Archaic Sugarcane Burns


Every year, more than 400,000 acres of sugarcane are set on fire in the Everglades to make harvesting the cane cheap and easy. For the residents of the towns smack dab in the middle of the burning, like Belle Glade and Pahokee, harvest season means smoke triggering their asthma, children staying inside away from the toxic fumes, and black soot falling from the sky. 

Two multinational sugar companies have gotten away with their story that “air quality is better in the Glades” for decade, but overwhelming facts and science say otherwise. Anyone who has spent time near the fields from October through May can see the lie with their very own eyes and feel it in their lungs.

The environment suffers as well. Sugarcane burning contributes to air pollution, water pollution and global climate change. Florida produces more greenhouse gas emissions from crop burning than any other state in the U.S., with sugarcane making up 94% of those emissions.

The only elected official who can singlehandedly put an end to this outdated practice is Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture.

Due to mounting public pressure, the Commissioner’s office made some burning regulation changes. However, data shows these “changes” are nothing more than Big Sugar’s lobbyists and lawyers spinning a new round of deception.

Video on a drive in Belle Glade: Every year, US Sugar and Florida Crystals emit thousands of tons of hazardous air pollutants, including formaldehyde and acenaphthylene by burning sugarcane leaves, a dirty practice that needs to stop.

The proof is in the research

A two year investigation by some of the finest reporters in the business uncovers the truth about the toxins in the air, dispelling the sugar companies’ claims to the contrary. ProPublica and The Palm Beach Post take a deep dive into the data and the politics that have allowed this to continue. What they found was startling. Here are two articles from their series:

The Smoke Comes Every Year. Sugar Companies Say the Air Is Safe

“A Complete Failure of the State”: Authorities Didn’t Heed Researchers’ Calls to Study Health Effects of Burning Sugar Cane

Hear it from the experts

Big Sugar loves to claim (and put on billboards) that “air quality in the Glades is cleaner than urban areas.” They often get away with that false statement for a few reasons:

1. There is only ONE air quality monitor in the Glades, which does not function properly much of the time. Since there is only one, if a burn occurs anywhere else in the 700-square miles of sugarcane, or if the wind carries smoke in any other direction, the pollution is not detected.

2. Sugar’s report dilutes data by reporting a YEARLY average. Of course, that does not accurately reflect the heavy presence of the smoke during the burning season, from October until May.

Dr. Jessica L. McCarty on sugarcane burning

In this video, NASA Earth scientist and agriculture burn expert, Dr. Jessica McCarty, explains the shortcomings of current air quality monitoring in the Glades and dives into some of the green alternatives to sugarcane burning.  

The solution

Fortunately, there is a green alternative that works for everyone. Mechanical harvesting has been implemented in sugarcane fields around the world, including Brazil, Thailand, and India, due to concerns for human health and the environment.

In fact, many sugar growers in Louisiana have voluntarily made the switch and this modern method is used in some fields in the Glades where neighbors, like Walmart, have insisted on it.

The false choice narrative proffered by the sugar barons – suggesting residents must choose between jobs and clean air – has been shattered. Seven years of research conducted by the University of Florida found no significant effect in final yields between green cane and burnt cane harvesting.

Big Sugar's smoke and mirrors

BIG SUGAR'S LIE regarding crop yield: "Without the burns, we'll go out of business!"

THE TRUTH: In experiments, researchers at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences found that mechanically harvested sugarcane fields in Florida produce roughly as many tons of sugar as fields that have been burned. Following a three-year trial conducted in Belle Glade, researchers concluded in a 2017 paper that “no significant effect of harvest system [i.e., pre-harvest burning vs. green harvesting] was observed in final yields in Florida,” and that “the effect of green cane harvest on sugarcane yields in Florida and Costa Rica was neutral compared to burnt cane harvest.” In fact, switching to modern methods would boost both jobs and profits for the industry, since the discarded leaves can be recycled into biofuels and other products. Their false choice – that residents must choose jobs or clean, clear air – is just untrue.

BIG SUGAR'S LIE regarding air quality: "We follow all the required guidelines!"

THE TRUTH: Big Sugar’s lobbying and legal teams write the guidelines and laws, then claim to follow the regulations and laws. The rules need to change to protect the PUBLIC instead of the pockets of two sugar barons.

BIG SUGAR'S LIE regarding harm to the soil: “Controlled burns are good for the soil.”

THE TRUTH: Not true with sugarcane. One of the world’s foremost experts on sugarcane harvesting, Dr. Andrew Wood, explains: “Agriculture as currently practiced in the Everglades Agricultural Area has a limited future due to the continued oxidation of the peat soils and their destruction by burning. Extensive land subsidence has already occurred on the muck soils and this is likely to continue rapidly while crops like sugarcane are burnt and little organic matter is returned to the soil. A system of sugarcane production where the soil is always covered with a thick ‘trash’ blanket (industry terminology for mulch and other organic debris produced in green harvesting) would be much more sustainable.”

Further Reading

NASA partners with academics to study cane burning air pollution in the Glades | The Palm Beach Post

This new project brings together researchers from six universities and NASA, each with different areas of expertise. “There’s not any data that we know of that shows the cumulative health effects over time. But the information (The Post and ProPublica) shared just made it clear: We know residents are breathing PM2.5, and we know that is bad for you.”

Smoking Sugar Fields in South Florida | NASA Earth Observatory

When NASA weighs in on Big Sugar’s archaic practices, you know change can’t be too far behind. “Research indicates that satellites likely detect only a portion of the sugarcane fires that burn each year. Yet with the help of data from ground-based sensors and atmospheric dispersion models, scientists are finding ways to explore the health impacts of the smoke.”

Dangerous Air: We Mapped the Rise in Wildfire Smoke Across America. Here’s How We Did It | Inside Climate News

Shockingly, but not surprisingly, Florida’s sugar industry is the number one offender in the US. “A handful of ZIP codes in Florida (where sugarcane is grown) recorded the worst smoke days in the U.S., even higher than California.”