Florida Sugarcane: It’s Bitter Sweet

The Florida Everglades, home to the mighty American Alligator, Panthers, and numerous species found only in the Sunshine State. This region may appear to the untrained eye as just a muddy swamp overrun with snakes and mosquitos, but in reality it is so much more. The Everglades are a national treasure essential to the ecosystem and natural aquifers that provide water for a vast amount of the American south. If you ever travel in this area, you might see spectacular sunsets stretching across the flat grasslands. Reds to purples there can be no argument against the beauty of this scene.

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You may also notice another phenomenon, wildfires and smoke adding to the wily natural landscape. Saw grass wetlands are drained and gutted giving way to artificial dykes and canals meant to break the flow of the great Lake Okeechobee. This is done with the intention of profiting from the nutrient rich soil that has been unspoiled for hundreds and thousands years. Scorched farms stretch for miles met by smoke stacks rising up from the sugar cane processing plants. Absurd amounts of algae blooms crowd the man-made canals that stretch along the road ways are an eerie reminder of man’s influence over nature. These sights are unseen by the majority of the people who come to our great state. The draw of our white sand beaches keep people from noticing what is going on behind the veil.

Florida Sugar Cane accounts for 51.3% of all sugar cane production in the United States. In the past fifty years since the Cuban Embargo in 1961, Florida’s sugar cane has grown from 50,000 acres to a massive 400,000 acres. The vast majority of commercial sugarcane plantations can be found directly south of Lake Okeechobee and mills are also located near the farms. Before harvest, the plants are torched in order to prevent leaves and other “trash” from absorbing sugar that would otherwise be lost if the sugarcane was machete-harvested. The fires are generally short lived and are overseen by the Forestry Department but accidents do happen. Tack on the huge amount of fertilizers and pesticides needed to maintain crops of this magnitude, the damage to this region are devastating.

So what does all this mean? Why should profiting from an otherwise “non-productive” swamp cause any of us to be concerned? Besides being a haven for biodiversity, having huge cultural ties with many Floridians, and attracting tourists and scientist alike to the region, the Everglades are an essential contributor to the Biscayne Aquifer, South Florida’s main source of fresh water.

The natural flow of water comes from the Kissimmee River and down into Lake Okeechobee, from there it goes through the grass lands where it is absorbed and then leaches down through the limestone into our aquifer, purified and ready to drink. Thanks to the Everglades, nature allows us to live in this spectacular area of Florida.

We are able to invite tourism into our home and welcome people from all over to visit and even live here with us. With populations rising dramatically, our water source is becoming even more existential to our continuous inhabitance in this place we call “home”. Restoration projects are underway, but nothing seems to be addressing the issue of agriculture’s devastating impact.

Can we bring about the change needed to restore our life giving swamp, or will we let our sweet tooth for sugar and money dictate the future of our sunny South Florida?

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Written by: Rebecca Van Horn

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