Sugar industry

The American sugar industry makes a product that nearly every American consumes–about 150 pounds annually on average. Sugar is purchased by food manufacturers as well as consumers: it is a key ingredient in many processed foods and is therefore a key component of the food industry generally.

Sugar is a product of sugarcane–a giant tropical plant of the grass family grown in the South and in Hawaii–and sugar beets, tuberous plants of the goosefoot family. Sugar’s importance in world trade and politics was apparent even in the seventeenth century, when the Dutch relinquished New Amsterdam (New York) to England in return for sugar-growing Suriname (Dutch Guiana). Similarly, in 1763, France traded most of Canada to England for Guadeloupe.Sugar industry

Christopher Columbus introduced sugarcane plants into the New World, the Caribbean islands, where labor demands fostered the slave trade. Sugarcane, however, was not cultivated in North America until the mid- to late eighteenth century. Louisiana’s sugar production started in 1751: Jesuit missionaries grew the plants in New Orleans. By the late 1750’s, at least one sugar mill was operating there. In Florida, commercial production of sugarcane, begun in 1767, was disrupted by the American Revolution and did not rebound for over a century.

Early sugarcane crops mainly produced syrup and rum. A Louisiana planter, Jean Etienne Bore, began successfully making sugar around 1755, affirming the sugar industry’s potential. When Louisiana joined the United States in 1803, it and Texas, with their large plantations, established what became America’s sugar industry. Small farms in South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas also raised sugarcane, mostly for syrup.

The South’s weather was not as constant as was the Caribbean’s, so the cane-growing season was shorter. Planters, however, had a large slave labor force and made use of innovations such as improved cold-resistant cane plants and steam-powered machines that advanced the industry. The multiple-effect evaporator machine, created in 1846 by New Orleans-born Norbert Rillieux, a biracial inventor, made sugar processing safer and more efficient. By 1850, the southern states were producing nearly half the sugar consumed in the country.

Sugar beets, popular in Europe, were not an important sugar source in America until the late nineteenth century. E. H. Dyer of Alvarado, California, built the first successful sugar-beet factory in 1870; more followed in Nebraska, Utah, and Delaware. By 1910, more beet sugar than cane sugar was being produced in the United States. Factory owners contracted with farmers to plant a certain acreage for their exclusive use, using seed the factories furnished, thus guaranteeing their beet supply.

Sugar Production

During the early twentieth century, 1 million tons of sugar was produced annually. By 1972, 3.5 million tons were produced each year, and about one-fourth of it was consumed by Americans. Sugar beets’ labor-intensive production, which initially required considerable hand labor for cultivating the plants, was soon made easier when mechanical devices were adopted to do everything from planting to harvesting the crop.

Big corporations in large coastal cities such as New York, New Orleans, Savannah, Philadelphia, and San Francisco took over the refining arm of the industry during the 1960’s. They processed raw sugar from the southern states, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and various foreign countries. More than one hundred varieties of grades and packaging of refined sugar were marketed to meet the increasing demands of American consumers.

The sugar industry has been assisted since the nineteenth century by the federal government with several profitable benefits. It has the right to use low-paid, nonunionized, federally sponsored, immigrant “guest workers,” who harvest the sugar crop. Farm subsidiesA billion-dollar-plus subsidy program provides short-term loans to growers. The industry also profits from strict federal limitations on sugar imports, which allow the industry to charge high domestic prices. For instance, when the world price of sugar was less than 3 cents per pound, Americans paid 21 cents per pound. A Commerce Department study estimated that the sugar program costs American consumers more than $3 billion per year.


Because the federal government’s sugar program limits sugar imports, some American businesses profit, but others, such as candy companies, find it more profitable to close their American factories and move operations elsewhere, where sugar is cheaper. Some U.S. refineries have closed, causing job losses. Some sugar farmers have switched to other crops, leaving fewer than fourteen thousand sugar farmers in the United States at the end of the twentieth century.

By year 2000, other countries were producing annually 1.5 billion metric tons of sugar, while America was producing only 7.2 million metric tons. Sugar consumption has remained stable for more than fifty years. More processed foods contain sugar, maintaining demand. Louisiana still deals with a short growing season, and the Florida industry’s invasion of the Everglades causes environmental concerns, but both states still retain their strong position in sugar production.

Further Reading

  • Flores, Alfredo. “A Versatile New Sugarcane for Florida.” Agricultural Research 54, no. 1 (January, 2006): 20. Recounts the Florida sugarcane industry’s attempts to find a plant variety that performs well throughout the winter season.
  • Forbes, Steve. “Bitter Battle.” Forbes, June 20, 2005, 30. Details the controversy between the sugar industry and Splenda, a noncaloric sweetener, precipitated by the sugar industry’s intent to keep its prices high.
  • Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books, 1986. Discusses sugar’s effect on human nature and culture, including its influence on world labor practices, physical relocations, and class identity formations.
  • Surowiecki, James. “Deal Sweeteners.” New Yorker, November 27, 2006, 92. Examines the sugar industry’s protection by the federal government, America’s high sugar prices, and the nation’s failure to use energy-efficient, sugar-based ethanol.
  • Woloson, Wendy A. Refined Tastes: Sugar, Confectionary, and Consumers in Nineteenth Century America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. Analysis of sugar’s role in nineteenth century American society and culture. Provides background on early foreign sugar production and consumption.



U.S. Department of Agriculture

Cereal crops

Cola industry

Food-processing industries

Hawaii annexation