Expert: Straying from Food Security Plan could be dangerous for Puerto Rico
SAN JUAN – If Gov.-elect Ricardo Rosselló’s administration doesn’t continue the local Agriculture Department’s ongoing food security efforts, the executive director of the Innovation Fund for Agricultural Development (FIDA by its Spanish acronym), agronomist Saritza Aulet Padilla, said during the 34th assembly of the Latin American Association of Industrial Millers (ALIM by its Spanish initials) held this week in San Juan that it could be disastrous for the island.
Aulet Padilla says food security cannot be tied to local politics’ ups and downs, and farmers are the ones with the power to keep the local agriculture industry alive.
The agronomist explained that, as an island, Puerto Rico’s situation is precarious in that it exposes residents to a food emergency in the case of any eventuality. Thus, FIDA is working aggressively on a food safety plan for the island.
“We have had a lot of communication with farmers, explaining to them that they have the power, that what we have achieved these years is in their hands. We haven’t done anything that hasn’t been without them present, and the Food Safety Plan is a foundation that, regardless of the administration in office, must continue because we are very vulnerable,” she said.
“We can say there is food in supermarkets, we can say there is food in our refrigerators, but when looking at the definition of food security, we are vulnerable because we don’t produce it; it isn’t in our gardens, it isn’t on our homes,” she added.
The expert explained that food security exists when the population has physical, social and economic access to sufficient innocuous and nutritional foods to satisfy their food needs and preferences at all times, in order to lead an active and healthy lifestyle. And although Puerto Rico hasn’t solidified the plan yet, the island is headed toward that goal, but there is still much to do.
“We are headed toward that and that is what we want to keep fostering. We have to promote production niches of some products, but in other things we have to push for food security. What is it we eat and whether we produce it or not. Our mission is to diminish the gap so we have food security at all times in homes,” she indicated.
“That is why programs such as Mercado Familiar [Family Market] are so important, which has been the only program that has allowed us to have yautía [taro], sweet potato, malanga, because what’s imported from other countries is very high-priced. We have laws to comply with, some minimum payrolls to fulfill and we already have competition, so [the programs] are very important because what they do is strengthen an industrial, family market. It strengthens the farmer and then, in volumes, [he or she] can be competitive,” she explained.
Aulet Padilla warned about risks if Puerto Rico depended entirely on imported products to satisfy its food needs, recalling that merely a year ago an emergency situation occurred with a cargo vessel that sank en route to Puerto Rico while carrying food supplies.
“As recently as last year, when the cargo ship ‘El Faro’ sank, in Puerto Rico we tried for months for products to arrive gradually to supermarkets. As recently as that, it upset our security. In case of a major emergency, we could have a huge food problem at the local level,” she warned.
The Agriculture Department, she explained, has administrative structures to work with the Food Security Plan.
“We have the Land Authority, which manages farmland owned by the government; the Agriculture Department as a basis with inspections, sanitation and incentives to farmers supported on the production of developing farming companies, which is the phase that provides all the incentives to farmers. A farming insurance corporation, which is very important for the development of this industry, and FIDA, which is the phase where we work with everything that is our farmers’ marketing, recruitment and financing. This is supported by other federal and local agencies,” Aulet Padilla said.
The official also said that the Food Security Plan, which goes alongside the Agriculture Department’s Plan for Puerto Rico was designed to change the general perception that agriculture is archaic labor and out of tune with the technological era.
“Many people still see agriculture as something of the past and we know it isn’t like that, that agriculture has evolved and we want Puerto Ricans to be able to receive our plan from the point of view that there is modernism in agriculture. We are also faced with decreasing production in Puerto Rico, substituted by importation, which we want to diminish. Products arrive from all parts of the world…from all the world, mainly the U.S., from where we receive around 80% of our daily consumption,” she said.
Likewise, the food security plan is focused on attracting youth interested in developing themselves as agricultural workers.
“The average agricultural worker in Puerto Rico is over 55 years old, more or less than in other countries, so we try to incorporate youth into the industry, offering training, comfortable financing and plenty of mentor support,” Aulet Padilla said.