By: Mae Baltz
In 2021, the United States produced over 33 million tons of sugarcane, with a majority of the crop harvested in the fields of Belle Glade, Florida. The city has a median household income of $28,028, with the sugar industry as one of its largest employers. As such, many of the Glade’s citizens rely on this industry for income. This creates a complicated dynamic as the logistics of sugarcane farming inflict harm through what economists call “externalities” on the residents of the community. As the Florida Legislature restricts citizens’ ability to be compensated for harm related to agricultural practices, Belle Glade faces a grave dilemma.
When sugarcane is farmed, it must be burned to reveal the sugarcane stalk. An investigation by the Palm Beach Post revealed that a malfunction in the state’s air quality measurement system gave Belle Glade citizens the false notion that the air littered with ash from sugar burnings was safe to breathe. Meanwhile, residents began experiencing long and short-term lung effects. This public health effect is what economists call a negative “externality” – an often unintended spillover effect of economic activity onto a third party.
Currently, the state of Florida restricts the scope of nuisance lawsuits which might minimize severe health effects like these from sugar burnings. But Florida can look to other states like Louisiana that have regulated their burning practices.
Despite a growing desire for intervention, Florida’s Right to Farm Act protects farmers from ‘nuisance’ lawsuits. Nuisance laws are intended to allow owners to use their property as they see fit. Unlike trespassing laws, nuisance laws can provide relief for intangible intrusions, like microscopic particles of smoke or ash. Florida statutes define nuisance as actions “that tend to annoy the community, injure the health of the citizens in general, or corrupt the public morals.”
Researchers from Florida State University linked one to six deaths per year with sugarcane smoke. While this may qualify as a nuisance, it does not matter. The Right to Farm Act, passed in March of 2021, restricts nuisance suits to residents living within a half-mile of the burning site and, if successful, will only compensate them for effects on property values. This not only limits legal action but disincentivizes it. Other states, however, have addressed the consequences of burnings without restricting citizens’ access to compensation.
Louisiana, another dominant producer of sugarcane in the US, has implemented a policy that addresses the spillover effects of burnings on nearby communities. The state outlaws open burnings, but allows “prescribed burns.” In Belle Glade, open burnings often occur as the wind moves towards the city, sending the ash colloquially known as “black snow” in their direction. Prescribed burns are controlled fires that follow guidelines that decrease the spread of ash and smoke into neighboring areas. These strategies include burning techniques supervised by certified prescribed burn managers and operating under recommended weather conditions. Florida’s statutes do not place the burden of reducing the movement of smoke onto farmers.
Louisiana farmers also engage in green harvesting, which requires no burning. Green harvesting uses machines to uncover the sugarcane stalk. This is much more expensive than burning, making it a less favorable option to those looking to maximize profits.
With changes to the Right to Farm Act citizens of Belle Glade may live sincerely under the city’s motto: “Her Soil is Her Fortune,” without risking their health. The sugar industry’s lobbying force, however, has substantial influence over Florida farming legislation.
Although the Right to Farm Act can be reformed, it may be difficult given their pushback. Residents face a trade-off between the industry being a source of income and the lasting health effects it has on them and their families. Louisiana provides a framework for policy that aims to minimize health consequences, but the complex relationship between Belle Glade and the sugar lobby may make the shift less feasible.
This blog article is an expanded version of an article that first appeared in the Tallahassee Democrat on January 12, 2023.
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Mae Baltz is a researcher at the DeVoe L. Moore Center, and she has been with us for three years, whilst pursuing an Economics & Statistics degree at Florida State University. Outside the DMC, she is an intern at the Reason Foundation, working on their transportation policy team. Recently, she published an op-ed in the Tallahassee Democrat based on sugarcane farming externalities in Belle Glade, Florida, which you can read here.