Burning sugar cane

Yesterday during an evening drive I was witness to a gorgeous sunset, but as we traveled west, it became marred by a large plume of smoke. As we approached the area, it became clear that a farmer was burning a crop. I was told it was sugar cane. Why would a farmer burn sugar cane, I wondered.

A bit of research later, I have discovered that farmers do this to more easily access the usable part of the sugar cane. The fire reveals the stalk and eliminates the refuse created by the machinery that otherwise would handle the harvest. Burning the crop also reduces the costs associated with harvesting because this expensive machinery is not required.

However, Jamaican farmers were apparently supposed to stop this practice by 2014. Not surprisingly, the smoke is a pollutant and many other nations are attempting to phase out the practice. I don’t know the latest on the government’s actions related to this issue, but obviously farmers are still getting away with burning their crops.

Sugar cane, of course, played a large role in Jamaica’s growth as a nation, but its dominance has since diminished. (Forgive my wikipedia reference, but in this post I am simply sticking to the agricultural rather than social implications of this industry). The plant can reach up to 4.5 metres and about 30,000 hectares of land in Jamaica is devoted to its growth. The industry employs about 30,000 people, and heavy machinery like crawler tractors and harvesters are used to prepare and reap the crops, which is then sent to a refinery. Up to 600,000 tonnes of crop is produced on an annual basis, yielding 65,000 tonnes of sugar, according to an industry web site. The crop must also be transported across Jamaica, which was previously done by railroad, but the system was halted in 1967 and now it is all done by truck.

Unfortunately, it seems that the industry is suffering and it appears that there are several groups focused on sugar cane refinery. I guess we must stay tuned to see how the government will regulate this once-lucrative industry.

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