Series: Black Snow
Big Sugar’s Burning Problem
This year, reporters at The Palm Beach Post and ProPublica investigated the impact of sugar cane burning in Florida. The harvesting practice helps produce more than half of America’s cane sugar, but it sends smoke and ash into largely low-income communities of color in the state’s heartland.
In our reporting, we learned that other countries have found ways to harvest their crops without those burns. So we recently traveled to Brazil, the world’s largest producer of sugar cane, to learn how and why they switched to another method.
Brazil has a massive sugar cane industry that produces raw sugar, ethanol and electricity. The country farms more than 20 million acres, compared to less than 1 million in the U.S.
Beginning in the 1990s, residents of São Paulo, the nation’s largest sugar-cane-producing state, voiced concerns similar to those of Glades residents today: They complained of ash and soot blanketing their homes, and of respiratory problems.
In response to public pressure, officials in São Paulo passed a law in 2002 mandating the gradual elimination of pre-harvest burns over the next three decades. Producers invested in harvesting equipment that allowed them to cut the cane without burning. In the following years, the sugar cane industry worked with the state government to eliminate nearly all burns by 2017 and enact other environmental-protection measures. (Burning is still permitted until 2031 in areas too steep to harvest by machine.)
The results have been dramatic. The dry sugar cane leaves that once went up in smoke now form a protective blanket on the fields, enriching the soil. Some of these leaves, commonly called straw in Brazil, are also collected to generate renewable energy. Excess electricity from the mills is sold to the grid, often at a significant profit.
“I have no doubts that today, no one wants to return to the past and no one wants to burn [sugar cane],” said Antonio de Padua Rodrigues, the technical director of the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association.
ProPublica made numerous requests to Florida’s two largest sugar producers to film the harvesting and milling processes and conduct on-camera interviews with company representatives for this story. A U.S. Sugar spokesperson declined. Florida Crystals did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The latter firm, however, previously told the news organizations that Brazil was one of several countries “unsuitable to compare to South Florida” because of differences in farming practices, soil, weather and regulations.
While the company did not offer more specifics for its claims, an advocacy group with ties to the industry argues that the straw left over from harvesting raw, unburnt cane would promote rot in Florida’s nutrient-rich soil and attract pests. Top Brazilian agronomists and industry leaders acknowledged that Florida’s soil differs from theirs in some key ways but told us that the challenges created by leftover straw can be effectively managed.
“If the problem’s the straw, you pick it up and generate energy, and that way you win twice over,” said Arnaldo Bortoletto, president of the Cooperative of Sugarcane Planters of the State of São Paulo.
In fact, some cane in Florida is already harvested without burning when it grows in “smoke-sensitive” buffer areas close to schools, hospitals, highways and assisted living facilities. Neither U.S. Sugar nor Florida Crystals responded to questions about why burn-free harvesting could not be expanded.
Judy Sanchez, a U.S. Sugar vice president, previously told The Palm Beach Post and ProPublica that any changes to harvesting practices in Florida would have a “significant economic impact.” When asked for specifics, though, the company did not respond.
In Brazil, the industry has successfully navigated the financial impacts of the transition. Companies had to retrain workers and develop firefighting teams to combat wildfires in the cane fields, among other changes. The purchase of harvesting machinery was among the largest investments, according to the Brazilian Sugar Industry Association, a trade group representing mills and ethanol factories.
Brazilian experts noted that Florida companies have already bought harvesting machinery and have had it for years.
“You’ll simply use the same machine that harvests burnt cane and it will harvest raw cane,” said Marcos Landell, the general director of the Agronomic Institute of Campinas, a major agricultural research institution and graduate school in São Paulo state.
Industry and government officials in Florida have claimed that Brazil provides some manner of subsidies that helped offset the costs of the transition. Government officials and sugar executives in Brazil disputed that claim, saying companies did not receive direct subsidies. The industry did, however, benefit from federal policies to support agriculture and promote the production and use of ethanol and other renewable energy sources.
In the U.S., the federal government “supports U.S. sugar prices, which are usually well above comparable prices in the world market,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In Brazil, the transition to mechanized harvesting resulted in net job loss, since fewer workers were needed to run the new machines than to cut the cane by hand. Over the past year, local officials and Glades residents told ProPublica that they feared a similar outcome if the burns stopped in Florida. But Brazilian experts told us that they would not expect significant job loss in Florida because the harvest is already mechanized, a process that took place there in the 1990s.
In the U.S., little research has been done into how Florida could transition to a new method of harvesting. Agronomists at the University of Florida did a study of alternative harvesting methods, and they told us that leaving straw on Florida’s soil could make plants more prone to freezing and inhibit growth in the short term, but might provide long-term benefits. The study, which was financed by the Florida Sugar Cane League — an industry group — and the Florida Department of Energy, did not examine the economic feasibility, including the job implications, of such a transition.
Florida authorities have opted to regulate the burns instead of banning them. But ProPublica and The Palm Beach Post found that regulators rely on a threadbare air-monitoring system that fails to account for short-term spikes in pollution, a hallmark of cane burning in Florida. Recognizing the potential for human harm, the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services passed new restrictions on burning in 2019. But the number of burns ultimately allowed in the 2020-21 harvest season was comparable to previous years.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried has said she believes “it’s possible for green harvesting to be a feasible alternative,” but her office said no alternative harvesting methods “have yet emerged as an environmentally and economically viable option.”
Meanwhile, state research into the health effects of cane burning appears to have stalled. In 2016, researchers at the Florida Department of Health recommended a health-risk assessment after finding that the pre-harvest burns release toxic air pollutants. Such a study would evaluate whether members of the community had illnesses that were linked to the pollutants researchers had found. But, five years later, the department has yet to produce such a study. It has not responded to questions about why.