Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Big Sugar…The Politics of Farming


Sugar cane is a billion dollar industry here in Florida. Efforts to work around farmlands and continue a clean water flow to the Everglades is a constant struggle. Submitted Photo

Sugar cane is a billion dollar industry here in Florida. Efforts to work around farmlands and continue a clean water flow to the Everglades is a constant struggle. Submitted Photo

This is Part Two of a three part series concerning Florida’s sugar industry and the environmental changes that were made to insure its success. Part One can be found on the Coastal Breeze News website and Part Three will appear in the November 24th issue.

In Part One of this series you were introduced to the two main sugar producers in Florida, U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals. U.S. Sugar established an industry foothold in the 1930s, while Florida Crystals came to life in the 1960s when the Fanjul family fled Cuba as a result of the Castro revolution. Located south of Lake Okeechobee, these powerhouses control more than 75% of Florida’s sugar output, which generates about $1.5 billion annually.



As the sugar empire continued its expansion, more and more environmentalists began an eco-awareness movement concerning the removal of waters from the Everglades, as well as the infusion of phosphates into the fresh water system. The dikes, pump stations, levees and canals that were installed to secure successful farming were actually redirecting these elements to areas that were proving harmful and deadly to plant and animal life.

Unchecked for many years, fields and levees controlled by Big Sugar excessively dumped water where it wanted or pumped it back into Lake O. This was prevalent very recently when Hurricane Irma flooded plantation fields and the over-abundant waters were reverse-pumped into the lake, adding to the already high level, and forcing the release of these waters to the St. Lucie River and the Caloosahatchee River.

Certain areas of the lake have been inundated with phosphorous in the amount of 500 parts per billion. Some microbiologists report that ten parts per billion would be natural. In the late 1980s someone stepped forward to address this problem at the legal level.

Dexter Lehtinen, the U.S. attorney who indicted Manuel Noriega, sued the state of Florida, demanding that Big Sugar be stopped from polluting the Everglades any longer. The sugar owners would not go down without a fight. A political war was being unleashed.

Getting the suit dismissed resulted in failure, but the 1992 presidential campaigns were in full swing by this time. Millions of dollars were donated to both Democrat and Republican candidates. Within the Fanjul family confines, one brother vice-chaired the Bush-Quayle campaign while the other co-chaired Bill Clinton’s Florida bid.

When Clinton was elected, his Secretary of the Interior was persuaded to direct the lawsuit back to the state level, making the suit much easier to combat. Between a huge media blitz and extensive lobbying, voters were convinced that the phosphorous issue was overblown. As a result, the Everglades Forever Act was signed into law by Governor Lawton Chiles in 1994. Many state environmentalists refused to be associated with this so-called cleanup bill. Briefly, the law put a financial responsibility cap for industry at $320 million. The remainder, nearly $700 million, would come from taxpayers. This Act also set a completion for the cleanup to end in 2003. After expiration, the level of phosphorous in the waters would be determined by state officials, not by biologists or scientists.

In 1995 the Farm Bill was introduced, as anger concerning environmental issues once again became extremely strong. The issue here was subsidies. Sugar growers were protected by government import barriers and domestic production controls, which work in their favor to command a higher profit. A phase-out of the sugar subsidy program was added to the Farm Bill when 118 members of congress agreed that the issue must be addressed. Big Sugar fought back, as usual, even allowing religious support to enter the debate.

Agricultural Chairman Pat Roberts wanted nothing to do with divine intervention and the proposal was deleted from the Farm Bill. Along the way several congressman received campaign donations from Big Sugar and the co-sponsors of the subsidy phase-out even voted against their own program.

Some good things have come about in more recent times. The Everglades Forever Act, which called for a completion of cleanup by 2003 was extended by Governor Jeb Bush to 2013, despite opposition from both political parties. However, the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan was born in 2000 and brings the federal government back into light as a player in this always-confusing game.

How have restoration plans progressed since 2000? Join me for Part Three of this series in the November 24th issue of Coastal Breeze News.

Bob is the owner of Stepping Stone Ecotours, conducting educational walking tours of the western everglades. Go to for more info. He is also a naturalist on board the Dolphin Explorer, a dolphin research program and award-winning ecotour. Most of all, Bob loves his wife very much!!

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