Melissa Harris-Perry: Back with you now in The Takeaway. I'm Melissa in for Tanzina. If you want to understand the history of Western civilization, there's one great place to start.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Sugar. That's right. Sugar. Sugar is much more than the yummy goodness invading everything from brownies to salad dressing. It's also a map of the world, drawing Greek scholars to India in 327 AD, fueling the crusades 700 years later, shackling millions in the 18th-century transatlantic slave trade, and earning millions for 20th-century food industry titans.
Sugar is sweet, but its history is bitter. A tension that persists in the way sugar is grown and gathered today. Florida harvest more than half of America's sugarcane, which means that nearly every day of the six-month harvest season sugar companies burn dozens of cane fields and the fires create storms of ash that fall for months on the predominantly Black and Latino residents who live nearby.
The sugar industry is the largest employer in Western Palm Beach County and the confection comes with plenty of political connection, but residents are now challenging sugar companies with a lawsuit in federal court, claiming that pollution from cane burning is damaging their health.
With me now to discuss is Lulu Ramadan, investigative reporter at the Palm Beach Post. In collaboration with ProPublica, she recently published an investigation of Florida's sugar industry. Lulu, welcome to The Takeaway.
Lulu Ramadan: Thank you for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Help me understand how important the sugar industry is to Southern Florida.
Lulu Ramadan: The sugar industry is really a defining feature of South Florida. It's the largest field crop in South Florida and they have about 400,000 acres centered around Lake Okeechobee. This is an area where they started to grow sugar back in the 1930s, and the muck from the soil from when they dammed the lake at the turn of the century, it's this nutrient-rich muck that really allows sugarcane to thrive.
Like you mentioned before, there's a six-month harvest period where in order to prepare the cane for harvest, the cheapest and most effective method is to rid it of its leaves by burning it. Then it is hauled to the mills and turned into the sugar that you see on your supermarket shelves all across the country.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Maybe for folks who aren't from Louisiana or from parts of Texas or Mississippi where this is done, or particularly in Florida, help us understand why they're burning sugarcane.
Lulu Ramadan: It very quickly rids the plant of its leafy outer stalk. If you've ever seen a sugarcane crop, it's this really dense plant. The only part of it that you actually need for producing the sugar, for taking to the mill and producing into cane sugar is the stalk and you want to get rid of its leaves. Now, there are a couple of ways of doing that. You could mechanically remove them with blades or you could burn them, which is what they do in Florida. They burn the standing stalks in the fields, and that releases smoke into the atmosphere and keeping in mind that this is a rural, largely low income, largely minority area that is living among these hundreds of thousands of acres of cane fields and exposed to the smoke on a regular basis.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Say just a little bit more about these communities. Who lives near these cane fields?
Lulu Ramadan: A mix of residents, long-time residents who've lived there for generations, but the area is largely low-income. A third of the population lives below the poverty line. It is mostly a Black, mostly Hispanic community. You have this mix of people who move to the area to find work. You've seasonal workers, some of them of Caribbean descent or of Latin American descent. That's generally the makeup of the area in Western Palm Beach County, which is where the Palm Beach Post is, and that's where these sugar harvesters are mainly doing their harvesting.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Lulu, can you tell me about Velma Freeman and her grandchildren?
Lulu Ramadan: Yes. Absolutely. A little over a year ago we started reporting on the topic of cane burning and we came across Velma Freeman and her grandkids as a really compelling example of people whose lives are really controlled in a way by sugarcane burning. Her grandsons both have severe asthma and spend most of their time, six months out of the year inside, trying to avoid the smoke.
She even go so far as to drive them outside of the city as often as possible, outside of the region to take them to a playground for instance, or to doctor's offices because the smoke really aggravates, as she says, aggravates their asthma and their breathing problems. That's really something that we found across the board with several residents that we connected with in the area when we were seeking to understand what it's like living among the smoke from sugarcane burns.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Aren't there federal laws that determine and help to ensure that whatever is being released by major companies into the air only goes above a certain level.
Lulu Ramadan: There definitely are. The EPA basically in adhering to the Clean Air Act has set federal thresholds for certain pollutants. One thing that we found with this project that we did, which actually involved air testing, we collaborated with people in the community as well as academics to test the air ourselves and understand pollution trends.
One thing we found is that the federal framework for measuring this particular pollutant called particulate matter specifically fine particulate matter, these tiny mixtures of harmful pollutants in the air, that it's ill-equipped to measure cane burning pollution in particular because it's this short term pollution where the federal government is generally measuring these pollutants using 24 hour and annual averages.
Cane burns are unique in that they're happening in a certain time period. They're basically burning individual cane fields across the region. Those burns generally last less than an hour, and they're localized. They're across the area. In addition to that, they're only happening during 11 hour if not shorter timeframe throughout the day.
What we found were repeated spikes in short-term pollution, in short-term particulate matter pollution throughout the day, but really contained to that timeframe that I mentioned where they're burning cane between 9:00 AM and about 8:00 PM.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That makes a lot of sense to me if you're looking at averages, as opposed to those spikes. Then if it's six months of harvesting, but you're dividing by 12, it's going to look half as bad. If it's two hours of burning, but you're dividing by 24 hours, it's going to seem as though it's not as big a deal, but if you're standing in the ash, as it's coming down, it's pretty clear.
I'm interested in this idea that your paper at ProPublica that folks who live in the community, as well as academics, are all having to speak and bring this data forward. Are the sugarcane or the sugar companies themselves claiming that this isn't happening?
Lulu Ramadan: Yes. It is really interesting that we had to bring it forward ourselves. I think that was one of the compelling reasons for doing this, was the lack of data that already existed. As far as the sugar companies, they did respond to our findings. They criticized them, called them flawed and biased.
We actually wrote an additional story, addressing their criticisms point by point and how we took them into account when we launched into this citizen science effort to really get a better understanding of air quality in the area and some of the health concerns that could be associated with exposure to this type of pollution.
They're standing by their statement that the air is fine and really leaning on, again, that federal framework we mentioned, those 24-hour averages that show that everything's fine, but we had experts review all of our findings from the sensors that we placed in the community, and they agreed that it called for a need for more monitoring and posed potential health harms, even in the short-term and especially because it is repeated exposure daily over the course of six months out of the year.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What alternatives are there? As somebody who spent a lot of time living in Louisiana, this is a really different process.
Lulu Ramadan: Yes. Absolutely. Louisiana is very different. Frankly, the United States is an outlier on the global stage for this. In Louisiana, for example, back in the '90s, they changed their harvest practice. They tweaked it quite a bit, but they do still burn the sugarcane. They cut it first, which they say produces less smoke and soot while Florida still burns standing cane in the fields.
Other countries have shifted away from this after acknowledging major pollution from cane burning. Brazil and Thailand are in the process of phasing this out. Those are among the top five sugar-producing countries, the US included. Only China is the other country that hasn't taken steps to phase out, ban, or criminalize cane burning.
In India, they have banned it outright and have even criminalized it. They fined and arrested people for violating crop burning bans after, again, acknowledging that it's contributing to major levels of pollution and also can be harmful to those nearby who are exposed to it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Can you tell us a bit about the lawsuit that residents have brought against sugar companies?
Lulu Ramadan: Yes. A handful of residents decided to take this to federal court. This was back in 2019 when they originally filed their complaint, but they essentially complained-- they claimed that sugarcane burning was causing respiratory problems. Despite sugar companies' attempts to have it dismissed by leaning on and citing frequently a monitor, the only monitor in this massive sugar-growing region in South Florida, which spans about 400,000 acres. There's one monitor in the city of Belle Glade. We also found that that monitor had been malfunctioning. It was flagged back in 2013, four years after it was placed because of discrepancies and its air pollution readouts.
This is the monitor that is not only key to the defense that the sugar industry has been leaning on, it's key to this motion to dismiss in this federal lawsuit, it is key when regulators are looking at air quality in the area, and it is one of the reasons why we decided to step forward and also take this proactive step of placing sensors in the community after the feedback from people who really just wanted to understand what is the air like, is it healthy? Beyond this monitor, what can we find out about these pollution trends in our own health?
Melissa Harris-Perry: Lulu Ramadan is an investigative reporter at the Palm Beach Post. Lulu, thank you so much for joining us, and thank you for this reporting.
Lulu Ramadan: Thank you. I really appreciate you having me on.
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