How the federal Sugar Program leads to dirtier water

If the federal government treated you the way it treats Big Sugar — life would be sweet indeed.

Federal policy in the form of the Sugar Program — part of the Farm Bill, which is reauthorized every five or so years and is up for renewal in 2023 — keeps the industry in clover. Protectionist policies benefiting the industry date back to the early 1930s; today, Big Sugar benefits from low-interest loans, price supports and import quotas, all designed to keep the price of sugar higher than it tends to be on the global market.

You pay more. And Big Sugar makes more.

A 2017 American Enterprise Institute analysis concluded that the average grower receives around $700,000 per year, and Big Sugar conglomerates reap most of the benefits by representing multiple growers. One analyst asserts the Fanjul family, owners of Florida Crystals, are likely “getting at least $150 million a year” in net benefit from the program.

Sweet deal, indeed.

Florida Crystals is one of two big sugar players in Florida; the other is Clewiston-based U.S. Sugar. The two companies farm an estimated 435,000 of the 700,000 acres in the Everglades Agricultural Area, south of Lake Okeechobee. They get their irrigation water for free, from the lake; and in fact, the entire multi-billion dollar system of water storage, cleaning and conveyance south of the lake was built, and is operated, largely to benefit Big Sugar.

It’s another subsidy of sorts, worth billions.

All this government “aid” adds up, virtually guaranteeing industry profits. The industry uses those profits to keep the gravy train rolling.

Big Sugar spent more than $10 million on Florida state elections alone in 2022, according to state records. The website Open Secrets reports the industry spent another $8.8 million on federal candidates in 2021-22, and millions more on lobbying.

This helps perpetuate the industry’s privileges and gives it a seat at the head of the table when it comes to policy. For example, you may know the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has spent the past three years crafting a new “Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual.” But did you know Big Sugar lobbyists actually wrote one of the proposed alternative management plans?

That’s clout, baby. And that clout is, in part, a result of the government subsidies that put Big Sugar in the catbird seat.

There’s more, of course. The industry gets first dibs on capacity in the “stormwater treatment areas,” or STAs, south of Lake Okeechobee. Taxpayers that is, you actually paid to build these man-made marshes; before they were built, polluted farm runoff was being back-pumped into Lake O or sent south regardless of how dirty it was.

The STAs do a pretty good job of cleaning farm runoff (though not good enough another topic for another day). But there’s rarely room in the STAs for water from the lake itself, because the capacity is reserved for Big Sugar and other producers.

So when Lake O gets too full, water managers instead send water to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries — where it crashes salinity levels, boosts turbidity, feeds red tide and fosters massive blooms of toxic blue-green algae.

The industry gets perfect growing conditions while coastal communities suffer.

And we haven’t even mentioned the fact that sulfur used to boost sugar cane crop yields finds its way to the Everglades, where it promotes the formation of methylmercury, which is poisoning fish. Or the fact that Big Sugar continues to burn the cane fields prior to harvest, blanketing the nearby Glades communities with “black snow” and particulate matter that can cause cancer, asthma and other respiratory problems.

We could be here all day talking about Big Sugar’s impact on the environment.

But the bottom line is that all this — the political dominance, the iron grip on water policy, the legacy of pollution, the environmental injustice and beyond — is effectively underwritten by our warped federal sugar policy, the profitability and undue influence it guarantees.

It’s long past time for change. And ending the Sugar Program in the upcoming Farm Bill is the most effective way to affect it.

You can urge the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry to end the program via this web page; or you can email

Tell Congress to do the right thing for the environment, for consumers and for our communities.