Why Burn Sugar Cane Fields?

Every year from October through May, over the roughly 400,000 acres of sugarcane fields in and around the Everglades Agricultural Area, pre-harvest sugar field burning is a hazardous and antiquated harvesting method (EAA). Before harvest, farmers burn sugarcane fields to remove the plant’s leaves and tips, leaving only the sugar-bearing stalk. The citizens who live in and near the EAA have a significant impact on their health, quality of life, and economic opportunities as a result of this wasteful harvesting activity.

Discriminatory burn laws depending on wind direction ensure that wealthier neighborhoods to the east are protected when the wind blows in their direction, but inhabitants in and near the Glades (mostly lower-income communities of color) are left unprotected from the smoke and ash.

Burning permits are given out when the wind is blowing in their direction. Florida Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried, who is in charge of the Florida Forest Service, the organization that issues licenses for pre-harvest burns, is in charge of the discriminatory burning regulations.

Cane sugar be harvested without burning it?

Either green cane harvesting or burnt cane harvesting processes are part of the production systems for sugarcane, a complex hybrid of Saccharum spp. In burnt cane harvesting, leafy material is removed from sugarcane fields before to harvest in order to increase sugar recovery rates at the mill, decrease transportation costs to the mill, and improve harvesting efficiency. When sugarcane is gathered using the green cane method, it is not burned, and a thick, leafy residue known as “trash blanket” or garbage is left on the soil’s surface.

Do they still burn the fields of sugar cane?

Due to worries about air pollution, growers have generally stopped burning sugarcane fields around the world, but they still do it in the Glades, Florida’s primary sugar-producing region. Producers there claim that maintaining the custom is essential to avoiding harvesting mishaps and limiting costs.

Farmers are not permitted to burn on days when the smoke will spread in specific directions, at least theoretically, and burning requires a permit. However, despite rules, locals close to cane fields report that smoke frequently damages sensitive locations like hospitals and schools. The ash that fills the air on burning days in the fall and winter is referred to by the locals as “a dark snow.

Cane season brings an upsurge in asthma attacks, sinus problems, and other breathing problems for communities in the Glades. Local healthcare professionals are also familiar with the consequences of the “When the cane is burning, there is a 35 percent increase in hospital visits relating to the respiratory system.

There is growing evidence that exposure to burning sugarcane fields can result in other long-term health issues, as well as the persistent breathing and chest pain that older inhabitants describe experiencing. Researchers have also discovered that residents of the Glades are exposed to higher levels of these chemicals than those living in the rest of the state due to the burning of sugarcane, which releases large amounts of cancer-causing toxins like formaldehyde into the air.

However, at the urging of representatives of the sugar industry, the local health agencies have mainly disregarded the burning despite objections from the community and years of their own proof.

Problems With Monitoring Sugarcane Burning Pollution

According to federal monitoring, the Glades have better air quality than average, and the sugarcane sector claims it conforms with Clean Air Act regulations. Technically speaking, this is true, but only due to a measurement flaw.

The lone air quality monitor in the vicinity of the sugarcane fields, according to a ProPublica and The Palm Beach Post study earlier this year, has been malfunctioning for eight years. Additionally, if the display was operating properly, it might not have mattered. The 24-hour average of airborne particulate matter is used to measure compliance with the Clean Air Act, but because individual cane fields burn for short periods of time, pollution from the burning fields occurs in bursts. Therefore, even while the average quantity of pollution observed over a 24-hour period might not be sufficient to prompt federal regulators to act, ash and smoke may increase in brief, severe periods that are sufficient to cause asthma attacks and other issues. The level of fine particulate matter in the air during particular time periods might be up to four times greater than the norm, which is more than enough to induce respiratory distress, according to research using their own monitors.

The fire has been contested by the locals, but it hasn’t been simple. First of all, considering that the sugar sector is one of the major employers in the region, many people are conflicted about taking it on. Although a class-action lawsuit on behalf of residents is now under way, new legislation intended to safeguard the sector may make it more challenging for homeowners to receive any compensation.

In the end, the lower-income Black and Hispanic communities who live close to the sugarcane fields lack the time and money to effectively lobby for clean air. This stands in stark contrast to some of the other local villages, such as Wellington, a more affluent white enclave that long ago began to oppose cane smoke. The Florida Department of Agriculture consequently outlawed burning cane fields when Wellington was likely to be affected by the smoke. A classic example of environmental racism is the situation described below, in which a polluting industry utilizes a community with little resources as a dumping ground. Environmental racism is rampant throughout the food system’s polluting industries.

Why is sugar cane burned in Florida?

Leaf garbage, or the vast amount of dried leaves that sugarcane plantations generate, is quite flammable. The growth of the following season can be slowed down by leaf debris, and leaves that are still attached to canes require further processing, which is costly for farmers. As a result, burning sugar cane fields before harvest is a frequent practice in Florida. However, during the burning season, residents close to sugarcane farms complain respiratory problems and air pollution.

Why it matters

The burning of sugarcane creates “black smoke,” a type of particulate matter that, when inhaled, increases the risk of lung cancer and cardiovascular disease. Additionally, it may exacerbate long-term illnesses like asthma. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), some of which are suspected to be carcinogenic or cancer-causing, are known to be released during sugarcane fires. Florida residents that live next to cane farms are mainly low-income Black and Hispanic populations.

The respiratory health of locals was affected by pre-harvest burns in Brazil, the greatest producer of sugarcane in the world. In response, they gradually changed to harvesting tools that made it possible to cut sugarcane without getting burned, eventually eliminating nearly all burns by 2017. A large portion of the sugarcane leaves are gathered and used to produce renewable energy, frequently at a sizable profit.

What you can do

  • Learn more about green harvesting practices and alternatives to burning sugarcane.
  • Learn more about the problems related to air pollution and the burning of sugarcane.

In Florida, do they still burn sugar cane?

Approximately 68 pounds of white sugar are consumed annually by Americans between sweets, baked goods, beverages, and other things. A little less than half of that is made from sugarcane, but growing that sugar isn’t all fun and games, especially for the locals in Central Florida who live close to cane fields that are customarily burned before harvest to facilitate processing. Residents claim that the burning worsens breathing conditions, but they haven’t had much luck opposing the region’s major industry. However, there are some possibilities for customers who want to purchase a product created in a better method.

Farmers are not permitted to burn on days when the smoke will spread in specific directions, at least theoretically, and burning requires a permit. However, despite rules, locals close to cane fields report that smoke frequently damages sensitive locations like hospitals and schools. On burning days in the fall and winter, ash that locals refer to as “black snow” fills the air.

Cane season brings an upsurge in asthma attacks, sinus problems, and other breathing problems for communities in the Glades. Local healthcare practitioners are also aware of the “black snow’s” impacts and observe a 35% increase in hospital admissions for respiratory conditions while cane is burning.

But why do people initially set fire to sugarcane fields? Trash is the accumulation of dried leaves around the base of the canes, and burning it is recommended for a number of reasons, according to industry supporters. Leaf litter is extremely flammable, and cane producers claim that by not burning the fields, harvesters and processors are put at danger for unintentional fires. There is evidence that the accumulation of leaf litter in fields can hinder the growth of the following season because the burned, black soil warms up more quickly than the land that was covered in vegetation the previous season. By the conclusion of the growth season, however, plants catch up and produce the same amount of fruit.

The decision to burn sugarcane is ultimately a financial one because more material must be transported to the processing facility if leaf debris is left connected to the canes. This costs money since it necessitates extra travels and processing time. Other environmentally friendly harvesting techniques, such as picking up rubbish in the field, call for more resources and labor, both of which reduce earnings. The Florida cane sugar business, however, refuses to take any action that would increase production costs, claiming that doing so will only result in higher prices for consumers.

Given that Americans already pay an artificially high price for sugar at the business’s own request, this is a strange stance for the sugar industry to adopt. Florida might be a wonderful spot to grow sugarcane, but nations like Brazil make it much simpler by combining year-round tropical weather, inexpensive (sometimes highly abused) labor, and extensive government backing.

Although we think of sugar as a cheap component, American consumers actually pay more to support the domestic business because the government bans imports to safeguard American sugar producers from losing out to cheaper foreign sugar. Import quotas and other subsidies for sugar, according to the anti-subsidy American Enterprise Institute, cost each person around $10 yearly. Although this doesn’t seem like much, the fact that so little of it winds up in so few hands means that sugar producers are becoming richer.

Since a large portion of this money is spent on lobbying, it is understandable why the American sugar business has avoided burning regulations while other nations have put more stringent ones in place. This is particularly true in Florida, where the sugar business spent $11 million in 2020 on pro-industry politicians. This paid off in April when state lawmakers passed a statute similar to North Carolina’s “Right to Farm” laws that shield factory-farmed pork producers from lawsuits, making it more difficult to sue sugar producers for contaminating towns. Environmentalists claim that the law permits the industry to keep burning sugarcane fields while limiting the potential damages from lawsuits like the ongoing class action.

An industry that already depends on the general population to stay viable shouldn’t burden the neighborhood with the additional costs of air pollution. However, it is true that making the switch to green harvesting costs money. Typically, nations who have banned burning did so through subsidies that allowed farmers to buy new machinery or more expensive processes. But there are other steps that could lessen harm besides giving the sector more money to shift. The number of complaints about trash burning is substantially lower in Louisiana, which produces almost as much sugar as Florida. ProPublica notes that even a minor adjustment to trash burning after cane harvesting has led to much less severe flames that produce much less smoke and much less complaints.

What does this mean for sugar that is sustainable, then? Unfortunately, white sugar is marketed as a commodity that may be used interchangeably and is hard to identify the exact source of. This means that it is challenging to prevent cane sugar from Florida scorched lands if you purchase ordinary sugar. Purchasing organic sugar produced in the United States does not offer a solution either because organic cane is primarily grown in Florida. Domestic sugar made from beets won’t come from fields that have been burned, but beet cultivation has its own issues, such as soil erosion and heavy chemical use, as well as a rancid smell that affects nearby communities, even though this doesn’t result in the same health issues as burning sugarcane. Foreign-produced sugarcane has its own set of labor and sustainability issues.

Finding sugar that was produced ethically is still achievable; fair trade labels make it easier to discover imported sugar that adhered to higher labor standards, and organizations like Bonsucro are seeking to increase market openness on sustainability (though neither certification currently works with U.S. sugar producers). Although utilizing alternative sweeteners, such as maple, date, and other sugars, may also help you curb your sweet desire, it is difficult to replace white sugar in every dish.