Local Agronomy for Better Health and Prosperity

DSCN3351At present, Puerto Rico remains burdened by an unhealthy, and many would argue unsustainable, food system. An island fully capable of meeting its own food needs, given proper foresight, planning, and coordination on multiple fronts (particularly development) finds itself paying exorbitant amounts for imported food. Grassroots elements recognize the challenges of the current situation, and indeed many figures in island administration recognize the dangers of ‘food insecurity’. However, the inflexibility of current policy as well as the influence of stakeholders makes real reform difficult–though far from impossible.

Michael Shuman’s “Import Replacement” (1988) offers a blueprint for the type of society and economy Puerto Ricans might be wise to gravitate toward, with agricultural reform at its center. Shuman’s essential case is that while a vibrant, mixed economy predicated on export income and widely-variegated products and services generates its own benefits, it is predicated on increases in population, production, and development that are not necessarily desirable in today’s day and age. An island like Puerto Rico, densely-populated, riddled with unemployment and poverty, and far from environmentally-pristine, has not exactly ‘succeeded’ to a degree that might make a more insular approach undesirable. In many ways, Shuman (persuasively) argues, self-sufficiency–sacrificing quantity and variety for quality and permanent sustainability–is more in tune with modern sensibilities and more appropriate as a response in a world replete with increasingly-unsustainable practices. Would an ‘import-replacement’ strategy, with greater local production and food security (and potentially employment numbers) really leave Puerto Rico worse off than it is today? This is a doubtful proposition.

If Shuman is offering ideological justification for regarding globalization and trading relationships with skepticism, Maria Soledad Gaztambide-Arandes article, “Raising Community Voices: Organized Civil Society and the Environmental Movement in Puerto Rico” (2008, Aug) offers welcome strategies for grassroots networking and organizing that are implicitly designed to addresses concerns related to the lack of political responsiveness in Puerto Rico. The author’s plea (and plan) for change is, in many ways, predicated on homegrown energy and ideas, paralleling the environmental movement’s desire for a return to homegrown agriculture and a curtailing of development backed by outside interests. They approaches are, in other words, ‘two sides of the same coin.’

Zeeuw et al. (2011) offer a valuable tactic in the larger strategy aimed at greater self-sufficiency and sustainability: urban agriculture. The issue that troubles anyone (including me) thinking deeply about Puerto Rico’s current situation with regard to food imports, waste, expense, and environmental damage is the fact that Puerto Rico is incredibly densely-populated and in need of massive, and entirely-reliable, food supplies. Sustainable agriculture means little if it cannot feed Puerto Rico’s young and growing population. But as Zeeuw and his colleagues demonstrate, urban agriculture has a valuable role to play in sustainable urban development and could, on an island like Puerto Rico, help galvanize the entire population into thinking about agriculture, thinking about sustainability, and contributing–personally–to bolstering the island’s domestic food production while altering personal consumption habits (i.e. by making different decisions regarding consumption). At the same time, urban agriculture, properly planned and supported, could help ‘bridge the gap’ in food supplies as the transition is made to a less import-dependent society. This tactic, joined to the broader strategy of sustainability outlined by Gaztambide-Arandes and Shuman, could help Puerto Rico move confidently toward a safer, healthier, and more prosperous future.

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