What’s going on?

Sugarcane crops accumulate a large quantity of dried leaves, known as leaf trash, which is highly flammable. Leaf trash left in fields can slow down the next seasons’ growth, and leaves left attached to the canes require more processing, which is expensive for farmers. As a result, it is common practice to burn sugar cane fields in Florida prior to harvest. However, communities near sugarcane farms report air pollution and respiratory issues during the burning season.

Why it matters

Sugarcane burning produces what nearby communities refer to as “black smoke” which is particulate matter that, when inhaled, can lead to increased risk of cardiovascular disease and lung cancer. It can also cause chronic conditions like asthma to worsen. Sugarcane fires are known to release polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), some of which are thought to be carcinogenic, or cancer-causing. People living near cane fields in Florida are predominately lower-income Black and Hispanic communities.

Brazil, the world’s largest producer of sugarcane, had similar issues with pre-harvest burns affecting residents’ respiratory health. In response, they gradually switched to harvesting equipment that allowed for the cutting of sugarcane without burns and eliminated nearly all burns by 2017. Many of the sugarcane leaves are collected and used to generate renewable energy, often at a significant profit.

What you can do