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Burning Sugar Cane Pollutes Communities of Color in Florida

Brazil Shows There’s Another Way

Florida’s largest sugar companies say cane burns are safe and can’t be stopped without economic harm. But Brazil has successfully transitioned away from the controversial practice, and experts there say the U.S. can follow their lead.


On 2021, reporters at The Palm Beach Post and ProPublica investigated the impact of sugar cane burning in Florida. The harvesting practice 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 state’s heartland.


Brazil may have found ways to harvest their crops without those burns. So the reporting team recently travelled to Brazil, the world’s largest producer of sugar cane, to learn how and why they switched to another method.


Brazil has a massive sugar cane industry that produces raw sugar, ethanol and electricity. The country farms more than 20 million acres, compared to less than 1 million in the U.S.


Beginning in the 1990s, residents of São Paulo, the nation’s largest sugar-cane-producing state, voiced concerns similar to those of Glades residents today: They complained of ash and soot blanketing their homes, and of respiratory problems.

In response to public pressure, officials in São Paulo passed a law in 2002 mandating the gradual elimination 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 sugar cane industry worked with the state government to eliminate nearly all burns by 2017 and enact other environmental-protection measures. (Burning is still permitted until 2031 in areas too steep to harvest by machine.)


The results have been dramatic. The dry sugar cane leaves that once went up in smoke now form a protective bl