Multiple challenges pending for ACP sugar exporters

The production and trade consequences of the abolition of EU sugar and isoglucose quotas are just the tip of an iceberg of challenges facing ACP cane sugar exporters. These developments will be compounded by the uncertain prospects for global sugar markets and the UK’s pending departure from the EU. The overall situation is further complicated by sustained regulatory pressure to reduce the sugar content of processed food and drink products, both in Europe and beyond, and the growing availability of alternative sweeteners. This will create a context where only the most efficient ACP sugar cane industries are likely to be able to compete on the EU27 and the UK markets. 

Production effects of EU quota abolition
According to the French market analysis company Stratégie Grains, abolition of sugar production quotas will see the area under sugar beet in the EU ‘increase by close to 15% between the 2016 and 2021 harvests’. (1) It is held this will see ‘EU white sugar production…climb 31% from 2016 to 2021 (9) According to the commodities trader Sucres and Denrees (Sucden) this will see EU sugar production increase 2.8 million tonnes to 18.4 million tonnes. (2)

In France, the EU’s largest sugar beet producer, the area under beet is set to grow 25% (from 320,000 to 400,000 ha) (1).  This expansion of French beet production is expected to take place ‘even if prices fall back’ (3).

Beyond France, companies such as the Dutch company Suiker Unie have taken steps in recent years to get production and processing costs under control and have invested in expanded capacity and consolidation, in order to strengthen their market presence. Given these investments, the company feels well placed to deal with the ‘the reality of the end of the EU sugar quota system’, with its farmer members being ‘confident about the future of beet farming’. (4)

For its part the UK’s monopoly beet processor AB Sugar, sees’ the end of production quotas as ‘an opportunity for British Sugar to increase sugar production’, with new 1 or 3 year contracts being offered to beet producers, with a payment formula linked to the sugar sales price (5).

Outside of the most efficient sugar beet production areas the maintenance of coupled payments (payments linked exclusively to sugar production) in 10 EU member states (which account for 26.16% of the total EU sugar production quota), could help sustain higher levels of sugar beet production in these areas which are held to face production difficulties, than would be the case in the absence of such ‘coupled’ payments. With the expansion underway in the most competitive production zones for sugar beet, the deployment of this coupled support could help increase the overall level of EU sugar production (10). In general EU sugar producers are upbeat on the future of their sugar beet operations, particularly since many of them have invested extensively in developing non-sugar revenues streams from their beet processing operations.

For example, in 2016 AB Sugar opened its £15 million anaerobic digestion plant to consume some ‘100,000 tonnes of pressed sugar beet pulp’ for the production of ‘five megawatts of electricity for export to the national grid’. (5)

These EU sugar production developments, in addition to reducing EU import demand by around half of the recent level of imports, could potentially give rise to EU sugar exports of 2.5 million tonnes (an increase of 60% in a single year) (2).

Uncertain global sugar market prospects
All this is taking place against the background of uncertain short and medium term prospects for global sugar markets. While in the short term, on the back of the Indian governments’ decision to open duty free import quotas in the face of drought affected domestic production, global sugar prices are showing signs of recovery from an 11 month low (4), it is unclear how sustained this price recovery will be, given medium term production and consumption growth trends.

Global sugar production is set to return to a surplus level in 2017/18, with a projected world output increase of 9.7 million,  a level far in excess of the projected rise in consumption, which is foreseen ‘at a little over 3m tonnes’.  This will drive the global sugar market back into surplus ‘for the first time in three years’. This is projected to occur on the back of recovery in drought affected Indian production and a surge in EU production post quota abolition (3).

Indicative of this uncertainty was the forecast from ABN Amro in April 2017 of sugar prices of to 16 c/lb by the end of 2017. ‘The downgrade came even as sugar prices jumped, adding 2.0% to 17.04 cents a pound for May delivery’. (8) Not surprisingly the commodity trading company Sucden has warned of ‘more volatility’ ahead for sugar prices (3).

As implied by Sucden, projected global sugar market price trends are in part driven by EU quota abolition, with EU sugar production projected to increase by 2.8 million tonnes between 2016 and 2017, before levelling off at a projected level of around 18.4 million tonnes through to 2026 (6). According to the EC, EU sugar import demand is projected to fall from 3.3 million tonnes in 2016 to 1.5 million tonnes in 2017, before levelling off at between 1.7 million and 1.8 million tonnes through to 2026.

However, quota abolition will also see the EU re-emerge as a major sugar exporter, as production quota abolition removes the current WTO ceiling on the volume of sugar the EU can export. According to the EC, EU sugar exports are projected to increase from 1.4 million tonnes in 2016 to 2 million tonnes in 2017, before rising to 2.3 million tonnes per annum from 2022 to 2026 (6). Some private sector sources however suggest actual EU export volumes could be nearer 3 million tonnes (7).

According to representatives of the German sugar company NordZucker EU sugar production quota abolition has the capacity to push ‘an extra 3.5 million tons of new sugar a year onto the global market, equal to just over 6% of this year’s (2016) expected global trade volumes’. At a minimum this will bring uncertainty to global sugar markets, while some analysts believe ‘prices could be pressured in the longer term by extra production’ (7).

The BREXIT complication
Looking forward to 2019 the impact of EU sugar reforms on EU demand for imported cane sugar will be compounded by the UK’s departure from the EU.  While the UK accounts for 7.8% of the total EU sugar production quota (1,056,474 tonnes out of 13,515,672), the UK market accounted for 26% of total EU sugar imports in 2015, with this falling to just under 17% in 2016.  While the withdrawal of the UK from the EU will dramatically shrink overall EU import demand for raw cane sugar, the UK is already declining in importance as a market for ACP sugar exports (see companion article ‘Sugar market uncertainties for ACP suppliers will be heightened by BREXIT’).

ACP Sugar exports to the EU and UK 2015-2016

2015 2016
UK EU % share UK of EU UK EU % share UK of EU
Barbados 375 375 100% 476 476 100%
Belize 98,892 98,892 100% 77,861 121,376 64.1%
Dominican Republic 0 1 0
Fiji 100,236 199,982 50% 65,434 131,694 49.7%
Guyana 167,539 168,053 99.7% 51,428 101,722 50.6%
Jamaica 45,940 64,485 71% 24,139 24,139 100%
Madagascar 413 0 0 145 0
Malawi 12,239 77,234 16% 9,126 54,370 16.8%
Mauritius 71,373 385,823 18% 53,810 368,088 14.6%
Mozambique 20,000 239,522 8% 7,240 162,122 4.5%
South Africa 4 5,161 0.08% 4 2,131 0.2%
Swaziland 366 273,514 0.1% 58,679 229,276 25.5%
PNG 22 0 0 66 0
Senegal 1 0 0 1 0
Sudan 224,304 0 0 132,890 0
Suriname 11 0 0 10 0
Zambia 66,184 0 0 41,910 0
Zimbabwe 184,289, 0 0 104,814 0
Total ACP 516,964 1,988,265 26% 348,197 1,475,231 23.6%
Total UK/EU imports 625,906 3,122,708 20.0% 569,794 3,365,650 16.9%
% ACP in total 82.6% 63.7% 61.1% 43%

Source: EC, Market access data base (selected member state, UK, EU28; partner country, All; product code 1701)

Beyond these EU and global sugar market developments there are two further threats to the position of ACP cane sugar on the EU market, namely the regulatory initiatives underway to limit sugar consumption and the associated rise of alternative sweeteners.

Regulatory initiatives to limit sugar consumption
There is increasing pressure on public health grounds for government action to regulate and discourage the current high levels of sugar usage in manufactured food and drink products. Most recently, in March 2017, this saw the inclusion of a 2-tiered sugar tax on soft drinks in the UK budget. Soft drinks containing more than 5 grams of sugar per 100ml will pay a £0.18 tax while drinks with more than 8 grams per 100ml will pay £0.24 tax (11).

This extended the approach first introduced in France in 2012 (but with a much lower tax rate) and parallels similar moves in Spain and planned initiatives in Ireland, Portugal and Estonia (12). Meanwhile research suggests more than half of German consumers are shunning sugar in table desserts (13).

The UK sugar tax has been fiercely contested, with the British Soft Drinks Association claiming the sugar tax is unnecessary, since sugar usage in soft drinks is already sown 18% since 2012. The health lobby group Action on Sugar meanwhile, is urging manufacturers to commit to reformulation efforts in order to avoid the sugar tax (11).  There is some evidence the planned tax is already having an effect on reformulation efforts. In March 2017, the UK Office of Budget Responsibility predicted the tax would raise significantly less revenue than expected, due to reformulation efforts already announced.

Health campaigners meanwhile have raised the question as to whether the price effects of EU sugar quota abolition will undermine the new sugar tax.  It is held price reductions induced by quota abolition will be ‘much larger than the proposed tax’ (15). According to Stratégie Grains the quota abolition induced expansion of EU sugar production will create ‘very strong competition on the supply side, so that’s good news for all the sugar users’. It sees EU sugar prices gradually converging with world market prices (15).

EU and US Sugar annual prices pas and projected (€/tonne)

2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023 2024 2025 2026
EU 723 600 425 428 443 415 412 399 396 396 397 399 402 410 405
WM 392 395 351 388 395 392 381 358 355 355 356 359 363 368 382

Source: EC, ‘EU Agricultural Outlook: Prospects for EU agricultural markets and income 2016-2026’, Table Total sugar balance sheet in the EU, 2005-2026 (million tonnes white sugar equivalent)

Beyond the drinks sector, voluntary sugar reduction initiatives are also underway. At the end of March 2017 Public Health England set voluntary sugar reduction targets for nine food groups (17), aimed at reducing sugar consumption by 20% by 2020. If successful, the attainment of this target would remove 200,000 tonnes of sugar demand from the UK market by 2020. An initial target of a 5% reduction (50,000 tonnes) has been set for August 2017 (18).

For certain products reduction targets would exceed the 20% target. For example, for sweet confectionery products, the recommended sugar reduction target would represent a 28% cut. (17)  This is potentially a matter of some concern for ACP sugar exporters since it is estimated that around 80% of sugar used in the confectionary sector in the UK is cane sugar (29).

The Director General of the UK Food and Drink Federation (FDF) maintains the guideline targets set by Public Health England while ‘highly ambitious’, represent ‘a constructive platform on which to build a world leading programme of voluntary sugars reduction, right across food and drink.’ However FDFs’ corporate affairs director took a different view, maintaining a 20% reduction across all food groups ‘won’t be technically possible or acceptable to UK consumers’. (18) Action on Sugar has raised the question of how the UK government plans to ensure compliance with the sugar reduction targets (17).

At the corporate level Nestle has pledged to remove 7,500 tonnes of sugar (10%) from its confectionery range by 2018, while committing globally to reducing sugar usage by 5% across its whole product range by 2020.  More specifically, Nestle has announced plans for a 30% reduction in the sugar content of its gummy and chewy candy (Fruit Pastilles and Randoms) (20).  This category of products was reported to account for 54% of the overall UK sugar confectionery market in 2016 (19). These announcements were welcomed by Public Health England, which claimed the Nestle commitments showed what was possible through voluntary sugar reduction efforts (19).

The EU Health Commissioner meanwhile has welcomed taxation on certain ingredients as a ‘very powerful’ tool in tackling health issues. He announced he favoured ‘any measure that leads to healthier lifestyles and reduces the burden of chronic diseases’ and which makes ‘the healthy choice the easy choice’ (21).  The European Food Safety Agency is scheduled to publish a scientific opinion on ‘how much sugar can be included in a healthy diet by 2020’ (22).

Moves by public authorities to discourage sugar usage are not restricted to the EU. In 2016 a number of cities and states in the USA introducing ‘soda taxes’, as did Mexico. Taxes on sugary drinks are also being debated in Colombia, Brazil, New Zealand, Indonesia, the Philippines (23) and amongst Gulf Cooperation Council member states (30). A sugar tax is also to be introduced in South Africa, although the level of tax is to be reduced (from 2.29 cents per gram to 2.1 c/gram) and its introduction deferred until the end of the year (24). WHO representatives have claimed ‘other African nations will be watching to see if the tax helps reduce obesity in South Africa’, which has ‘the highest ranked obesity levels in sub-Saharan Africa’ (15). The success or failure of the South African policy could influence health policies in other African countries.

The Ongoing Rise of Alternative sweeteners and Sugar Use Innovations
Closely linked to the debate on public policy measures to reduce sugar consumption as part of broader anti-obesity strategies, has been the development of alternative sweeteners. For many years the obvious alternative to sugar was isoglucose. As an integral part of EU sugar sector reform, production quotas for isoglucose will also be removed in October 2017. This is projected to see the use of isoglucose increase from 700,000 tonnes to 1,700,000 tonnes within 5 years (6).

However, a growing range of alternative sweeteners are becoming available, posing a serious competitive challenge to both sugar and isoglucose. For example, in March 2017 the Israeli start-up company Unavoo announced the launch of a new stevia product which has removed the adverse taste aspects, is price competitive and can ‘replace sugar like for like in dairy, bakery and beverage products’. With a zero glycaemic value it can also be used in products consumed by diabetics. The sweetener reportedlyhas a shelf life of 24 months and is highly stable. The distribution of the new Stevia product is being undertaken in association with the commodities company ED&F Man (26).

April 2017 meanwhile, saw another Israeli company, DouxMatok, announce the launch of new enhanced sweetener, ‘silica sugar’, which has the potential to reduce sugar usage by between 20% and 40%, without any loss of sweetness (depending on the usage).  To date ‘silica sugar’ has proved particularly successful in chocolate, dairy and cereals based applications. It is expected that products using ‘silica sugar’ will be on the market from 2018 (27).

For its part Nestle has registered a patent for a new sugar technology which ‘could reduce total sugar content by up to 40% in its confectionery products’. Nestle plans to roll out this technology by 2018. (19)

All of these developments, and many more offer, industrial sugar users an increasing range of alternative sweeteners in the face of public policies seeking to reduce sugar consumption as part of broader campaigns to reduce obesity.  However some health campaigners argue that by continuing to ‘stimulate sweet taste receptors’ these alternative sweeteners simply perpetuate the sugar addiction, which lies at the heart of the chronic health challenges faced in a  growing number of countries. (28)

Comment and Analysis
ACP sugar exporters are likely to face an extremely challenging period in the coming years. Recent private sector analysis suggests a far higher level of increase in EU white sugar production than the EC’s December 2016 projections. Projected increases in EU white sugar production in some cases are double the volume of ACP sugar exports to the EU in 2016 (and equivalent to around 85% of EU raw cane sugar imports). This is likely to create intense price competition on the EU market.While once the WTO ceilings are removed much of this expanded EU production may be exported, this would simply transfer price pressures from EU markets to the world market. Stratégie Grains for example, projects world white sugar prices falling 12.5% by the 2021/22 season (from $600/tonne in 2016/17 to $585/tonne in 2017/18 and around $525/tonne by 2021/22), with this partly being attributable to expanded EU production and exports.Competition on the EU market will be further intensified through the lifting of isoglucose production ceilings, the emergence of a growing range of alternative sweeteners, the introduction of taxes based on the sugar content of soft drinks and the establishment of ‘voluntary’ targets for the reduction of the sugar content of a wide range of food products.Thus at the same time as EU white sugar production will be expanding, demand for sugar in the EU is likely to be contracting at a far faster rate than previously projected. For example in the case of the UK, compliance with the voluntary code for sugar reduction in processed foods would take 200,000 tonnes of sugar demand off the market by 2020. This is equivalent to 9% of UK sugar consumption.  This is a far higher reduction in consumption than projected in December 2016 by the EC for the EU28 as a whole, which estimated a 6% decline in sugar consumption by 2020.

Significantly the six EU countries where sugar taxes have been introduced or are being considered, accounted for 40.8% of EU sugar imports in 2016. The UK, Spain and Portugal alone accounted for 38.5% of total EU28 sugar imports in 2016 and fully 43% of sugar imports from the ACP. Developments in sugar consumption in these three EU member states are likely to be particularly important for ACP sugar exporters.

Overall this will create a very difficult market situation for ACP sugar exporters. As Associated British Foods has highlighted, investments made in improving productivity of sugar beet production and processing, mean on a per hectare basis the most competitive EU sugar beet producers can obtain white sugar yields which exceed those of Brazil.

With quota abolition likely to increase pressures to enhance competitiveness throughout the EU sugar beet supply chain, this will create a situation where cane sugar suppliers to the European market ‘will need to improve their efficiency and competitiveness’, if they are to retain a place on the EU market.

What this means in an ACP context was highlighted by the London Broker, Marex, which argued ‘if world sugar consumption stops growing substantially’, beet productivity continues to improve and new cane variety improvements come on stream, prices at some point will have to fall to levels  ‘which put the more marginal producers out of business’.

This is potentially a grim prospect for less competitive export dependent ACP sugar producers, such as Belize, Guyana, Jamaica, and Fiji and even, to a far more limited extent, Mauritius.

This grim situation will be compounded by any mishandling of the trade consequences of BREXIT. Governments of ACP countries with a high dependence on exports to the UK market (Jamaica, Belize, Guyana, Fiji and to a more limited extent Swaziland) will in the coming year, need to renegotiate their existing preferential access to the UK market, if existing sugar exports are not to be severely disrupted.

However, even if a continuation of current ACP preferential access to the UK market is secured, the future trajectory of UK sugar trade policy could see the value of this preferential access profoundly undermined (see companion article ‘What are the implications for ACP sugar producers of Tate & Lyle Sugars expectations on UK sugar sector policy post-Brexit?).

In this context, it should be noted that not all players along the sugar supply chain will be impacted equally by the challenges faced on the EU market. Many companies involved in the ACP-EU sugar trade have invested extensively in diversifying the revenues streams generated by the processing of sugar cane with the aim of reducing their dependence on the sugar price.

Similarly major sugar trading companies such as ED&F Man are positioning themselves to capitalise on the growth in trade in alternative sweeteners.

Those most vulnerable to the effects of the pending challenges faced on the EU market will be smallholder sugar cane farmers and other independent sugar cane farmers. This will require the governments in the affected countries to pay close attention to policy measures to strengthen the functioning of local field-to-factory-to-refinery supply chains.

Particularly important in this regard will be ensuring primary producers secure a share of the revenues derived from non-sugar and non-molasses revenue streams generated from the processing of sugar cane. If such new revenue sharing arrangements are not set in place smallholder farmers and other independent cane producers could find themselves bearing the brunt of the costs of the profound changes underway on European sugar markets.

(1) Agrimoney, ‘French sugar beet area to soar 20% next year’, 1 December 2016–10222.html
(2) Agrimoney, ‘Sugar prices face more volatility especially if El Nino strikes’, 14th March 2017—especially-if-el-nino-strikes–10536.html
(3) Agrimoney, ‘French government boosts hopes for sugar beet harvest’, 7 November 2016–10126.html
(4) Royal Cosun, ‘Cosun: other activities make up for decline in sugar’, 9 February 2017
(5) ABF, ‘Associated British Foods Annual report and Accounts 2016’,
(6) EC, ‘EU Agricultural Outlook: Prospects for EU Agricultural Markets and income 2016-2026, December 2016
(7), ‘Sugar reform to change pattern of global trade’, 18 May 2016
(8), ‘ABN cuts sugar price forecast, even as futures rally’, 13 April 2017–10634.html
(9), ‘Will an end to sugar quotas undermine a sugar tax’, 19 January 2017
(10) Initiativet for Handel og Udvikling, ‘The Impact of EU Sugar Reforms on Traditional African Caribbean and Pacific Sugar Exporters’, November 2015
(11), ‘UK sugar tax confirmed in Budget 2017’, 8 March 2017
(12), ‘2016: The year of the sugar tax’ 19 January 2017
(13), ‘Europe’s largest dessert market under pressure as half of Germans shun sugar’, 10 March 2017
(14), ‘Reformulation success: UK says planned sugar tax revenues to fall by €160m’, 10 March 2017
(15), ‘Will an end to sugar quotas undermine a sugar tax’, 19 January 2017
(16), ‘How will the end of EU sugar quotas impact confectioners?’, 12 January 2017
(17), ‘UK sets portion size and sugar reduction guidance for chocolate and candy’, 30 March 2017
(18), ‘UK guidelines target cake and cereals in drive to cut sugar 20%’, 30 March 2017
(19), ‘Nestle UK to cut 10% of sugar in confectionery range by 2018’ 8 March 2017
(20), ‘Nestle cuts 30% sugar in Rowntree’s gummy and chewy candy’, 28 March 2017
(21), ‘Sugar, salt and fat taxes are ‘very positive’, says Health Commissioner’, 30 March 2017
(22), ‘EFSA to recommend daily intake values for added sugar by 2020’, 24 March 2017
(23), ‘2016: The year of the sugar tax’ 19 January 2017
(24), ‘South Africa beverage industry calls for ‘effective anti-obesity solution in response to revised sugar tax proposal’, 5 April 2017
(25), ‘South Africa sugar tax could be blueprint for all Africa: WHO’, 9 March 2017
(26), ‘Stevia and fibre blend promises to slash sugar by 100% with no loss of taste or bulk’, 8 March 2017
(27), ‘Sugar…only sweeter? First products using DouxMatok sugar reduction technology to hit stores in 2018’, 5 April 2017
(28), ‘Sugar-free drinks no better for weight control, argue researchers’, 4 January 2017
(29), ‘The ‘ignored’ commodity: Confectioners face tough choice on sugar sustainability’, 13 September 2016
(30), ‘Looming GCC sugar tax could be expanded to include food’, 6 April 2017

Key words:          Sugar
Area for Posting: Sugar, CAP,  BREXIT, Corporate