Unless the sugar industry in CARICOM can develop a co-ordinated and concerted plan of action over the next few months, it is quite possible that in a few years’ time there will be little left of an industry which, for evil and good, has played a central role in the making of the Caribbean.
This is because this year will see two tsunami-like events occur, both of which threaten the survival of the industry in its present form.
The first relates to the changes that will take place this October in the EU’s sugar regime. Then, as a long planned domestic measure, the EU will abolish national sugar production quotas in Europe. This will have the effect of reducing the price paid for ACP sugar, while also causing the overall volume of EU sugar imports to fall as Europe becomes self-sufficient.
The measure, according to the European Commission’s late 2015 report, ‘EU Agricultural Outlook 2015-2025’, is likely to see the EU sugar price declining to something approaching the already low world market price, forcing the EU sugar sector ‘to become more competitive’, and ‘reducing the incentive for trade partners to export to the EU’.
For high-cost Caribbean producers – Guyana, Barbados, Belize and Jamaica – and almost all smaller cane producers in the ACP, this potentially spells the end of the EU market, as previously quotarestrained EU beet farmers expand production, taking advantage of much improved yields and industry consolidation, to sell without restriction across Europe and to export.
The second challenge arises out of the UK’s 2016 decision to leave the EU. Britain is expected to offer formal notification to the EU of its departure later this month, triggering years of uncertainty for all of Britain’s trade partners as they negotiate new arrangements.
For the Caribbean region, which still exports much of its sugar to the UK for refining, the timing is complicated. Not only will the new EU sugar regime apply to the UK until it formally separates in 2019 at the earliest, but this means that Britain is unlikely for some time yet, to be able to reconcile politically, how it will address the sugar issue.
This arises because any UK government is going to have to determine how to balance and resolve the competing post-Brexit interests of its domestic sugar producers; its cane sugar refiners; desired trade deals with major cane sugar and by-product producers like Brazil; and ACP development, probably in that order.
It is already clear that the British Sugar Corporation, which represents British beet growers, is preparing for a monumental fight. They make the case that because they are efficient and make a significant economic contribution to the UK economy, they offer Britain the opportunity to protect the UK from imports of cane and beet sugar from foreign producers, wherever they may be.
Unfortunately, the industry in CARICOM must address both challenges at a time when the sugar sector still has many fundamental, unresolved issues.
While progress is being made in Belize and Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic has a viable privatised industry, there remain problems across CARICOM arising from the persistently high cost of production, poor labour relations, and inefficiencies.
More significantly, despite years of discussion and external support, governments and the industry have so far been unable to undertake the type of reforms underway elsewhere in the ACP that could viably link sugar production to sugar refining; to the rum and ethanol industries; and to power generation and food production.
What is now happening in Europe, however, goes further, raising existential questions requiring a regional consensus and response.
In this context, a High Level Caribbean Sugar Policy Workshop planned for Kingston, Jamaica on March 23-24, is of potentially great importance. Organised jointly by the Sugar Association of the Caribbean, CARICOM and other partners from inside and beyond the region, it involves Ministers, officials and most importantly a wide range of industry partners, whose future is now in the hands of regional governments.
Although the agenda is still being set, some possible approaches to the discussion were contained in an ACP-endorsed study produced last year by Cardno/LMC International. This study set out the risks facing ACP sugar producers from changes to the EU sugar regime, reviewed the situation in each ACP sugar producing nation, and suggested possible mitigating actions.
It recommended, in part, that the regional integration of ACP sugar industries should be a priority. In this context, it noted that while governments were free to support their industries by raising tariffs, co-ordination within free trade areas would be required if producers were to gain.
It is an idea that in a Caribbean context would mean not just a greater emphasis on CARICOM sugar production for the regional market, but an adjustment to the Common External Tariff to protect the industry while it adapts to new market conditions.
Although any measure that sustains sugar prices through inter-regional preference may prove controversial, securing a viable future for the sugar industry is important for the region.
Even if the industry now only accounts for less than two per cent of regional GDP – a figure that pales in comparison to tourism – it is still a significant employer of labour; supports rural communities; provides a range of social services; preserves the environment and contributes to carbon reduction; and indirectly halts urban drift and the associated problems of crime.
What transpires at the Kingston conference remains to be seen, but already there are ideas in circulation aimed at trying to identify a more secure future for the industry. Tariffs apart, these include possible joint arrangements for inter-regional and international marketing; creating a definition of Caribbean-originating sugar; improving efficiency through privatisation; and identifying sources of finance to achieve this.
Within ten years the EU market for raw sugar from the Caribbean will most likely be all but a matter of history. While sugar production in CARICOM is unlikely to cease, hopefully by then what is left will be very different, reoriented, efficient and part of a broader cane-based industrial sector.