Sunday, May 13, 2007

Sugar reform hits trouble

Last year's sugar reform has hit trouble and it's a familiar story: too much sugar is still being produced in the EU. 2007 production plans show that quotas have only fallen by 2.2 million tonnes over the first two years, well below the 5-6 million tonne target.

Moreover, the new rules also allow most sugar producers to purchase limited quantities of extra quota at €730 per tonne, and many companies who believe that their long-term future is promising have taken up this option, with nearly 900,000 tonnes of extra quota having been bought. In all, therefore quotas have only fallen by a net total of just over 1 million tonnes. Only three countries have ceased production altogether: Ireland, Latvia and Slovenia.

The quota system, together with high support prices, has not only built in large surplus production, but has left no room for imports. The commitment to import sugar from the ACP countries is being replaced over a transition period by quota free imports from the least developed countries and eventually from the ACP countries. The prices set in the EU will still be well above current world market levels even at the end of the reform process and the EU market is likely to be attractive to many producers in the developing world where the option for growing alternative crops is limited.

The reform cut sugar sale prices by 36 per cent over four years and set up a restructuring fund to pay uncompetitive processors and farmers to close down. Factories could choose between competing for sales at the new price, or being paid to cut their production quotas. According to the Commission, sugar facories were reluctant to reduce quotas because it was unclear how much of the restructuring aid they would have to pass on to sugar farmers. The reform gave farmers the right to at least ten per cent of the aid but member states could decide to hand out more.

The Commission is concerned that processors have been discouraged from taking up restructruring as they have been offered too small a proportion of the payment, particularly in the new member states where take up of restructuring money has been much lower than expected. The Commission plans to allow producers to keep 90 per cent of the restructuring money, with the remainder passed on to farmers. In any event, the world sugar market is very volatile and likely to become more so now that the EU has virtually disappeared from world trade.

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