Speaking at a conference on sugar last week organised by a group of Least Developed Countries (LDCs), ministers from African Caribbean and Pacific countries (ACP) said they want the current limit on duty-free imports of less than 100,000 tonnes to be increased to more than 1.4 million tonnes by 2013, a figure they see as "negligible" in European terms.
"It is time the EU sugar cartel of major processors and big farmers was brought into the real world," said Jo Leadbeater, head of the EU advocacy office at the international charity Oxfam that aims to combat poverty.
Leading European sugar processors and ingredients companies such as Danisco, Tate & Lyle and British Sugar are preparing their finances for imminent change to the EU sugar regime, slated for 2006, that will slice away existing revenues. But while the European Commission must heed industry concerns, external pressure to lift trade barriers is strong.
"The reform of the EU sugar regime is a key opportunity to make trade fair. The new European sugar regime must put an end to sugar dumping and allow the poorest countries to benefit from substantial access to the European market. It is high time for the EU to stop overproduction and promote a sustainable sugar sector in Europe," added Leadbeater.
The EU currently spends €1.3 billion in subsidies to its sugar producers. As the world's biggest importer of sugar in 2000 the trading bloc bought €674 million worth of sugar from developing countries, more than the combined total imports by the United States, Japan, Australia and Canada.
Last September the Commission tabled three possible scenarios to amend the current 35-year-old sugar regime - leaving the regime as it is, providing a price reduction, or full liberalisation of the sugar market by abolishing the current domestic EU price support system, abandoning production quotas and totally removing import tariffs and quantitative restrictions on imports.
The impact of losing 75 per cent of production would send ripples throughout Europe, with massive job losses across the EU 25.
The European beet growers' association (CIBE) estimates that 500,000 jobs in the EU depend on the current common market organisation (CMO) sugar regime, in place since 1968.
"The COM supports the income of numerous farmers, guarantees numerous jobs in rural circles thanks to 135 factories," CIBE said in recent statement.
But for campaigners Oxfam the last option is the fairest way. 'Oxfam calls on the EU to eliminate all sugar export subsidies, cut EU production by 6 million tonnes to eliminate surplus exports, guarantee improved market access for LDCs beyond their current export potential and compensate ACP countries for the erosion of their preferential access to the EU market,' said the group in a statement last week.
The ACP Sugar Group represents nineteen African, Caribbean and Pacific states that are signatories to two trade agreements: the ACP/EU Sugar Protocol and and the Agreement on Special Preferential Sugar (SPS).
The Sugar Protocol is an agreement between governments whereby the EU Member States guarantee to buy and import agreed quantities of sugar which the ACP Signatory States undertake to sell.
European agriculture ministers will discuss the Commission's proposals later this month. The Commission is expected to draw up a final proposal in June.
In favour of a fourth option - not covered by the Commission - European sugar producers are looking to see controlled, managed imports. "We have asked the Commission to look at how to effectively manage an import, sugar-quota regime," Jean-Louis Barjol, at the Committee of European Sugar Producers told FoodNavigator.com recently.