It's hard to make a sugar beet look sexy. What do you think, did the PR people of this campaign succeed?
Ah. You're wondering what this is all about - and what it has to do with Romania. Good questions, both of them. The first one I'm going to answer today. If there is any interest at all, then I'll answer the second question tomorrow. Personally, I encountered this particular sugar beet for the first time about three hours ago, as I turned a page in my beloved Zeit magazine and saw a one-page ad by the German sugar beet industry. Until then, I had been blissfully unaware that the EU plans to recklessly ruin the livelihood of thousands of German (and other EU) sugar beet farmers. In order to understand the sheer magnitude of this problem, you have to know that large areas of Germany look like this:
Sugar beets are an object of pride to Germans, you have to understand. Until the 1800s, sugar was made only from sugar cane. As this is a tropical plant and even the most favorably minded person would not call the German climate a tropical one, this meant that Germany had to rely entirely on imported sugar cane. However, in 1747, a German chemist by the name of Andreas Sigismund Marggraf discovered that beet juice contains a comparably high percentage of sugar. He developed a method of extraction which, unfortunately, wasn't very economical. Then, in 1801, another German chemist, Franz Carl Achard, refined the process and thus laid the foundations for mechanical extraction. In the same year, the first sugar beet factory was opened in Silesia. (Not to forget that the sugar cube is also a German invention. Knowing all this, you cannot but call the Germans sweet guys, eh?) Anyhow, the Germans having a sweet tooth, sugar from sugar beets took off like rocket. It helped that Napoleon sealed off the European harbors in 1806 and sugar cane was not to be had anymore. These days, 55% of the world sugar production comes from beets. Back in the good old days, namely in 1968, the then EEC passed a decree that guaranteed fixed prices for sugar beets to European farmers -- to protect them from price swings and cheap imports. (Sugar from outside the EU is up to 50% cheaper.) WTO called this sugar decree "medieval", the German Wise Economic Men (a group of, well, wise economic men) criticized it, as did the OECD. To no avail -- since this subsidy is not tied directly to the budget of the EU, there has been little incentive to change or simply abolish this law. It's all coming out of the consumer's pockets -- an estimated 6.3 billion Euros in additional costs for the expensive sugar per year. The decree has been extended numerous times, and in its current life will run until 2006. The excitement stems from the fact that the EU is thinking of not extending the decree anymore -- or rather, changing it considerably. In essence, the fixed price is to be cut by one third and the European production quota is to be cut by 16%. (This move may have to do with law suits that some countries threatened to file.) In plain words, it means that the good times for sugar beet producers will be over. The "license to print money", as one German politician put it, is about to be revoked. Yeah, I'd be pissed too. Mind you, I'm all in favor for opening markets. I don't like subsidies (as a former, reformed economist I actively despise them). Susidies always create problems in the long run. That's why my first reaction was, so what? Chocolate will get cheaper and the farmers will lay their fields fallow, cashing in EU subsidies for that. You have to understand that sugar beets are EVERYWHERE in Germany. So the argument that cutting down on sugar beet production would result in a monoculture? I'm not biting. I'm willing to be proven wrong, though. Show me that the sugar beet is important for the German eco system and I might give the guys from "Existenzfrage Zucker" (existential topic sugar) another look. It has to be a good argument though -- I'm reacting slightly allergic to the claim that the fight for keeping the sugar decree is, "well worth fighting for" and a matter of national pride. Tomorrow: What the sugar beet decree and its demise mean to Romania.