Subsidized.

Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Rubio's Climate Message Is Flavored by Big Sugar

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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During the debate of Republican candidates in Miami on Thursday, Senator Marco Rubio got applause for asserting that the government in Washington couldn't pass a law "to change the weather." Not everyone in Florida, however, is applauding Rubio's skepticism on environmental legislation. Specific laws have been proposed that would make the state cleaner and safer, but Rubio's big donors oppose them.

"In this state, the sugar industry always has fingers on the legislative scale," says Alan Farago, president of Friends of the Everglades, a group set up in the 1960s by a Florida legend, the writer and environmentalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas. "And Rubio is part of the problem."

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Rubio is the leading recipient  of political donations from the U.S. sugar industry. The Fanjul family, which owns one of Florida's two big sugar producers, Florida Crystals, is a top donor. The senator is often criticized from the right for supporting sugar subsidies. The U.S. government buys  sugar the country's producers can't sell on the open market, and that forces it to strictly limit sugar imports, which artificially drives up U.S. sugar prices.

In Florida, however, concerns about sugar extend beyond high prices: The sugar companies have a large impact on the environment. Florida Crystals and another big producer, U.S. Sugar, grow cane in the Everglades, next to the national park. The chemicals they use have polluted lake Okeechobee, the enormous freshwater body in the center of the state from which water flows into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries, and ultimately the Everglades ecosystem. 

This winter, Florida experienced record rainfall, linked to the El Nino weather system and possibly a manifestation of climate change. The additional water in Lake Okechobee, which needs to be drained off to avoid flooding in residential areas, means more pollution for the Everglades. This kind of triage -- flooding or pollution -- occurs because, Farago says, "in Florida, water is managed to maximize sugar profits." That may be an exaggeration, but the water management system was indeed built with the industry's needs in mind.

In 2008, Florida Governor Charlie Crist announced a plan to purchase 180,000 acres of land from U.S. Sugar to create surface reservoirs for the polluted water. The effort has been criticized as an attempt to bail out U.S. Sugar, which was then in dire straits, but it's backed by local experts and environmentalists. The  plan has shrunk since the financial crisis -- options expired, prices increased -- and even now that the economy is recovering, there is no political will to go through with the purchase. That may have something to do with the Fanjuls' wariness of the plan: They own land in the area that could be next in line.

Sugar producers understand that the state could, in theory, seize the land through eminent domain. That wouldn't be a great outcome for them: Although Florida Crystals also grows and refines sugar oversees, the U.S. subsidies make domestic production a stable and lucrative business.

The sugar companies' line is that they are good stewards of the land and they dismiss the arguments against them as merely the opinion of a few wealthy environmentalists. Farago might appear to fit that profile: He moved to the Florida Keys from Rhode Island in 1988 after selling a cable and wiring supplies company that he and his brother had inherited. Still, there's no denying that the industry pollutes the water supply. The courts in Florida have stepped in repeatedly to limit the dumping of polluted water into Lake Okeechobee.

Rubio may be right about the limits of legislation from Washington in slowing climate change. Still, laws could be passed to mitigate its consequences in Florida. Abolishing the sugar subsidies might make the Florida producers more amenable to selling their land to the state at reasonable prices. Legislation on government-funded infrastructure projects could help improve the water management system and help create jobs for sugar industry workers who would be affected if Big Sugar got smaller. 

Rubio, however, isn't likely to back such plans. "He's the creation of the sugar industry," Farago says. Then he adds: "At least Donald Trump funds his own campaign."

One reason for Rubio's precarious  position in his home state before the March 15 Republican primary might be that his history with the sugar industry is  widely known and broadly unappealing. This may not be so much about the environment as about cleaner politics, or at least a break with politics as usual.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net