Sweetening the bottom line: Tobacco farmers switching to stevia
There's a new cash crop on the horizon: stevia. This South American plant, which is 300 times sweeter than sugar but contains no calories, has become an increasingly popular alternative since the FDA approved its use in 2008. Now more and more farmers are abandoning some of their usual crops and growing stevia instead. The biggest transition, according to recent reports from Bloomberg and ABC News, is the tobacco industry, which sees big profits in the leafy greens.
This is a big change, since until now 85 percent of the stevia used in the U.S. was grown in other countries. But tobacco use is down in the U.S. — the world market for tobacco farming has shrunk 3.4 percent since 2008 — and struggling farmers are looking for alternatives. Stevia is a good option. As Bloomberg reports, tobacco and stevia plants grow in similar climates and soils. They're also cultivated the same way: leaves for each plant are picked and then dried before processing. One ex-tobacco farmer told Bloomberg that he can use the same machines and barns for stevia and the crop grows without pesticides, since the local bugs aren't attracted to the stevia plants.
This represents a big transition in a short amount of time. The first commercial stevia crop was only planted in the U.S. three years ago.