Sugarcane grows only in warmer climates, with Florida claiming the crown as the top domestic producer (runners-up include Hawaii, Louisiana, and Texas). Florida’s crop is concentrated in several counties around Lake Okeechobee, right at the northern tip of the magnificent wetland ecosystem of the Everglades. . A few billionaires are holding Florida hostage to profit schemes based on shifting their pollution onto the backs of taxpayers; in this case, wrecking billions of dollars of coastal real estate and tourism-based businesses to keep sugar fields dry.
Diverting the water
Since the latter half of the 19th century, developers have been interested in draining the swamps of southern Florida for development purposes, but the draining of the Everglades didn’t really get under way until the federal government became involved in the 1940s.
In 1948, Congress approved the Central and South Florida Project, which authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to divert all of the water flowing south out of Lake Okeechobee. Over the next 20 years, a webwork of canals, levees, and roads constructed by the Corps diverted water to farms and populated areas. Some 1,800 miles of canals and levees, 200 water-control structures, and 16 major pumping stations were eventually constructed that drained 1.7 million acres of wetlands, almost half of the Everglades.
Plantations alternately hold or flood water according to the crop’s needs, not the Everglades’ needs. Deprived of the historical water flow from Lake Okeechobee, sometimes the wetlands bordering the agricultural area are unnaturally dry, and sometimes they’re too wet, which threatens biodiversity. You may have seen some of these issues in the news recently, as just last year Florida officials killed a deal to buy swathes of sugar company-owned land for Everglades conservation.
The effects on the Everglades were devastating. According to the National Park Service (http://www.nps.gov/ever/historyculture/ developeverglades.htm),
The numbers of wading birds, such as egrets, herons, and ibises, have been reduced by 90%. Entire populations of animals, including the manatee, the Cape Sable seaside sparrow, the Miami black-headed snake, the wood stork, and the Florida panther, are at risk of disappearing. Exotic pest plants such as melaleuca, Brazilian pepper, and Australian pine have invaded natural areas, choking out native plants and altering habitats. Massive die-offs of seagrass beds in Florida Bay have been followed by the extensive losses of wading birds, fish, shrimp, sponges, and mangroves.
In other words, utter environmental ruin. Even though there were stipulations in the Central and South Florida Project to provide water for the remaining Everglades and to protect the wildlife within, they could not have done a more thorough job of destroying the ecosystem if that had been their goal.
Central planning simply cannot replace the natural cycles that occur in nature. Just as in the pricing system, there is too much information involved for a central planner to process to get the result he is looking for.
As happens in so many places where agriculture butts up against nature, excess phosphorus in run-off contributes to algal blooms and otherwise mucks up the area’s ecological balance — in this case, feeding weedy plants like cattails and choking out native species like sawgrass. This kind of nutrient pollution can be traced back to several human sources, but a recent analysis by the nonprofit Everglades Foundation found that 76 percent of the phosphorus problem there comes from agriculture — and in that neck of the woods, that primarily means sugarcane.
The sugar industry
In addition to directly destroying the Everglades through drainage and interference with Everglades hydrology, the government also harms the Everglades through its trade policy.
The U.S. sugar industry is one of the most heavily subsidized sectors of the U.S. economy. Sugarcane growers are protected from international competition by quotas and aided domestically by nonrecourse loans. In 1994, it was estimated that the top 10 sugar producers in Florida received approximately $174 million in federal benefits.
Most people would be surprised to learn that, south of Orlando, a large portion of the country’s sugar is grown below Lake Okeechobee. The sugar industry is largely responsible for the deterioration of the Everglades.
Of the 1.7 million acres created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers through the Central and South Florida Project, 1.2 million are currently being used for the cultivation of sugar cane.
Sugar cane is highly destructive to the Everglades. As discussed above, the most detrimental effect of the sugar industry is the disruption of the water cycle to which the wildlife has adapted. The entire Florida sugar industry hugs the southern shore of Lake Okeechobee like a giant tick, directly blocking the water source for the remaining Everglades. All water flow is now controlled through levees and canals, with a large portion of it being used for irrigating sugar cane, with more being diverted to both of Florida’s coasts.
The farming techniques that the sugar farms employ are not very Everglades-friendly. The largest pollutant of the Everglades is phosphorous, a primary component of fertilizer used to grow sugar cane. High levels of phosphorous cause algae blooms to multiply, which chokes off the oxygen supply in marine ecosystems, killing off vast quantities of wildlife. The primary source of phosphorous in the Everglades is fertilizer runoff from sugar-cane production. The soil of southern Florida is not ideal for sugar production, and the farms must use large doses fertilizer to get the results they are looking for.
As you suspect, sugarcane grown elsewhere is no lighter on the land. Globally, sugarcane production is linked to high water use, water and soil pollution, erosion, and biodiversity loss throughout the tropics, and pre-harvest burning of the fields accounts for sugar’s largest carbon footprint. And with imported sugar, we also have to consider the food miles we’re racking up.
These corporations are run because we buy their products. If we stop and demand change, they will.