SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Food scarcity is an ongoing problem for Puerto Rico. The territory imports 85% of all its food.
With the recent natural disasters and the pandemic, the territory is exploring ways to have more food sustainability within the island.
“Puerto Rican food culture here is becoming very different than it used to be,” said Efren Robles, the owner of Frutos De Guabaco, a farm in Puerto Rico. “We have a lot of traditions in the way that we cook and where we get the food we use. But the big issue that we have here is that we import 85-90% of our food.”
Puerto Rico is an island, and like many island nations, most of its goods need to be imported. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Puerto Rico only produces 15% of its food.
“We’ve been led to believe that we are a sophisticated country,” said Denise Santos, the president of Banco De Alimentos, a food bank in Puerto Rico. “I think right after Hurricane Maria, we were forced to realize that we are actually a very poor region.”
Santos is dedicated to solving food scarcity in Puerto Rico. She said the hurricanes and the COVID-19 pandemic caused several food scarcity problems within the territory.
“Anything that happens in the ports of the U.S. or the shipping industry, it has a direct and immediate impact on our food supply,” Santos said. “We had a labor issue with cargo drivers. There was a conflict, with regards to the rates they were charging. That took about three to four days to solve, so we had that many days with no containers moving out of the ports, and that created scarcity in our supermarkets.”
According to a George Washington Survey, 40% of Puerto Ricans reported food insecurity.
Santos, and others across Puerto Rico, want to battle food scarcity with the territory growing its own food.
“We have to start creating and incentivizing agriculture,” Santos said. “The area is prone to hurricanes and a lot of floods. The government must help farmers become sustainable. If the farmers aren’t sustainable then the island won’t be.”
Puerto Rican farmers no longer receive a subsidy since the government scrapped the law in 2018.
It was replaced by an incentive-based on production, a system that the legislature is now considering reverting.
An investigation by Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism found that as of May 2020, the island only had 5,439 acres of public land available for leasing and farming, and 2,544 acres of that could not be rented because of their condition.
“It’s very difficult to work with 15% of local food production, so that’s part of the project here, to incorporate new farmers,” Robles said.
Robles, originally a mechanic who took on farming, is spreading the techniques on more sustainable farming.
“What we do is research here in the facility, and we pass that information to farmers and some chefs in the area,” Robles said. “All these issues have made us more resilient and more focused into producing local.”
After Hurricane Maria in 2017, the USDA released a report that Puerto Rico lost 37% of the number of farms.
Because of that loss, Robles’ farm works with more than 50 other farmers, teaching them the future of farming in Puerto Rico, using hydroponics and other methods.
“Because of the new technology and the number of farmers we work with, we have consistency in these methods,” Robles said. “We can definitely compete with the importation. People are conscious now where they go and where they buy. They see the ports are having issues importing food, so they’ve been dipping into the local farmers.”
But these methods aren’t just for Puerto Rico. Robles said this can be used for other communities across the country where food shortages are experienced.
“Right after Hurricane Maria, the first people going back to farmer were the hydroponics,” said Robles. “It’s a good tool. You can use that. If you have great soil, use that. But not everyone has that advantage.”
With an increase in farming, Santos is starting to incorporate more local farmers in her food bank.
“We are looking to basically balance our food distribution so that 25% of the food we distribute come from local growers,” Santos said.
Together, advocates battling the food shortage hope this could be a big step moving forward towards food sustainability for Puerto Rico.