Big Sugar and the 2018 Blue-Green Algae Crisis

There is a lot of misinformation going around about “Big Sugar” and its culpability in the Florida algae bloom crisis of 2018. There are some truths out there, but by and large we have to remember- Big sugar is made up mostly of farmers. Farmers that need a stable, clean environment to grow crops. The problem, it seems, is that they only seem to care about their own land.

The sugar industry in Florida is made up of big players like U.S. Sugar, Florida Crystals, and the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida, as well as some smaller company farms. These entities own over 700,000 acres of farmland south of Lake Okeechobee, the largest lake in Florida.

Sugarcane as far as the eye can see, behind a water pump sitting in algae-covered water

Amid the algae crisis, many people were quick to point blame at the sugar cane farms. Florida Crystals was just as quick to point out that water from Lake Okeechobee flows South, so the major bloom sites to the East and West (The St. Lucie River the Caloosahatchee River, respectively) couldn’t have come from their agricultural runoff. They place the blame on Okeechobee pollution to the North- from smaller farms and rural areas, as well as the Orlando area. There were then accusations from environmentalists of back-pumping agricultural water back North into the lake, among other things. These claims have been refuted, but that doesn’t leave the sugar industry with a clean record.

Yes, there is a problem with how Florida treats its water systems. Major sources of algae-causing nutrients include the innocuous- the prevalence of septic tank systems and fertilizer runoff in rural central Florida, from Orlando to the lake, for instance. And water testing does seem to point to those sources as the main sources for the blue-green algae bloom. And no, Big sugar doesn’t back-pump water into those rivers…

But.

Water from Lake Okeechobee is largely levied from flowing South in order to protect the sugarcane farmland from being flooded. Excess water is sent, you guessed it, through the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers. In fact, according to some estimates, in 2016 alone, enough water was redirected into the St. Lucie River to protect 630,000 acres of sugarcane farmland to the south from being a foot under water.

So no, the cane growers did not directly pollute that water. But they did stop it from flowing through the Florida wetlands, which would naturally dilute and clean the nutrient-laden water before it went out to the Gulf or the Atlantic. Instead they had the Army Corp of Engineers send the water from Lake Okeechobee through two small channels that quickly became environmentally overburdened, resulting in the toxic blue-green algae crisis that hurt wildlife and people alike.

Lake Okeechobee

The problem, then, is not that Big Sugar is actively participating in fouling up the water, but that Big Sugar exists. If the sugar cane farms didn’t exist, water from the North could flow freely through the lake, and then through the natural filter of the South Florida wetlands. And that water wouldn’t have the excess runoff from the farms either (which does still happen).

Efforts from Florida legislators to force the sale of these lands back to the state for environmental reasons have time and again been foiled. Big Sugar has Big Lobbying Power, after all. And the claim that they aren’t directly responsible for the water contamination helps their case.

At this point it comes down to the constituents of Florida to demand that their legislators take action on the sugar industry, and demand hard. Political figures like Senator Marco Rubio and former Governor Rick Scott have deep connections with the industry, and seem largely unwilling to give those connections up.

But what would life look like for the average Floridian if those farms were gone? Well of course, thousands of people would lose their jobs- and that’s a tough hurdle. But also, South Florida’s natural beauty and waterways could largely be restored. The tourism industry would flourish without the news stories of people getting respiratory problems from toxic algae.

And then there is this little secret:

Without those sugar farms, sugar across the US would cost… Less.

That’s right. The sugar industry benefits from federal sugar programs via domestic price supports and tariffs and quotas on imported sugar. In fact, according to South Florida’s SunSentinel and American Enterprise Institute economist Mark Perry, “American consumers and domestic sugar-using industries have been forced to pay twice the world price of sugar for many generations.” It’s all a federally propped-up racket that costs consumers more across the board.

If Floridians and environmentalists across the country don’t step up, it’s the taxpayers that are eventually going to have to foot the bill for an unprecedented cleanup effort of the Florida wetlands in the not-so-distant future, after generations of paying double for the goods the sugar industry produced in the first place due to government corruption.

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