Why Is Sugar Cane Burnt Before Harvesting?

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 neighbourhoods to the east are protected when the wind blows in their direction, but inhabitants in and near the Glades (mostly lower-income communities of colour) 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 organisation that issues licences for pre-harvest burns, is in charge of the discriminatory burning regulations.

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 practise 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 practises and alternatives to burning sugarcane.
  • Learn more about the problems related to air pollution and the burning of sugarcane.

Can sugarcane be cut without being burned?

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.

Why are Louisianan sugar cane fields burned?

Sugarcane is burned by farmers to lessen the amount of leafy waste, such as stalk tops, that is transported to the factories for processing. Why is Louisiana’s sugarcane industry important? The oldest and most storied of the domestic sugar businesses is found in Louisiana.

Cane sugar still be burned?

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 only air quality monitor in the vicinity of the sugarcane fields, according to a ProPublica and The Palm Beach Post investigation earlier this year, has been malfunctioning for eight years. Additionally, if the monitor 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 amount of fine particulate matter in the air during some time windows could be up to four times higher than the average, which is more than enough to cause respiratory distress, according to research using their own monitors.

The burning 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 here, in which a polluting industry uses a community with limited resources as a dumping ground. Environmental racism is rampant throughout the food system’s polluting industries.

You burn off sugar cane for what reason?

Before harvesting the cane, farmers burn the sugar cane. By getting rid of items like stalks and leaves, it helps make the cane processing easier.

It’s common to observe cane burning lighting up the night sky at this time of year.

The typical period for burning sugar cane is from July through November/December. These fires, which are controlled burns performed by farmers, should be observed.

Sometimes persons who experience these burns phone triple zero to report them, which causes unneeded volunteer callouts.

What scent does burning sugar cane have?

It DOES smell like a campfire or like burning leaves when cane is burned. Actually, it is impossible to mistake. It in no way has a sewage-like odour.

Why do Hawaiin sugar cane fields burn?

Both short-term and long-term studies have shown an association between outdoor air pollution and mortality and hospital admissions related to cardiovascular and respiratory disease [1]. There is a dearth of study on the precise effects of sugar cane burning on health, despite indications suggesting it is at least as harmful as traffic-related pollution and, after repeated exposures, much more toxic than traffic [2, 3]. No published research have specifically looked at the effects of the current sugar cane burning methods on the Hawaiian island of Maui.

On the Hawaiian islands, sugar plantations were first built two centuries ago. Only Maui, an island in the Pacific, produces 200,000 tonnes of cane annually today [4]. Prior to harvest, cane fields are carefully and regularly burned to limit the amount of waste that needs to be transported and processed. Ash fall from cane field fires above the central valley of Maui is locally referred to as “Maui winter. Burns often start early in the morning and end before daybreak, avoiding rush hour traffic and busy times at work or church.

The Hawaii Department of Health sets and enforces regulations on open burning (DOH). On days when there is a lot of volcanic smog, burning is not allowed “vog) that originate from the Kilauea Volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii, which is situated 117 miles south-east of Maui, frequently occur on Maui. The predominant wind direction on days when cane burning is permitted is north-east. Vog tends to expose the entire island of Maui as it moves in on weaker southerly winds. Therefore, using days without cane burning as controls for days of burning could cause vog to confound clinical/epidemiologic investigations of the effects of cane burning on respiratory health. Cane cannot be burned in highly wet conditions, another potential confounder that is linked to symptoms of the common cold. Therefore, it is necessary to use techniques that at least account for these confounders when comparing burn days on Maui to non-burn days.

Given the relatively high frequency of asthma in Hawaii, the investigation of sugar cane burning on the island of Maui is a matter of particular environmental health importance. Asthma affects 16.9% of children and 16.1% of adults in Hawaii, according to the National Center for Environmental Health, which is greater than the prevalence in the US of 12.5% and 13.3%, respectively [5, 6]. Exacerbations of asthma have been continuously linked to rises in ED visits, hospitalizations, and mortality [7]. Annually, Hawaii reports 1,500 hospital hospitalizations and 5,000 ED visits related to asthma exacerbations [8]. Viral respiratory infections, environmental allergens, smoking, exercise, occupational chemicals, environmental changes, irritants, emotions, stress, drugs, food, changes in weather, exposure to cold air, and endocrine and comorbid conditions are just a few examples of environmental factors that may cause or aggravate acute respiratory illnesses, according to the National Institutes of Health [9]. On Maui, typical sources of smoke, chemicals, and particles include cane burning and vog emissions. Additionally, when cane burning is prohibited due to particularly wet and rainy weather, inhabitants may be exposed to moulds and virus illnesses.

Only a small number of studies have been published to date that look at the health impacts of burning sugar cane, and none of them have looked at the health effects under the present DOH burning limits in the special environment of Hawaii. Lehman looked at 36 patients who had serious chronic allergy issues and were slated for intracutaneous skin testing. The number of subjects who experienced positive cutaneous reactions after being exposed to sugar cane smoke extract increased significantly (P 0.01) when compared to the control group [10]. During a two-year study period in Louisiana, there were 6,498 hospital visits for asthma, and hospitalisation rates for asthma during the burning of sugar cane showed a favourable (albeit not significant) dose-response pattern [11].

Brazilian studies show a connection to harmful health impacts. Particulate matter (PM) and carbon monoxide (CO) markers from burning cane caused respiratory symptoms, according to a study that examined 673 records of youngsters under the age of thirteen and senior people over the age of 64 [12]. According to data analysis, the PM10 concentration was 28.912.8 g/m3 during the nonburning time and 87.757.9 g/m3 during the burning period. The PM2.5 concentration was 10.04.6 g/m3 during the non-burning time against 22.814.7 g/m3 during the burning period. Even after correcting for season and weather, PM10, PM2.5, and black carbon were still strongly linked to respiratory hospital admissions in both the young and old population. Even after season and weather adjustments, these connections held true.

Total suspended particle (TSP) concentrations from cane burning doubled during burn periods in another ecological time-series analysis, and 15 days after the concentrations increased, there was a statistically significant rise in asthma hospital admissions [13]. With modifications for over-dispersion, the study’s authors used a lag structure of 0 to 9 days between burn dates and hospital admissions. A total of 640 asthma hospital admissions occurred over the course of the study’s 493 days; during the burning phase (318 days), this number increased by 477, a rate that was statistically significant and 50% greater than the rate of 163 admissions during the non-burning period (175 days).

Riguera discovered decreased asthma symptoms but greater rates of rhinitis in children during periods of burning in a descriptive, cross-sectional study involving 1,076 private and public schooled children aged 10 to 14 [14]. He discovered that the prevalence of asthma and rhinitis symptoms was 11% and 33.2%, respectively, through a series of evaluations. The months of June to October saw the highest incidence of rhinitis, coinciding with both the Brazilian sugar cane harvest season and seasonal changes. Additionally, on days with higher PM2.5 concentrations, the daily prevalence of peak expiratory flow < 20% of each child's best readings was higher. The authors came to the conclusion that throughout the study period, rhinitis prevalence was higher than the national norm (29.6%), although the prevalence of asthma symptoms was actually lower than the national average (19%) for Brazil.

More recently, there is evidence that lessening pre-harvest sugar cane burning in response to a Brazilian state law mandating the practice’s progressive abolition has been linked to a decline in hospitalizations for respiratory disease [15].

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducted a pollutant analysis study on the cane and leaf burning from Hawaii crops in an incinerating tower in 1972 [16]. The emissions of particles, carbon monoxide, and hydrocarbons from the burning of 20 whole cane plots and 19 cane leaf trash samples were all within the usual ranges of several other herbaceous fuel types that had previously been burned inside the tower. Particulate yields from whole cane burns averaged 112 lbs/acre of fuel burned (99% CI, real mean between 92 and 132 lbs/acre), which was deemed to be a reasonable amount. The carbon monoxide yield, which was determined to be moderately high and comparable to the output from dry cereal grain straw, averaged 1,113 lbs/acre (99% CI with true mean between 843 and 1,383 lbs/acre). Finally, the authors came to the conclusion that the hydrocarbon production, which averaged 152 lbs/acre (99% CI with a true mean of 121 lbs/acre), was also within the range of normal emissions. The pollutant yields from leaf debris were slightly lower than those from entire cane, and the emissions from fires simulated to burn against the direction of the wind did not differ much from those burning in that direction. This marker study, however, does not cover all chemicals that can be harmful to human health or look at whether combinations of pollutants have a compounding effect. For instance, vog was investigated at a clinic downwind from the active volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii. Vog is another source of air pollution on Maui [17]. In a sample of 1,189 patients, there was a six-fold increase in visits to the doctor for acute respiratory issues, cough, headaches, and pharyngitis during periods of high vog exposure during heightened volcanic activity.

It is crucial to investigate the effects of present sugar burning practises on Maui given the connection between sugar cane burning and poor respiratory health outcomes in other places, the high prevalence of asthma in Hawaii, and the diverse environment in Hawaii. Therefore, this study controls for confounding variables that are expected to be present on non-burn days while retrospectively examining the association between sugar cane burning and acute respiratory infections on the island of Maui on burn days.