How Does Federal Policy in the Farm Bill Contribute to Toxic Algae in Florida?

Sugarcane in the EAA.

Federal policy boosts the profits of sugarcane growers

  • By imposing controls on production and greatly restricting imports, the cost of the sugar program in the U.S. Farm Bill is shifted to American consumers in the form of much higher prices than those on the world market.
  • A 2017 American Enterprise Institute analysis concluded that the average grower receives around $700,000 per year, and Big Sugar conglomerates reap most of the benefits by representing multiple growers. One analyst asserted the Fanjul family, owners of Florida Crystals, are likely “getting at least $150 million a year” in net benefit from the program.

Those profits are used to influence decision makers and environmental policy in Florida

  • During that 2022 election cycle, Big Sugar spent more than $10 million on state elections in Florida. The website Open Secrets reported the industry spent another $8.8 million on federal candidates in 2021-22, and U.S. Sugar and the Fanjul Corp. together spent another $2 million on lobbying in 2022. According to Florida lobbyist registration records, the sugar industry pays more than 50 lobbyists to influence legislation and legislators in Florida’s state capital. Their efforts have a direct impact on environmental policy.
  • For example, in 2021, the Florida Legislature enacted sweeping new protections for the sugarcane industry with the passage of Senate Bill 88, which effectively protects Big Sugar from legal action related to the harmful practice of sugarcane burning.
  • State policymakers also have protected the water interests of Big Sugar, which uses Lake Okeechobee as a de facto reservoir for cane fields in the Everglades Agricultural Areas, and taxpayer-funded marshes to drain the fields. Lake Okeechobee is kept artificially high to ensure plenty of water for sugar farmers to irrigate the estimated 440,000 acres of sugarcane south of the lake.
  • Capacity in the taxpayer-funded stormwater treatment areas (STAs) has historically been prioritized for sugarcane runoff instead of water from Lake Okeechobee.

Those policies contribute to toxic algae blooms and prevent progress on restoration of the Everglades

  • With little space for Lake Okeechobee water in the STAs, highly polluted, untreated water from Lake Okeechobee is instead diverted east to the St. Lucie and west to the Caloosahatchee, where it fuels toxic algae blooms. Artificially high water levels also contribute to damaging algae blooms in the lake itself.
  • The sugar industry is guaranteed near-perfect growing conditions, while communities on the receiving end of polluted Lake Okeechobee discharges suffer closed beaches, business shutdowns and potential health effects from toxic algae.

The cycle continues: Sugarcane companies lobby for renewal of federal sugar protections every 5 years

  • The current structure of the federal sugar program originated with the Agriculture and Food Act of 1981 (1981 Farm Bill) — but, conceptually, these protections date back to the Sugar Act of 1934.
  • It’s one of the most generous programs in the Farm Bill, which Congress reauthorizes every five years. The current Farm Bill was enacted in December 2018 and expires in 2023.
  • Reform is long overdue. The Farm Bill props up a major polluting industry by protecting the profits of Big Sugar, which in turn contributes to the public health threat of toxic algae blooms in Florida.In addition to toxic algae, the environmental injustice of sugarcane burning is underwritten by federal sugar policy.

Dense blue-green algal mats clump up at the gates of Lake Okeechobee’s Port Mayaca on May 4, 2023, in Martin County.