"The Burning Problem of America’s Sugar Cane Growers"

"There’s a hidden cost to the way Florida’s farmers bring in the sugar crop. Just visit the hospitals and measure the climate impact."

"Driving west on Florida Route 98 from Palm Beach, the smoke is visible before the warning signs. Near the Lion Country Safari (“Florida’s only drive-through safari”), there are, far across a vividly-green expanse, dark gray clouds climbing into the sharp-blue sky. A minute later, by the roadside, comes the announcement, courtesy of the state transportation authority: “REDUCED VISIBILITY POSSIBLE.” If the immediate danger isn’t present, it’s nonetheless clear: You’re entering sugar country.

On the following November day, about 50 miles west, a John Deere tractor towing a water tank rumbles through a narrow dirt path between two cane fields, or “blocks,” as the sugar growers call them. Behind the tank, a man stands holding a fire-starting device called a driptorch. The tractor’s driver sprays water on the block to its left so it won’t ignite—flowers have not yet formed at the tops of the stalks to indicate they are ready for harvest—while the man in the rear sets fire to the one on the right. The driver covers his airways with a bandana; the firestarter has chosen not to.

South of Lake Okeechobee is home to the largest concentration of sugar plantations in the U.S. About 25% of the U.S. harvest is grown here, sold under brands including Domino and providing ingredients to food manufacturers and grocery chains. Florida’s sugar farmers burn fields to clear them of excess organic material—“trash,” in industry parlance—making harvesting more efficient. The leaves, containing virtually no sugar, go up in smoke, while the sucrose-laden stalks, being about 72% water, don’t. Studies in Mexico have demonstrated that constituents of the smoke from burned sugar cane include black carbon, which has powerful global warming effects, as well as dangerous particulate matter and potential carcinogens, including benzo[a]pyrene. Some residents of Florida sugar country see a link between what seems like a lot of kids using inhalers and the October-to-May harvest season."

Paul Tullis reports for Bloomberg Green March 28, 2020.

Source: Bloomberg Green, 03/31/2020