs for the poor, such as food stamps.

Advocates for farm bill reform will have to be vigilant and clear in the coming weeks if they are to salvage what they can in any final legislation that goes to the president's desk and pave the way for real reform into the future.