Green Police: Sugar Company's Claims a Bit Too Sweet

Florida sugarThe people who help bring you Domino Sugar, C&H sugar and Jack Frost have carved out a successful green niche with Florida Crystals' natural sugar and organic sugar, "sustaining the environment" and being "sweet to Mother Nature," according to the product web site. But critics say the wealthy sugar barons of the Fanjul family are helping to ruin an international treasure -- the Florida Everglades.

"It doesn't surprise me that they have gone to great lengths to fabricate stories of how green they are," says award-winning conservation biologist Stuart Pimm of Duke University, a longtime Everglades researcher. "They stand out as a textbook example of how governments subsidize their product -- by maintaining price supports -- and then how the public, literally, is responsible for cleaning up their mess."This view is echoed by environmentalists who've fought Big Sugar for decades, most famously the late Marjory Stoneman Douglas. She coined the term "the river of grass" to describe the Everglades and railed against Big Sugar as one of the marsh's main killers. Florida Crystals and its predecessor, Flo-Sun, have been perceived at times as lone holdouts standing in the way of various Everglades fixes, whether it's fighting a federal push to regulate the phosphorus pollution pouring off its fields or something else, as seen here and here.

The Fanjuls presided over and helped expand the sugar industry in former Everglades marsh in a big way since they fled to the United States after having lost their Cuban sugar fields in 1959 to newly installed dictator Fidel Castro.

"We really want to be as green as we possibly can be," Alfonso Fanjul, Florida Crystals' politically powerful chief executive, told The New York Times, which noted that the company has invested heavily in alternative energy. But his brother Pepe added, "You have to have a balance between the environment and economic development. Something has to be done for the humans, too." Overall, though, the introduction of sugarcane obliterated nearly one-quarter of the natural Everglades, and sends polluted runoff water into what is left of it. There's no question the Fanjuls' Florida Crystals shares that history.
Florida sugar
Who's right? Is Florida Crystals green?

Green Police looked into the company web site's claims about the environmental "benefits of growing sugar cane." Here's a look:

Claim: Wildlife Support. Sugar cane "provides an excellent wildlife refuge and habitat, second only to rice, which is grown in rotation with our sugar cane."

What we found: Just 11 species -- including a Cuban lizard that seems to push out native lizards -- were found to be "abundant" among the 243 different birds and other wildlife counted over the years in the vast farm fields of the Everglades Agricultural Area, which is where Florida Crystals grows sugarcane. That's according to a species checklist contained in an October 2010 University of Florida report conducted with financial backing of the sugar industry. Of the 18 species of mammals spotted over the years, only five were deemed "common" -- three of them rodents. Fewer than half the birds were seen using sugarcane fields, which cover most of this agricultural region. However, many birds take advantage of fallow sugar fields, especially if they are flooded, and many use rice fields, which also are flooded. The researchers, Elise Pearlstine and Frank Mazzotti, concluded the habitat is "valuable" and "an important part of the South Florida landscape."

The farmlands of the historic Everglades do "not offer anything of similar structure to Florida's disappearing forests and woodlands, but there is semi-permanent or permanent brushy habitat along many of the canals and fallow areas," states a 2003 UF-produced fact sheet on Everglades birds. Citing earlier work by other scientists, the fact sheet continued: "Agriculture cannot be considered a replacement for natural habitat." Agriculture, it says, "is still an alteration of the natural Everglades system..."

So, are the sugar fields and canals and roads that dominate the landscape an "excellent" wildlife refuge?

"Total rubbish," says Pimm, the Duke biologist. "'Excellent compared to what? A parking lot?...What [sugarcane fields] replaced -- the Everglades -- is our country's most important wetland, indeed an internationally recognized wetland, teeming with wildlife, some of it unique."

Claim: Soil Conservation. "Sugar cane is a perennial and therefore stabilizes soils over the entire three-year crop cycle, as small seeded crops require land preparation and plowing annually."

What we found:
Even without yearly plowing, soils are generally considered to have disappeared through the years at an average rate of 1 inch to 1.2 inches per year in the Everglades Agricultural Area, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Because so much soil has disappeared after drainage exposed it to air, Florida sugar is effectively grown in a giant hole. Soils in cane fields continually deteriorate as long as the historic marsh is drained to grow sugar. Sure, sugarcane isn't as damaging of a crop as vegetables, in part because the water table doesn't have to be lowered as much. And, yes, Florida Crystals pioneered experimenting with a rice crop with saturated soils as a rotation with cane, which might further conserve soils.

Yet, "all farming on muck soils is what amounts to a 'mining operation,'" explains critic Charles Lee of Florida Audubon, who has been embroiled in the saga for decades. USGS says "sustainable agriculture in the Everglades would require at least zero subsidence," and "the eventual demise of agriculture in the Everglades has been predicted for some time."

Claim: Nutrient Absorption. "When phosphorus-laden water enters our farms from [Lake Okeechobee], the sugar cane acts like a sponge absorbing the nutrients."

What we found:
If sugarcane acts like a pollution sponge, why did the government build huge pollution-filtering marshes downstream of sugar farms? And why are even more planned? The water that leaves Florida Crystals' fields and neighboring farms flows into huge specially built wetlands ("stormwater treatment areas") before reaching the fabled Everglades. And yet so much phosphorus pollution reaches the Everglades that it has been undergoing a significant shift in its native plants and animals, according to studies (see here and here).

Gaston Cantens, Florida Crystals' vice president, blames dairies and other farms farther north for sending polluted water into Lake Okeechobee, which in turn is used to irrigate his fields during dry months. It's true cattle pollute the lake. And it's true that his company and other farms have taken steps to reduce pollution. But too much still reaches the Everglades and it's disingenuous to entirely blame dirty lake water.

Sugar fields rely a lot more on rain -- so much so that three times more water leaves Everglades-area farms than is provided to fields by the lake, according to annual averages for the past decade provided by water consultant Thomas MacVicar, whose clients include Florida Crystals. The "sponge" claim is off-base, says critic Lee, declaring: "Liar, liar pants on fire."

In the end, Florida Crystals claims credit for being the only company to mill organic sugar in this country. Yes, it's been called home to North America's largest biomass power plant, producing enough energy from sugarcane waste and wood waste to power a sugar mill, refinery and 60,000 homes. Yes, such steps help the company come off as greener than competitors. Certainly the Fanjuls don't see themselves as Everglades villains, and MacVicar isn't alone in his view that sugar fields make more compatible neighbors for what remains of the Everglades than, say, cities.

But organic sugar represents a fraction of the company's offerings on store shelves. As The New York Times put it, "if you buy Domino Sugar, you're buying from the Fanjuls." Further, for Florida Crystals to claim that growing cane "sustains the environment" sounds like sugar-coating to cover a bad taste.
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