FOOD SECURITY IN PUERTO RICO
by Sadhu Govardhan (2007), published in Agrotemas
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 less than 1% 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.
* 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.
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.
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.
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 the majority of them 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 politically independent small-scale farmers, dedicated to sustainable polyculture and healthy food production is an ideal base for a healthy and stable society. Agrarian autonomy naturally leads to peace, prosperity and freedom.
We can still do it…but we can not wait any longer!
© Sadhu Govardhan, 2007