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It is time to stop blaming Big Sugar


By Brian E. Crowley

SHAKING MONEY TREEIt is time to stop blaming Big Sugar.

Yes, Big Sugar is winning. It owns the governor’s office, the cabinet, and the Florida Legislature. It has power over much of Florida’s congressional delegation.

Formidable Tallahassee reporter Mary Ellen Klas did a masterful job this week with an in-depth story in the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times about the power of Big Sugar.

Between 1994 and 2016, a review of state Division of Elections records by The Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee bureau shows, the sugar industry — led by United States Sugar and Florida Crystals — has steered a whopping $57.8 million in direct and in-kind contributions to state and local political campaigns.


The Sugar industry has been masterful. No matter what successes the environmental community has had – passage of the 1994 Everglades Forever Act, the 1996 Polluter Pays Amendment to the Florida Constitution, the 2000 Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (sign by President Bill Clinton with then Gov. Jeb Bush by his side), or the 2014 Water and Land Conservation Act – the Sugar industry has been able to either slow down implementation or thwart the intent.


By owning a stable of elected officials. By hiring top teams of lobbyists. By having connections in critical government agencies.

And, nothing they do is illegal. Sugar simply plays the game of politics better than their opponents.

As Klas reported:

“I can tell you, first hand, that the industry is directly involved with every decision this Legislature makes,” said Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation which for decades has fought the sugar industry over the causes and solutions of the Everglades and was a chief of staff to former Gov. Charlie Crist. (Note: I previously was a media consultant for the Foundation.)

Eikenberg works hard to make sure the Foundation’s voice is heard in Tallahassee but it is an often frustrating experience.

Eikenberg was part of the Crist team that put together the deal to buy U.S. Sugar land. At the time, the company applauded the deal and was eager to get out of the sugar business. But when U.S. Sugar wanted out of the contract it fought hard. And they found a willing ally in the newly elected governor, Rick Scott (to whom they contributed handsomely) who said hell no about buying the land.

No matter the setback, the sugar industry always comes out ahead.

But it is time to stop blaming them. Perhaps it is time to blame the environmentalists.

No dear God – not the “good” guys!


The sugar industry is united. Its goal is simple – keep farming, no government intrusion, protect profits.

Environmentalists often are not united. While they may all talk about stopping algae blooms, saving America’s Everglades, rivers and springs, there is a tendency to go their separate regional ways. Each part of the state has its own environmental concerns. Each fights to get money from the same state pot of dough. Each jealously guards its own circle of influence.

It is the kind of division that an opponent loves.

Money from sugar goes to candidates who will support them.

While there are billionaires and millionaires in the environmental community who give generously, there is rarely an effort to identify environmentally friendly candidates and support them. Perhaps even more important, there is little effort to make a concerted effort to defeat incumbents who opposed the environmental agenda.

There is no price for most incumbents who defy the environmentalists. There is a huge price in opposing sugar. Nothing illustrates that better than passage of the Water and Land Conservation Act. Seventy-five percent of Florida voters supported the Amendment.

75 percent.

This may have annoyed the sugar industry but it is used to it. So Sugar did what it does best – it worked with the Legislature to ensure that the amendment would do them little harm.

Look there is nothing wrong with that. It is politics. And the environmental community could learn a great deal from how the sugar industry operates in Tallahassee.

Until environmentalists win legislative races with candidates who strongly support them and, put those who oppose them in fear of losing – or at the very least force costly, tough races, Sugar will continue to win. Because that’s what they do.

It is time to stop blaming Sugar.


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Normally I agree with you wholeheartedly.
Yes, what you say is true but don't you think Big Sugar, ie Florida Crystals, et al - have a corporate responsibility not to ruin our natural ecosystems in South Florida?
Yes, we must elect different legislative represetatives and government leaders.
All of it takes time, and the influence peddling never takes a vacation, as you are aware.
I think it's a one sided story to say that because what they do is legal we must not blame the sugar cane industry.
We know the history of HOW the Clean Water Act became less stringent and how Florida was allowed less oversight, ( "Swamped, Jan. 2016 - The New Yorker).
On behalf of Big Sugar, Jeb Bush systematically dismantled the central provisions of Everglades Restoration that he assisted in getting passeda few years earlier in 2000.
Why would he do that ?
Possibly eyeing a Presidential bid? Wanting to secure the large donations from Big Sugar?
Unfortunately, it's all moot on that conjecture. But, we sure have some toxic water to show for it.

Pam O Dell

Two words: Corporate Responsibility.
The sugar industry has been given (too) much by Florida. We should continue to blame them. They are committing several egregious moral evils. Granted, the environmental community needs to re-group. But 'Big Sugar' should be socially shunned and their influence controlled because they are causing public and environmental harm.

I will paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr.
A law that does not reflect the moral law should not be a law at all.

James Shaw

Conning Floridians is nothing new for Bullsugar operations manager Kenneth Hinkle.  Hinkle has been sued several times for fraud, fined for endangering the environment, filed for bankruptcy, lost his home to foreclosure and he has recently been arrested for passing out in his vehicle while drunk driving.  He is clearly not the type of person Floridians would choose to lead the largest environmental project in the state.

Rob Kanter

This pollution will continue until we fix the plumbing coming into Lake Okeechobee - not put people out of business.  

Natalie Canto

I read this morning that the polluted water coming out of Lake Okeechobee and making its way here never even touched a sugar cane field.  Buy the Land is a political stunt.

Maury Lee

The water quality in the lake is terrible because of the years of high nutrient and bacteria runoff from cattle farms and citrus farms north of the lake. The problem has been exacerbated by the drought years when large water releases were not needed because of low water levels in Lake Okeechobee, which has allowed those runoffs to accumulate until years with more rain flushed out those built up nutrients and bacteria. Now they are being released into the Indian River and Caloosahatchee estuaries and the concentrations are exponentially higher

Brandie L

Amen! Sugar companies are not the issue!


Many thanks, Rick.

Rick Christie

Valuable perspective Brian.


Marie...sorry to disappoint you.


Mary Ellen: Thank you for the note. I couldn't agree more with your comments. Thankfully we have people like you to keep an eye on it all.....Brian

Mary Ellen Klas

One thought to add to your good insights, Brian: neither the sugar industry nor the environmentalists are elected, but why is it okay to allow those to whom we entrust the state's future to make short-sighted, often politically-expedient, one-sided decisions? Where is the long-term vision? The short-term pain? It is long past time that we demand difficult answers and long-term solutions from our elected officials and hold them accountable for following through. Once we are truly serious about that, the good people on both sides of this fight will follow. We owe it to our children.

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