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Sugarcane

Heat and pesticides are making Central American plantation workers gravely ill.

Image of Sugarcane
Photo by Noah Friedman-Rudovsky
Area(s)
Central America (Nicaragua, Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Guatemala), Bolivia, Burma.
Sector
Agriculture

Agriculture

Uses
Food, soft drinks, alcohol, some bioplastics, and ethanol.

Worst Concerns

  • Poor health and safety

    Poor Health and Safety

  • Long hours.

    Long Hours

Concerns

Central America supplies 23 percent of US sugarcane. For the past 20 years, tens of thousands of men working on Central American sugarcane plantations have died from Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD). While the exact cause of the epidemic is yet to be identified, a study released in February 2015 by researchers from Boston University linked the disease to the sugarcane workers’ jobs. Many of the workers themselves told National Public Radio that they blame the farm chemicals they’re exposed to.

What Central American sugarcane workers have in common, besides CKD, are the conditions they face: exhausting manual labor, working in hot conditions without enough water, and exposure to pesticides.

While the US does not import sugar from Myanmar (formerly Burma), the US State Department reports that children often labor in the country’s sugarcane fields. The same is true in Bolivia, where the DOL estimates that 25 percent of those working in sugarcane are under age 14. Some are forced to work to pay off debts of their parents who have passed away or are unable to work.

Alternatives

Buy fair trade cane sugar. Fair trade ensures that workers labor in safe and healthy conditions and no child labor was used.

Choosing sugarcane also ensures that the sugar you are eating is not genetically engineered. Approximately half of sugar sold in the US comes from sugar beets, around 95 percent of which are genetically engineered. Sugarcane is not genetically modified at present and fair trade standards also prevent genetic engineering.

Take Action

Fair Food International campaigns to improve occupational health and safety among sugarcane farmers in Nicaragua.

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