Citing state and private data, Florida farmers and experts dispute air quality claims

sugar farm field on sunset time
South Florida’s sugarcane farmers are pushing back with data.

On the heels of a sustained public relations campaign attacking air quality in the Glades community driven primarily by environmental activists, South Florida’s sugarcane farmers are fighting back with a new report and input from experts.

This week, Clewiston-based U.S. Sugar released an updated “Clean Air Report,” citing air quality data from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection showing the Glades with near or better air quality than on the coast.

“Our farmers are committed to clean air and clean water while growing food crops millions of American families depend on every year,” said Judy Sanchez, Senior Director of Corporate Communications and Public Affairs for U.S. Sugar. “Our latest air update shows our community that not only is our air safe and clean every day, but it also remains cleaner than other areas of the state of Florida.”

Among the report’s findings were that the Glades communities had good air quality year-round and actually better during the harvest season when the controlled sugarcane burns take place. Additionally, the report noted that “there was no significant uptick in visits to local emergency rooms” according to data made available by the Florida Department of Health.

In 2022, a class action lawsuit was dismissed in federal court after the plaintiffs failed to produce evidence and agreed to dismiss the case with prejudice, which bars them from refiling the lawsuit.

Other independent health sources have backed up the farmers’ claims. An annual county-by-county analysis of air pollution done by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation shows counties where those fields are located are cleaner than the state average. Additionally, according to the American Lung Association, Palm Beach County — where a significant amount of South Florida’s sugarcane is grown — receives an “A” for particle pollution.

On the issue of health risks associated with pollution from sugarcane burning, local health leaders such as R.D. Williams, CEO of the Clewiston-based Hendry Regional Medical Center have raised doubts.

“Years of public data show the rural Glades farming communities enjoy clean air — among the cleanest in the state,” said Williams. “Additionally, medical records and statements from local physicians and public health professionals indicate no adverse link between farming practices and respiratory issues and associated poor health outcomes. While our communities have health challenges, the data strongly opposes our farmers as the source of them.”

A 2022 study that included researchers from Florida State University attempted to link sugarcane burning to premature death in the Glades communities. The study found “mortality rates from this exposure almost 10 times higher for residents living next to the fields as opposed to outside of the immediate area.”

In February, a team of researchers including former Berkeley scientist Adam H. Love disputed the study, claiming “errors, large uncertainties, and high bias that cannot justify the analysis precision reported and the certainty with which they stated their conclusion.” The scientists concluded: “there is no scientific basis to assert community health impacts associated with an increase in PM2.5 from sugarcane harvesting.”

The FSU study has also drawn criticism from former Florida State Forester Jim Karels. In his rebuttal of the study, Karels stated that it “contained no actual on-the-ground facts or cause/effect data to back its claims.” He also noted the success of Florida’s prescribed burn program, which includes pre-harvest sugarcane burning.

Peter Schorsch

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including Florida Politics and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. Schorsch is also the publisher of INFLUENCE Magazine. For several years, Peter's blog was ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.


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