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Environmentalists Call For End To Sugar Cane Burning

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Every harvest season, sugar farmers in Florida light controlled fires to burn off the leaves on the sugar cane plant. Only the stalks remain, waiting to be cut down, transported to mills and refined into sugar.

The Sierra Club says the practice is outdated and harmful to public health. The group’s Florida branch recently hosted a Big Sugar Summit in West Palm Beach to call for an end to cane burning.

“It’s really unfair and not OK for them to be making neighboring communities sick,” said Julia Hathaway, an organizing representative. “It’s time to take a serious go at incorporating what we can learn from other success stories here in Florida."

Hathaway was referring to “green harvesting,” in which farmers harvest and use the entire sugar cane plant. Hathaway said the technology exists to do this, but farmers choose not to because it costs more.

Judy Sanchez, a spokesperson for U.S. Sugar, says harvesting the entire plant and trucking the leafy waste to mills is inefficient. Not only does it require transportation of additional material — and transportation is one of the farmers’ biggest costs — but it also impedes extraction of sugar from the cane.

“You’re going to get less sugar per acre of cane if you’re taking all of that into the mill with the sugar cane stalk,” Sanchez said.

There is little local field research documenting the effects of cane burning on air pollution and health.

Timothy O’Connor, a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Health in Palm Beach County, which monitors air quality, says burning accounts for nearly half of all particle emissions in Palm Beach. Even so, he says, the levels are well within the national limit set by the Environmental Protection Agency.