Sugar, Politics and The Everglades

This topic submitted by Rhiannon Hoeweler at 3:23 PM on 7/2/04.

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The original expanse of the Everglades stretched from Lake Okeechobee south to the Gulf of Mexico covering about 100 miles and contained over 2.3 million acres at the turn of the century. In the mid 1970’s it was estimated that only about 1.1 million acres remained representing 48 percent of the original land base. (FL Everglades, p. 4) There are two seasons that occur in the Everglades, wet and dry. Originally there was enough water present during the dry season that the majority of the area consisting of the Everglades remained wet. However, in 1948, 1,500 miles of canals and levees were constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers throughout southern Florida, as authorized by Congress. Over a year period these levees and canals avert 2.5 million acre-feet of water to the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. (Tolman, p. 3) The conversion of the Everglades was done in an attempt to provide farmers a ‘perfect’ environment for the production of sugarcane. This dredged area has been designated the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) and contains over 700,000 acres of land, predominantly yielding crops of sugar cane. The policies put in place by the federal government for the benefit of sugarcane production in the Everglades have changed very little over the last 50 plus years. These archaic policies have contributed to environmental degradation, poor working conditions for sugarcane cutters working in the field, and a triangle of money that shifts from the taxpayers to the government to the sugar corporations and back again.

Politics and Sugar

A. Industry Supports
The sugarcane industry in Florida is supported by numerous subsidies and could not be a lucrative business without the support provided by the taxpayer. The initial drainage efforts conducted by the federal government and the continued ‘protectionist quota/tariff regime and loan program’ have all been at the expense of the taxpayer. “The price support program has two main components: a loan program that guarantees a support price of eighteen cents per pound for sugar produced in the United States, and a tariff/quota regime that prevents world prices from being reflected in United States markets by excluding foreign competitors.” (Schwabach, p. 307)

The loan program works through the Department of Agriculture and is a win-win situation for the producers of sugar. Ultimately a non-recourse loan can be granted to a sugar producer which allows the producer to use their sugar crop as collateral for the said loan. The producer can then satisfy the loan by giving up the sugar crop to the government “even if the value of the sugar is less than the value of the money borrowed.” (Schwabach, p. 307) This system ensures the farmer a minimum price for their crop and functions as a price support program.

The tariff/quota regime guarantees sugar prices remain high in the United States by limiting the amount of sugar that is imported and the sugar that does enter the market is then heavily taxed. The taxes on the sugar can be greater than the cost of the sugar itself and therefore eliminates the desire of any country to try and sell sugar over the limit stated by the quota to the U.S. market. It is estimated that these subsidies alone cost U.S. consumers $2 billion a year.

B. Caribbean Worker Influence
The business of sugarcane production has had a very poor worker rights and compensation record . Until the mid 1990’s sugar production employed field hands to cut the cane for the initial stage of harvesting. In 1942 U.S. Sugar Corporation “was indicted . . . for violating Constitutional prohibitions of slavery, the then-infant industry lured African-American workers in southern states with promises of free transportation and payment of six dollars a day.” (Engler, p. 1) Ultimately, the recruit was then told that they owed money for their ride, money for their knife used in cutting the cane, money for room and board, and they were to be paid $1.80 for a day of work. Of the workers who tried to escape many were then captured at gunpoint by local deputies of the county and returned to their place of work. The federal government was then recruited by the sugar industry and until 1947 became the contract negotiator between field workers brought in from the Caribbean and the sugar industry. The government also supplied transportation for these workers. The workers were brought to the U.S. on temporary visas and were under constant threat of deportation. (Schwabach, p. 305)

In 1995 a class action lawsuit brought against the industry by field workers for back wages ensured sugarcane production became automated and the need for field hands became obsolete. The workers sued for millions of dollars and sometimes won but the mechanization of the industry led to a large decline in the number of jobs being offered in the EAA.

Environmental Concerns

A. Phosphorus and Nitrogen
‘Unseen’ hazards are the greatest threats to the Everglades ecosystem and subsequently to the coastal zones downstream of the “River of Grass”. These ‘unseen’ hazards are composed of Nitrogen and Phosphorus contained in the runoff from the EAA as a result of the use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. Much of this runoff from agriculture pollutes the coastal zones through submarine groundwater discharge (SGD). “SGD is driven, in simplest terms, by a land-based source of freshwater which lies at a higher elevation than the surface water into which it flows.” (Finkl, p. 938) There are quite a few other possible causes for SGD including geothermal heat flow, tidal pumping, etc. (Finkl, p. 38) “ SGD in the Florida Keys differs from most coastal environments because 1. subsurface fluids tend to be saline to hypersaline, and 2. the driving force is thought to be tides rather than topography.” (Finkl, p. 938) The north coast is effected by topography from polluted groundwater flowing north to south.

SGD is difficult for humans to deal with psychologically because as stated above the added nutrient load to the coastal system can not be seen and currently is not a severe public health risk. Contamination of the coastal zone is largely due to agricultural activities that occur inland and take many years to be completely realized. It is estimated through groundwater studies that the nutrients being dumped into the groundwater via the EAA take 50 -75 years to reach the coast. Water in the estuaries, the nursery of the coral reef, is greatly impacted by freshwater discharges on the coast. Sugarcane species in the EAA have been bred and hybridized so that they are capable of growing in a region that sugarcane is not naturally prone to survive in. In addition to restructuring sugarcane so that it can be productive, fields are laden with fertilizers and pesticides. Periodic algal blooms are the result of excess Nitrogen and Phosphorus in runoff water penetrating coastal areas. Algal blooms literally smother the reef by preventing sunlight from reaching the coral. The result is poor water quality on the reef and the beach areas. The greater nutrient loading in these areas is thought to lead to “accelerated accumulation of flocculated detritus; reduced dissolved oxygen concentrations; change in detritus, microbial, and macro-invertebrate communities; and changing periphyton communities toward reduced diversity and dominance of pollution-tolerant species.” (Finkl, p. 939) Another factor to take into consideration concerning increased nutrient loading within the Everglades is the decrease in the population of sawgrass while the population of large and very dense cattails has increased. This has led to a decline in wading bird populations by 90% since the turn of the century.

Adverse environmental impacts due to the changes of the natural hydrologic cycle of the Everglades has resulted in many issues discussed above, but has also contributed negatively in a couple of other ways. “. . . the sheetflow and hydroperiod in the remaining Everglades has been disrupted by construction of the project and pre-project drainage works. . . Water delivery practices have drastically altered the seasonal patterns of high and low flows to the remaining Everglades within and outside the Park. One result of this is that the Florida Bay fisheries to the south, in contrast to those on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, do not receive adequate freshwater inflow and suffer from increased incidences of hypersalinity.” (Fl. Everglades, p. 4) The increased water flow in some areas has led to the flooding of alligator nests, the killing of fish due to the imbalance of salinity in the ecosystem, and the drowning of plant and animal life.

B. Urban Encroachment
The urban and suburban areas of southern Florida have continually encroached upon agricultural land as the population continues to grow. The urban population east of the Everglades grew 82% between 1970-1990. As the urban landscape expands it pushes agricultural land further and further out and the populous then demands more drained land. The increased population also leads to a re-working of the system to provide drinking water to an already large metropolitan area that will continue to draw water from the Everglades only further disrupting the original flow of water. Another side effect of increased population is that more roads are built resulting in more drainage and a greater strain on the environment. (Fl. Everglades, p.5) The current results from water quality tests done in Key Largo revealed live entroviruses including polio, coxsackie A and B, which can cause diseases like hyperangina and myocarditis, and echoviruses which can cause fever or viral meningitis. (Finkl, p. 940) The presence of these viruses were the result of human waste leaching into ground water from septic tanks.


Why does the government continue its programs supporting the sugar industry when the environment and taxpayers suffer a great injustice? On many occasions the government has made half-hearted attempts at eliminating the direct subsidies aimed at the sugar industry. However, due to organized and well thought out public relations campaigns laden with many kickbacks for government officials on both sides of the aisle none of the attempts have come to fruition. The industry has connections not only within the state of Florida but all the way up to the White House and contributes to both major political parties to ensure support. Big sugar has strong ties/backing from tobacco, corn, and peanut farmers and union support for fear of losing jobs overseas. “Together, they and their congressional representatives form a voting bloc that no reformer, committee chair, or even president can afford to cross.” (Roberts, p. 10) Table 1. below details the large amounts of money being thrown back and forth which ensures the cyclical pattern will continue.


Even our efforts to remediate the problems are misdirected and revolve around fixing issues associated with beach erosion. Currently, most remediation efforts are focused on construction of jetties which helps to slow the beach erosion process. Jetties constructed to reduce these problems only minimally help in maintaining beaches, that attract tourists and residents, which will only increase the strain on the Everglades. Jetties, however, will all be for nothing if the coastal areas water quality becomes so poor that beaches are closed and people no longer want to live in such areas. These efforts are focused on the symptoms and not the actual problems and in fact may actually worsen the troubles facing the coastal waters of Florida Bay and the greater water system as a whole.

What are our options?
Land in the EAA may become fallow leading to an inability to farm such areas. This could result in a cleaner coastal system and “River of Grass” if the area is not used for urban development or some other disruptive activity. Another far-reaching possibility is to rid the market of the loan program and quota/tariff system currently in place and allow the market to take its course. This is an unlikely occurrence due to the entrenched system at work between the government and the sugar producers of America. There is no competitive advantage to growing sugarcane in Florida so the only reason it is able to survive as an industry is the life support it receives from the U.S. government. The last option is that the ‘unseen’ effects will become ”visible” in the not so distant future and beach closings will lead to a quick turnaround in the public’s thinking which will result in a movement towards a more sustainable future.

An idealistic point of view put forth by Finkl stated that: “Before concepts of sustainability can be entertained as realistic action items in degraded coastal environments such as southern Florida, a societal metanoia needs to occur. According to Hessel, there needs to be a change in the concept of humanity against nature in a manipulative, polluting way of life.” (p. 942)


Engler, Mark. “Farming the Everglades.” New Internationalist. December 2003.

Finkl, Charles W. and Roger H. Charlier. “Sustainability of Subtropical Coastal Zones in Southeastern Florida: Challenges for Urbanized Coastal Environments Threatened by Development, Pollution, Water Supply and Storm Hazards.” Journal of Coastal Research. Vol. 19, Issue 4, Fall 2003, p. 934.

Roberts, Paul. “The Sweet Hereafter: Our Craving for Sugar Starves the Everglades and Fattens the Politicians.” Harper’s. Nov. 1, 1999, p. 54.

Schwabach, Aaron. “How Free Trade Can Save the Everglades.” The Georgetown International Environmental Law Review. Vol. 14, p. 301.

Schwabach, Aaron. “How Protectionism is Destroying the Everglades.” National Wetlands Newsletter. Vol. 24, no. 1, January-February 2002, p.7.

Tolman, Jonathan. “Federal Agricultural Policy: A Harvest of Environmental Abuse.” CEI Monograph. 1 August 1995.
“Sugar Industry Faces Big Test With Free Trade”
Chapter 7 Florida Everglades

Table 1
Florida Sugar Cane Interests: Benefits vs. Contributions

Estimated Fed. Federal Soft Soft
Sugar Benefits Contributions Money Money

('93-'94) ('79-'94) (FL. '92) ('93-'94)
Fanjul family holdings $64,620,819 $1,247,692 $327,500 $74,000
U.S. Sugar Corporation $55,488,920 $398,049 $137,300 $36,350
Talisman Sugar Corporation $22,587,961 $250 $0 $0
A Duda & Sons $20,300,773 $155,425 $6,000 $33,140
Flor-Ag Corporation $4,981,383 $1,000 $0 $0
Knight Management Inc. $1,960,349 $0 $0 $0
Hilliard Bros of Fla. Inc. $1,634,642 $90,773 $1,000 $1,200
Wedgeworth Farms Inc. $1,626,267 $8,941 $0 $0
Alico $1,491,258 $0 $0 $2,750
Trucane Sugar Corporation $1,487,830 $858 $0 $0
Lykes Brothers Inc. $1,019,280 $99,580 $13,180 $10,900

* Figures come from "Big Sugar, Sweet Deal Under Fire," St. Petersburg Times, 5/15/94

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