Letter to Congress Pushes for Puerto Rico’s Food Security, Sovereignty (OPINION)

Apr 25, 2023
3:32 PM

Farm in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico (Oquendo from Freeport, NY/CC BY 2.0)


The Puerto Rican Cultural Center (PRCC) in Chicago has sent a letter to Congressional leaders requesting “the immediate retooling of Puerto Rico’s Nutritional Assistance Program (NAP) so that at least half of the funds allocated to this program be directed to support the island’s local farmers and promote greater agricultural self-sufficiency.”

More than 80 percent of the food consumed by Puerto Rico’s more than three million inhabitants is imported, 40 percent of the population suffers food insecurity, and the devastation left in the wake of Hurricane María in 2017 put local climate vulnerability on the table.

The call is made for nutritional security and food sovereignty for Puerto Rico. Traditionally, food security means that enough food is available, in sufficient quantities and good quality, year-round for everybody. Along with that understanding, modern food security adds criteria such as local and proximity production, cultural affinity, and environmentally sustainable farming.

Few people know that Puerto Rico was hailed by the first geographical studies made by U.S. scientists as “the land of the farmer” and that the best lands were vastly taken over by U.S. sugar interests in the first half of the last century. Yet, around 1940, local farmers produced 65 percent of the food consumed by almost two million people, while at the same time exporting sugar, coffee and tobacco, among other products.

Most of that food was produced by small and medium-sized family farms in the hills of the interior. But later in the ’50s and ’60s, in a political and economic decision to industrialize the island’s economy and reduce its population, jíbaro families were encouraged to move to the island’s coastal cities and the continental United States, while food imports and supermarkets substituted local production.

We welcome the PRCC’s initiative and suggest these additional points to further the discussion:

  1. Any future farming policies should take into consideration two major tenants: First, the priority should be production for the inhabitants of Puerto Rico, in order to reduce imports, increase food security, improve quality, and promote real local economic and social changes. Second, due to the fragility of the local ecosystems and high population density, ecological farming methods should be part of the recommendations made to officials and institutions charged with the implementation of local agricultural development.
  2. Efforts should begin with the identification of and working with the many local organizations, specialists and farmers already involved in local and sustainable/ecological farming, food distribution, and education. Top-down decisions from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other agencies have, in the past, been part of the problem. Puerto Rico has geographical, linguistic and cultural characteristics which have usually not been taken into consideration, and agriculture is full of examples of mistakes that have resulted in dramatic failures.

Among the main policy problems standing in the way of more local farming and food production are the difficulty in accessing land, the lack of micro and small financial services, subsidies oriented towards sustainable farming practices and reduction of natural resources devastation, and the availability of appropriate technical support and ecologically proven inputs.

Puerto Rico has enjoyed relative food security at some periods in the past and has the natural and human resources to fully do so in the future. Support from the federal government and other stateside institutions, especially from the Puerto Rican diaspora, are most welcome if care is taken to support ongoing efforts on the island in the areas of ecological farming, food distribution, and farmers’ markets.

Serious policy changes are needed to achieve real food security and sovereignty. Including the PRCC’s Puerto Rico Food Sovereignty Program in the upcoming farm bill would be a good first step Congress can take.


Nelson Álvarez Febles is a Puerto Rico social ecologist and specialist in agroecology. He is the author of several books, most recently Sembramos a tres partes: los surcos de la agroecología y la soberanía alimentaria.