Burning sugar cane pollutes Florida’s communities of color. Brazil shows that there is another way. | Florida News | Tampa

This story was originally posted by ProPublica. Co-published with The Palm Beach Post , WLRN and WGCU.

This year, reporters from the Palm Beach Post and ProPublica investigated the impact of the burning of sugar cane in Florida. The practice of harvesting 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 heart of the state.

In our reports, we learned that other countries have found ways to harvest their crops without these burns. So we recently visited Brazil, the world’s largest producer of sugarcane, to find out how and why they have switched to another method.

Brazil has a huge sugar cane industry that produces raw sugar, ethanol, and electricity. The country cultivates more than 20 million acres, compared to less than a million in the United States

Beginning in the 1990s, residents of São Paulo, the country’s largest sugarcane-producing state, expressed similar concerns to residents of Glades today: they complained about the ash and soot. covering their homes and respiratory problems.

In response to public pressure, the São Paulo authorities passed a law in 2002 mandating the phasing out 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 sugarcane industry worked with the state government to eliminate almost all burns by 2017 and adopt other environmental protection measures. (Burning is still permitted until 2031 in areas too steep to be machine harvested.)

The results have been dramatic. The dried cane leaves that once went up in smoke now form a protective blanket over the fields, enriching the soil. Some of these leaves, commonly known as straw in Brazil, are also collected to generate renewable energy. Surplus electricity from factories is sold to the grid, often at a significant profit.

“I have no doubt that today no one wants to go back in time and no one wants to burn [sugar cane]”, said Antonio de Padua Rodrigues, technical director of the Brazilian Association of the Sugar Cane Industry.

ProPublica has 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 spokesperson for US Sugar declined. Florida Crystals did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The latter company, however, had previously told news outlets that Brazil was one of many countries “unfit to compare to South Florida” due to differences in farming practices, soils, weather and conditions. regulations.

Although the company did not provide more details on its claims, an advocacy group with links to the industry argues that the straw left over from the raw and unburned cane crop would promote rotting of the soil rich in the sugar. nutrients from Florida and would attract pests. Brazil’s top agronomists and industry leaders have recognized that Florida’s soil differs from theirs in some ways, but told us that the challenges created by leftover straw can be managed effectively.

“If the problem is the straw, you collect it and generate energy, and thus you win twice,” said Arnaldo Bortoletto, president of the Cooperative of Sugar Cane Planters of the State of São Paulo.

In fact, some of the cane in Florida is already harvested without burning when it grows in “smoke-sensitive” buffer zones near schools, hospitals, highways, and assisted living facilities. Neither US Sugar nor Florida Crystals responded to questions about why the no-burn harvest could not be extended.

Judy Sanchez, vice president of US Sugar, previously told the Palm Beach Post and ProPublica that any change in harvesting practices in Florida would have a “significant economic impact.” When asked for details, however, the company did not respond.

In Brazil, the industry has successfully overcome the financial impacts of the transition. Companies have had to retrain workers and develop firefighting teams to tackle forest fires in cane fields, among other changes. One of the biggest investments was the purchase of harvesting machinery, according to the Brazilian Sugar Industry Association, a trade group representing ethanol mills and plants.

Brazilian experts noted that Florida companies have purchased harvesting machines in the past and have owned them for years.

“You will just use the same machine that harvests the burnt cane and it will harvest the raw cane,” said Marcos Landell, director general of the Agronomic Institute of Campinas, a major agricultural research institution and college in the state of São Paulo.

Florida industry and government officials said Brazil offers subsidies that help offset the costs of the transition. Government officials and sugar industry executives in Brazil disputed this claim, saying the companies did not receive direct subsidies. The industry has, however, benefited from federal policies to support agriculture and promote the production and use of ethanol and other renewable energy sources.

In the United States, the federal government “supports the prices of sugar in the United States, which are generally well above comparable prices in the world market,” according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

In Brazil, the shift to mechanized harvesting resulted in a net loss of jobs, as fewer workers were needed to operate the new machinery than to cut the cane by hand. Over the past year, local officials and residents of Glades told ProPublica they feared a similar outcome if the burns stopped in Florida. But Brazilian experts told us they wouldn’t expect significant job losses in Florida because the harvest is already mechanized, a process that took place there in the 1990s.

In the United States, little research has been done on how Florida might switch to a new harvesting method. Agronomists at the University of Florida conducted a study of alternative harvesting methods and told us that leaving straw on Florida soil could make plants more prone to frost and inhibit short-term growth, but could bring long term benefits. The study, which was funded by the Florida Sugar Cane League – an industry group – and the Florida Department of Energy, did not examine the economic feasibility, including the employment implications, of such a transition.

Authorities in Florida have chosen to regulate burns instead of banning them. But ProPublica and The Palm Beach Post have found that regulators are relying on a threadbare air monitoring system that ignores short-term spikes in pollution, a hallmark of Florida cane burning. Recognizing the potential for human damage, the State Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services passed new restrictions on burning in 2019. But the number of burns ultimately permitted in the 2020-21 harvest season was comparable to previous years.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said she believed “there is a possibility that green harvesting is a feasible alternative”, but her office said no alternative harvesting method “has yet emerged as a environmentally and economically viable option ”.

Meanwhile, state research into the health effects of burning cane appears to have stalled. In 2016, researchers from the Florida Department of Health recommended a health risk assessment after finding that pre-harvest burns release toxic air pollutants. Such a study would assess whether community members had illnesses linked to the pollutants found by the researchers. But, five years later, the ministry has yet to produce such a study. He did not answer questions as to why.

Rachel J. Bradford