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FOOD SECURITY IN PUERTO RICO?

by Sadhu
The topic of food security has recently garnered much needed global popularity; there are
many ways to analyze this topic, but three fundamental questions are imperative for all of
us to consider:

Is Puerto Rico’s food supply secure?


What endangers our food security?
What ensures our food security?

Is Puerto Rico’s food supply secure?

The answer is an emphatic ‘no’!

At present, Puerto Rico’s yearly agricultural gross income (app. $800 million) represents
approximately 1-2% of its total GDP (Gross Domestic Product), and is thus one of the
lowest agricultural outputs worldwide.

Less than 10% of the total amount of food locally consumed is produced in the island.
There is no doubt - a food dependency over 90% is alarming. In addition to the quantity of
food imported, we also face another problem: the quality of the food imported is relatively
poor (it lacks nutrients, is denatured, and is polluted by chemical residues) and in many
cases dangerous for our health. Few realize that more than 3,000 artificial substances are
legal to be added to food produced in the U.S., many of which are proven to be dangerous
to human health.

As recently stated by the Asociacion de Agricultores de P.R., our food supply would be
exhausted in as little as ten days (fresh food) to four weeks (canned food) if imports were
to stop. I think it is safe to say that the ensuing chaos of this scenario would be extreme.
Of course, we all live as if this will never happen. We cannot deny, however, that there is a
current rise in gasoline prices which is very likely to increase further. Prices of imported
foods are directly related to gasoline prices; statistics show that an average pound of
produce travels more than 1,500 miles from farm to plate. If these gasoline cost trends
continue, a severe food import crisis could become reality. The most effective solution to
prevent such a situation is to produce all food locally.

What endangers our food security?


There are many factors that endanger our daily food supply; external supply dependency
is a major one, but it is not the sole danger to our food security.

Additional reasons for a bleak agricultural future and lack of food security in PR are:

* a steady decline of workable agricultural land


* a large amount of cultivated land is treated with chemical pesticides, herbicides and
fertilizers. They all of have three things in common: they destroy beneficial soil life,
pollute our water and endanger the health of beneficial insects and humans.

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* a major decline in farm workers and - most alarmingly – the failure of our agricultural
leaders to attract a new generation of farmers. Today, we have only 18,000 farms left
(many of which have minimal or no food production), with approximately 32,000 people
working in agriculture. If the current trend continues, local agriculture could eventually
even be in danger of extinction.

One particularly disturbing but generally overlooked fact is that we have no local grain
production. From a purely historical perspective, any country with little or no grain
production has had to undergo major socio-economic and even existential crises.

Besides not having any grain production, our vegetable and fruit production is very
limited. Against all logic and reason, even fruits and vegetables that could easily be grown
locally are still imported. Although useable agricultural land is steadily on the decline,
much of this land is used for non-food crops.

The current strategy of accepting the importation of low quality foods has led to the
invasion of fast food chains around the island. This is reflected blatantly in medical
statistics, especially in the sharp increase of obesity, cancer, high cholesterol and diabetes
in the general population.

Unknown to most consumers, about 65% of the food consumed in Puerto Rico contains
genetically modified substances. While there is still a heated world-wide debate over the
security of this type of altered food, there is no dispute over the negative impact of
genetically engineered crops.

The already visible ecological consequences of genetically engineered crops are:

• the spread of genetically engineered genes to indigenous plants


• increased toxicity moving through the food chain
• the creation of new viruses and “super weeds”
• the disruption of nature’s system of pest control and behavior changes and
destruction of beneficial insects and micro-organisms.

Thus, the work of the currently booming biotech industry is responsible for:

• genetic vulnerability and erosion


• a drastic loss of biological diversity
• perpetuation of a monoculture historically proven to be disastrous
• over-production of a very limited number of crops
• transfer of transgenic resistance to glufosinate from food crops to weeds
• increased use of devastating herbicides
• rapid evolution of crop resistance to pest control
• gene transfer and recombination which lead to the creation of new pathogenic
organisms

Yet, biotech companies which are primarily driven by profits and not by scientific
research or the desire to provide the population with healthy food are invited with open
arms to Puerto Rico. Quietly, behind the backs of the population, more and more test sites
are appearing in the island. USDA documents show that by the end of 2004, a total of
1,330 crops field releases of transgenic crops had already been granted, for a total of
3,483 field test sites. With the exception of Hawaii, no state of the U.S. has so many
experiments per square mile.

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What ensures our food security?

Fortunately, there are historically proven solutions to securing the future of our food.
Once we accept the basic principles behind true agricultural progress and success, our
food security is guaranteed.

Progressive farming methods like “eco farming”, “permaculture” or “holistic farming” are
currently gaining grounds. They describe a holistic view that incorporates ethical
treatment of humans and animals, ecology, anthropology, sociology and sustainable
agronomy. Their principles are based on long-term success, and not short-sighted profits
based on exploitation of land and people. Without considering each and every of these
factors, agriculture can not possibly prosper.

The principles behind these integrated sciences are simple: they are geared towards an
ethical way of growing healthy food and establishing a local production that is fully
sustainable and vastly diversified. There is no better guarantee for food security than
locally produced food and crop diversification. The movement from monoculture to
polyculture is the first practical step towards the principle of food self-sufficiency.

Sustainable agriculture, as opposed to conventional agriculture, conserves natural


resources like water, soil and biodiversity and is at the same time economically viable. In
order to bring food closer to the consumer, this paradigm emphasizes small-scale and
medium-scale farms which are either family based or community based. This supports a
very personal and direct contact between the farmer and consumer.

With it come many benefits:

• our children will again be exposed to the art of growing healthy food
• the average health-consciousness of the population will rise again
• produce will be more affordable for the consumer but simultaneously more
profitable for the farmer
• hundreds of new food and spice crops would brighten up our cuisine
• thousands of local seed banks would guarantee an unlimited supply of valuable
heirloom seeds
• the genetic diversity of our food crops would be secured
• …and most importantly, Puerto Rico would be self-sufficient in terms of food
production. In an attempt to introduce new tropical food crops, I have described
120 new food crops with high appeal and commercial potential in my book “Oro
Verde – Securing the Future of our Food”.

Yet another important concept to study and implement is urban agriculture. This type of
gardening has a tradition that goes back thousands of years, and has just been revived in
recent decades. Asian, Latin American and African cities are proving how successful
urban agriculture can be. For example, Hanoi, Vietnam, produces 80% of its fresh
vegetables. In Shanghai, China, 60% of the vegetables and more than 90% of the milk
originate in the city. In Bangkok, Thailand, most leafy vegetables are grown in the city. In
Cuba, an estimated 90% of the fresh produce eaten in Havana is grown in and around the
city.

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Considering these proven methods and factual examples, it is not utopian to firmly believe
that we could boost our agricultural production by at least ten times, which would be
enough for Puerto Rico to be food self sufficient.

Conclusion
If we continue to live in denial of the consequences of our current mode of food
dependence, we will face a very difficult future. It is each and everyone’s choice now to
participate in a better future for Puerto Rico’s agriculture. If we look at all the facts and
statistics, we have to admit that they are a wake up call that could hardly be louder. To
turn things around for a better future requires that at least those who are concerned about
Puerto Rico’s agriculture begin to work together. This co-operation has to be sincere and
without ulterior motives. Some of the required fundamental changes will include re-
educating our current agricultural educators. Many of them are brilliant minds, but they
have been misled by the false promises of politicians and chemical industries. It may hurt
many egos, but if we look at the current derailed state of agriculture, this re-education is
beneficial for all.

The world around us is full of examples of positive and sometimes even amazing
agricultural progress. There is no need to re-invent any wheel, all that needs to be done is
to study and adapt successful models.

Some of the geographically closest and most inspiring recent agricultural success stories
come from Latin America, where NGOs (non-governmental organizations) have helped
tens of thousands of small-scale farmers to become economically potent while
maintaining ecological integrity.

Once agriculture becomes free of corporate control and political influence, it will be pure
and truly beneficial. Farmers and customers need to be closely linked. That means that the
entire food industry (production, procession and distribution) has to be localized. This will
naturally lead to a fundamental change of the status of a farmer, and the status of the
country. A strong network of independent but co-operating small-scale farmers, dedicated
to sustainable polyculture and healthy food production is an ideal base for a healthy and
stable society. Agrarian autonomy leads to peace, prosperity and freedom.

We can still do it…but we can not wait any longer!

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Sadhu is an agricultural consultant, eco-organic farmer and author of “Oro Verde –


Securing the Future of our Food”. You can write to him: sadhu@coqui.net