Agricultural Land Policy and Nutrition Assistance Issues Effecting the Sustainability of Puerto Rico’s Food System

In focusing on land policy and politics in Puerto Rico, I was eager to hear from the Secretary of Agriculture, Myrna Comas Pagán, and the Director of the Nutrition Assistance Program, Marta Elsa Fernandez Pabellon, to learn about the challenges to agriculture and food security in Puerto Rico. From complicated issues of dependence on imported foods to a declining agricultural sector, both women were inspiring and demonstrated a thorough understanding of the issues within Puerto Rico’s food system.

Secretary of Agriculture, Myrna Comas Pagán, addressed issues to the commonwealth’s food security and advanced proposals for strengthening the system. Ms. Comas Pagán dedicates herself toward identifying points of vulnerability in the food supply chain and addressing these concerns with the governor and the USDA. Prior to her seat in office, food security wasn’t a topic of great concern. As an agro-economist with a thorough understanding of past, present and future food system issues, her role in government has been vital to grassroots movements and progressive agricultural policy campaigns. “Every aspect of the food system effects the vulnerability of the system, and the more miles your food travels, the more vulnerable your food system is,” stated Ms. Comas Pagán. As she continued to provide examples, it made me realize that there are many activities that push agriculture in a particular coherent direction. One major issue that must be addressed is the crippling effect of food import dependence on Puerto Rico’s food system. As pointed out in Can Puerto Rico Survive Agriculture? by Héctor Monclova Vázquez, Puerto Rico imports 80% of its food. In an island where people consume rice 2-3 times per day and don’t grow it on Puerto Rican soil, it has many costly effects to the sustainability of the food system.

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In looking at the retail landscape of these imported foods, U.S. food retail companies including Walmart, BJ’s Wholesale and Costco dominate the market. If import dependence continues, Puerto Rico will continue to syphon its money into the U.S. economy, perpetuating issues of food security and sustainability. This dependence on imports has effects on the wealth and health of the country and its people. As Vázquez states, “If Puerto Rico were able to replace 90% of its agricultural imports with locally grown produce, it would represent about $3.15 billion that would stay in the island’s economy and around 85,000 new jobs in the agricultural sector.” This shift from import dependence to local dependence is vital to create a food secure country. However, the major obstacle lies in the competing interests and various voices heard regarding this proposal. If this model were to advance, the first thing that must be addressed is the growing age of the average farmer in Puerto Rico. As Ms. Comas Pagán points out, the average age of a farmer in Puerto Rico is 59. Without the participation of the younger generations in the agricultural industry, the future of agriculture in Puerto Rico will continue to decline. Ms. Comas Pagán is currently working a special project for beginning farmers in order to encourage farming by addressing problems of access to land and one’s financial ability. Additionally, she is working on a label that will aware consumers of a product grown or raised in Puerto Rico. While a label identifying the country of origin, essentially, may have the ability to shift consumer preference for local goods, without programs in place to keep production reliable and at a price comparable to that of imported goods, this label won’t have the legs to change the food retail landscape. Another aspect that must be addressed is the cost of local production compared to Puerto Rico’s competitors. Since labor costs in Puerto Rico are much higher than that of its competitors (regulated by U.S. federal labor laws), legislation is working towards reducing the middle men in the food supply chain to bring down the costs of local food. While some of the products Puerto Rico imports are more costly than that grown within the island, people aren’t aware of this due to a lack of marketing and a lack of access to local markets.

Director of the Nutrition Assistance Program, Marta Elsa Fernandez Pabellon, provided a thorough analysis of Puerto Rico’s dependence on federal nutrition programs. The Nutrition Assistance Program provides 36% of the population (roughly 1.3 million people) with food assistance. It provides nutrition for those whose income falls below a certain threshold, providing assistance of 75% to be used for food and 25% as cash. While this program is successful at ensuring people do not suffer from hunger due to a low income or unemployment, it often provides a disincentive to enter the labor market. Debates about whether labor issues stem from the Nutrition Assistance Program remain. The Department of Agriculture continues to negotiate with the Nutrition Assistance Program to make exceptions for farm workers so that they continue to be eligible to receive the benefits as long as they remain within a certain income threshold. Additionally, a program is currently underway that will allow a farmer’s income to be exempt up to a certain amount and within certain growing seasons so that they continue to be eligible for benefits. This is just one example of a way the Nutrition Assistance Program and the Department of Agriculture are working together to incentivize agricultural activity in Puerto Rico. However, one of the biggest problems with this program is the strong reliance many people have on it. Although it was created as a temporary assistance program, participants are conscious of the criteria that must be met to qualify which makes unemployment a more desirable position. While this program aims to promote self-sufficiency by providing assistance in a time of need (with the hope to slowly wean participants off of it), Ms. Fernandez Pabellon notes that there are many families that have relied on the Nutrition Assistance Program for generations. I continue to think deeper about the economic impact of having 36% of the population on assistance. Studies conducted from the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Family Affairs have determined that if farmers in Puerto Rico were to sell their products directly to the Nutrition Assistance Program, it is estimated that it will generate $60 million annually to remain in Puerto Rico.

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Meeting with Myrna Comas Pagán and Marta Elsa Fernandez Pabellon was a true privilege. While the food system of Puerto Rico has much work that remains to be done, both women are doing remarkable work to address issues of food security. I am eager to see their work move its way through legislation into new laws that promote a sustainable food system and nutrition economy for Puerto Rico.

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