Dear Mike Rowe: Big Sugar’s not so sweet when it comes to Florida’s water – and politics

Sugarcane is burned prior to harvest near Belle Glade, sending smoke and ash into nearby communities. Photo credit: Ralph Arwood

Dear Mike Rowe:

First, we’re big fans of your show “How America Works,” and in particular your focus on the men and women in the trenches, rather than the bigwigs in the C-suites.

Your recent program, “Behind the Scenes with U.S. Sugar,” was no exception. Jay Baez, Leonard Sampson, Billy Dyess and the other workers your profiled make an honest living doing honest jobs.

Unfortunately, where the sugar industry itself is concerned, it’s not so simple.

“Big Sugar,” as you noted, is a major employer and contributes billions to Florida’s economy. But the industry is also a huge impediment to clean water — and clean politics — in Florida.

As you likely know, the industry is centered in the Everglades Agricultural Area south of Lake Okeechobee. Of the approximately 700,000 acres in the EAA, 440,000 is devoted to sugarcane cultivation. U.S. Sugar, which you profiled, accounts for some 245,000 acres of that total; Florida Crystals accounts for another 190,000.

The industry gets free irrigation water from the lake and as such wants to keep lake levels high to ensure a bountiful supply. Problem is, when the summer rains come, the water level can get too high, potentially compromising the dike. That forces officials to discharge water to the east and west coasts

That polluted freshwater is bad for the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries, harming oysters and seagrasses. And if the water contains toxic blue-green algae, it can trigger massive, harmful blooms. You might have seen the international headlines and harrowing images documenting our guacamole-thick toxic algae in 2013, 2016 and 2018. Household pets died; new research ties the toxin in the algae to Lou Gehrig’s disease.

It’s a crisis for coastal communities and all who live here. But as far as Big Sugar’s concerned, it’s the cost of doing business — a cost they’ve sloughed off onto somebody else.

And Mike, that’s not even the half of it.

For decades, Big Sugar “back pumped” nutrient-laden water from the sugar fields into Lake Okeechobee; those nutrients still live in the muck at the bottom of the lake and contribute to what have become annual toxic algae blooms.

The industry has fought efforts to create more water storage and move additional clean water south to the parched Everglades. 

Then there’s the air pollution. Every year Big Sugar burns the sugarcane fields to facilitate harvest, blanketing nearby communities — predominantly low-income communities of color — with toxic smoke and ash. This pollution is suspected of causing lung disease, heart disease and other health problems. It’s as clear a case of environmental racism as you’ll find. But Big Sugar insists the smoke and ash does no harm, and while other sugar-growing regions have switched to “green harvesting” — which many experts say would create even more jobs for hard-working folks like those you profiled — Big Sugar refuses to change.

Given how much the industry spends on political candidates, it doesn’t have to.

The industry lavishes campaign cash on candidates at the federal, state and local level; in 2020, Big Sugar spent at least $11 million. In Florida alone, Big Sugar employs 52 lobbyists to stalk the halls of power and ensure the industry gets what it wants.

We’re trying to convince candidates not to take the industry’s money, and cast votes in the best interest of their constituents, not their corporate paymasters.

But the industry is entrenched, due in large part to the federal Sugar Program, which effectively guarantees Big Sugar profits via import quotas and price supports. This forces soft drink companies, confectioners and American consumers in general to pay higher prices than they otherwise would, and a 2006 Commerce Department study concluded that for each sugar growing and harvesting job saved through high sugar prices, nearly three confectionery manufacturing jobs are lost.

Mike, this is crony capitalism at its worst.

So when we heard you were doing a show on U.S. Sugar, we were concerned you might venerate the company. We were glad to see you venerated the workers instead. It’s people like them who really make the wheels turn in this country.

But as noted above, Big Sugar’s wheels tend to run over a lot of people, and dirty our waters. The industry could be part of the solution. It’s specifically chosen not to be.

Opportunities for making a living in the industry may be pretty sweet, as you noted.

But you might better understand now why the industry leaves a sour taste in so many of our mouths.

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