How will Puerto Rico’s resource constraints impact its energy and food transitions?

by Kimberly Colgan

Food is energy. The calories we see on food packages are actually kilocalories, where one kilocalorie is the energy it takes to raise the temperature of a kilogram of water by 1°C. The consumption of these units of energy fuels us through our days. When we consume calories, we are both directly and indirectly consuming calories. For example, when I eat a cup of cooked rice, I am consuming approximately 200 calories directly. If I consume 3 ounces of beef, I am directly consuming approximately  215 calories and indirectly consuming the calories  the cow consumed to produce those 3 ounces of meat. While the indirect calories necessary to produce animal-source calories vary, in the US, the average feed-to-food conversion efficiency is around 7 percent.

 
A cow grazing on a steep hillside in Mayagüez.

A cow grazing on a steep hillside in Mayagüez.

 

Producing these direct and indirect calories requires land, water, human labor, mechanized labor, fossil fuels, and numerous other resources. In the context of a small island, these resources are particularly limited and expensive. In their energy and food transitions, Puerto Rico will have to make many decisions about what, where, and how much to produce.

The State of Food and Agricultural Systems in Puerto Rico

In creating equitable food and energy transitions, it is important to understand the state of the system. To learn about this, I had the opportunity to hear from Luis Alexis Rodríguez-Cruz, a Food Systems PhD student at the University of Vermont. He grew up in Puerto Rico, received his bachelor’s degree from UPR-Ponce and his master’s degree from UPR-Mayagüez. Luis and I met at a conference on global food security at Purdue this past summer and I was excited for him to tell me more about his research. He focuses on climate change and its impacts on farmers and food security in the context of small island developing states. He detailed the history behind the diets of Puerto Rico, the types of production that dominate agriculture on the archipelago, and described the impacts of Maria.

Luis and I at Calle Cerra in Santurce.

Luis and I at Calle Cerra in Santurce.

Food Systems

Colonization has large impacts on the food system in Puerto Rico. While many dietary staples like cassava, maize, beans, and batatas came from the Taino people, many foods were introduced into the Puerto Rican diet by the Spanish. Pigs, cows, sugar and rice were brought over by Spanish colonizers. By the 18th century, much of the arable land had been converted into sugarcane plantations and indentured Taíno labor was insufficient to work them all. The Spanish captured African people and brought them to Puerto Rico to work as slaves on their plantations. Bananas, plantains, yams, and pigeon peas were a few of the foods taken from the continent to feed the slaves. Energy dense dishes like mofongo, alcapurria, and rellenos de papas were created and provided enough energy to get through long days of manual labor. Cruz Miguel Ortíz Cuadra describes in more detail the impacts of colonization on the Puerto Rican diet in his book, Eating Puerto Rico: A History of Food, Culture, and Identity.

Agricultural Systems

In addition to describing diets and the food system, Luis also gave me an overview of the agricultural systems in Puerto Rico. Sugar production has declined significantly since 1960’s, and mangoes and coffee are now the largest exports. Much of the agricultural land in Puerto Rico is owned by the Land Authority, which is a public corporation that was created in the 1940’s to support and promote agriculture in Puerto Rico. Despite this aim, about 85% of the food consumed in Puerto Rico is imported. The majority of people who own houses or have access to land have fruit trees. Banana, plantain, avocado, guava, and papaya trees are all common.

Hurricane Maria

Currently, Luis is working on his dissertation that explores the barriers to climate change adaptation and the impacts of extreme weather events on food security and the resilience of agricultural production systems in Puerto Rico. In collaboration with the Extension Services of the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez, he studies the impacts of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rican farmers. The impacts of Maria were devastating: 42.5% of farmers reported a total loss of their crops, and another 45.5% reported significant damages. Before the hurricane, less than 1% of farmers said that they experienced food insecurity. The month after Maria, almost 60% said that they were food insecure. In contrast with the majority of the US, 94% of Puerto Rican farmers believe that climate change is happening, and that it is already affecting them.

According to the Department of Agriculture, economic damages to agriculture in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria are estimated to be up to $2 billion USD. The damages are high, and the United States Department of Agriculture reported that as little as $22 million USD of the total crop value was insured. 4200 cows were killed or injured. The poultry industry lost 2.2 million birds between Hurricane Maria and Irma. Featured in a USA Today article was an image of a bulldozer being used to move chicken carcasses from a poultry house damaged in the storms.

But damage to the Puerto Rican food system did not end with agriculture after Maria. Food needs energy. It takes energy to ship, store, and cook the foods that we eat. Maria destroyed electricity transmission lines, and refrigerators were without power. Not everyone has a gas stove and, without electricity, most could not cook food in their homes. “Imagine the foods people ate to survive,'' said Jonathan Castillo Polanco in a lecture on public health post-Maria. Canned foods were common, and as Jonathan told us one can of lunch meat contains 1100 mg of sodium. Elderly people shouldn’t consume more than 1000 mg per day. These high levels of sodium intake can lead to dehydration, high blood pressure, and heart disease which deteriorate public health and further strain the already stressed healthcare system in Puerto Rico.

 

Federal Policies Impacting Puerto Rican Food and Energy Transitions

US federal policies have, and will continue, to impact Puerto Rico’s food and energy transitions. Two main federal policies that impact the state of the Puerto Rican food system are the Farm Bill and the Jones Act.

Farm Bill programming is extensive. It covers issues from farmer financial supports to nutrition programs, and from conservation programs to rural broadband access. Paralleling our group’s difficulties on determining if the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act applies to Puerto Rico, it is difficult to find which Farm Bill programs are available for Puerto Ricans. Broadly speaking, there are two main components of the Farm Bill: nutrition and welfare, and farmer supports. Both of these components apply differently to US territories than they do to the states. While information on how the Farm Bill impacts Puerto Rico is hard to find, there is a three part series by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition that describes how the farm bill differs in it’s applications from US states to US territories, and makes it harder for Puerto Rico to have a competitive agricultural economy.

In the states, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is an entitlement program, meaning that if you qualify and apply for SNAP, you will receive SNAP benefits. In Puerto Rico, the Nutritional Assistance Program (NAP) program is a block grant program, meaning that there is a cap to the amount of federal funding available, and that even if you qualify you might not receive NAP benefits because of limited funds.

While difficult to see what farm programs are available in Puerto Rico, a quick comparison between the Farm Service Agency program pages for Minnesota and Puerto Rico seems to indicate that there are many fewer programs available to Puerto Rican farmers. If this is not the case, and in fact Puerto Rican farmers are eligible for all the same programs that farmers in the states are, Puerto Rican agriculture is still at a relative disadvantage. While many of the agricultural giants in the states like Iowa, Illinois, and Minnesota largely produce commodity crops like corn and soybeans, Puerto Rico produces predominantly speciality crops like coffee, mangoes, plantains, and bananas. The majority of farmer subsidies in the Farm Bill support commodity crops like corn, wheat, cotton, and soybeans. Because of this, Puerto Rican agriculture is at a relative disadvantage when it comes to federal agricultural support, because they produce more horticultural crops.

The Jones Act requires that only US ships, manned by a predominantly American crew, can be used to transport goods between US ports. This greatly limits the ships and crews available to move goods into Puerto Rico, restricting the flow of goods into the archipelago. A 2013 report by the New York Federal Reserve Bank estimated that shipping costs from the U.S. East Coast to Puerto Rico are double the costs of shipping to the Dominican Republic --Puerto Rico’s neighbor to the west-- because of the Jones Act. These increased costs hurt the Puerto Rican economy, and increases the costs of both fuel and food. While the act was temporarily lifted after Maria to facilitate the shipment of supplies into the archipelago, it has been reinstated. We could see the impact that the Jones Act has on the food system firsthand. Imported produce was expensive. For example, while imported tomatoes were priced at $6.99 a pound, limes grown in Puerto Rico were selling for only a dollar per pound. For those of you unfamiliar with prices in the states, the average price for a pound of tomatoes two weeks ago was $1.20, while one lime sold for 44 cents.

 

Considering Resource Constraints in Energy and Food Transitions:

In food and energy transitions, there are two main factors to consider: demands for land, and political limitations. Political limitations can be broken down further into limitations on federal support, and federal impositions on Puerto Rican political autonomy.

Land Demands

As Marcel Castro-Sitiriche of the University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez Microgrid Laboratory told us, the most recent draft of Puerto Rico’s Integrated Resource Plan includes solar generation, most of it coming from utility-scale solar. Whereas the majority of consumer-owned solar generation is on rooftops, utility-scale solar requires land.

If Puerto Rico wants to reduce its reliance on imported food, agricultural production will need to increase, and demands for land will likely increase with it. Will increasing land demands for solar conflict with increasing land demands for agriculture? How will this impact conservation efforts and biodiversity on the archipelago?

Will the best sites for utility-scale solar conflict with the best places for agriculture? If so, how will these conflicts be resolved? What is the Land Authority’s role in this process, and who are the other stakeholders involved?

Many marginal lands on the archipelago are used as grazing lands for cattle. Could utility-scale solar be a way to increase profits on these low-yielding lands? If yes, how will this increase cattle production, and how will beef and dairy markets in Puerto Rico be affected?

The Puerto Rican Center for Investigative Journalism reported that Monsanto owned 1,711 acres, while the Dow AgroSciences and Mycogen Seeds alliance owns 1,698 acres in addition to the lands the lease from the Land Authority. While this article was written before the 2018 Monsanto and Bayer merger, and the exact acreage may have changed since then, this shows that the acres owned by these corporations far exceeds the 500 acre limit that is outlined in both the Foraker Act of 1900, and Puerto Rico’s Land Act. How do these companies exceed the 500 acreage limit? Will Puerto Rico continue to let agribusiness giants exceed these limits? If so, will they change the financial structures and payments to bring in more revenue to support farmers who live in Puerto Rico?

Pioneer corn fields along the highway driving from Juana Diaz to San Juan.

Pioneer corn fields along the highway driving from Juana Diaz to San Juan.

On the drive from Juana Diaz to San Juan, we passed by a corridor of windmills. Luis told me that there was much opposition to the installation of these windmills, as they are costly. In addition to the costs, he said that the windmills were cited in some of the best agricultural lands on the archipelago. Lettuces, tomatoes, plantains, and bananas are grown in this corridor. Because the Land Authority owns the land, they could allow these without the input of the farmers. He described to me the frustrations and difficulties that this poses for farmers. Many crops like tomatoes and lettuces, are sensitive to changes in light. The windmills cast shadows onto the crops that cause crops to ripen unevenly, causing decreased yields, the quality of the harvested crop to decrease, additional labor to harvest more than once, or any combination of these problems. With food and energy already having conflicting land demands, Puerto Rico will need to take great effort to equitably address these conflicts in their transitions.

Federal Support and Imposition

From observation it appears that, proportionally, Puerto Rico grows more food for direct human consumption than do the states. Driving along the highways in Puerto Rico, you will see fields of bananas, plantains, mangoes, papayas, breadfruit, and taro. You will see cows grazing in pastures, and chickens and roosters strutting about the streets. In contrast, driving along the highways of Minnesota, you see corn, soybeans, cows, and the occasional hog or turkey farm. Compared to many of the states, Puerto Rico produces much fewer commodity crops, and many more specialty horticultural crops. Unless the next Farm Bill provides more incentives for horticultural production and speciality crops, Puerto Rican agriculture will remain relatively unsupported.

I say “from observation” because unlike the 50 US states, county-level data on agricultural production is not available for Puerto Rico in the USDA NASS Quick Stats Database. Puerto Rico and the other US territories do not appear to be included in the database.

Windmills on agricultural lands owned by the Land Authority have been met with mixed feelings.

Windmills on agricultural lands owned by the Land Authority have been met with mixed feelings.

Federal support for Puerto Rico’s food and agricultural systems is much less than it is for the states. Many Puerto Ricans who qualify for nutrition assistance do not receive it, unlike people who live in the states. The NASS Quick Stats database does not include Puerto Rico. In Puerto Rico, everywhere you look, there is food being grown. While QuickStats does not have the data needed to make concrete conclusions, it appears that the agricultural economy of Puerto Rico is much larger than that of many states. Why does Puerto Rico not have the same support?

It is because representation matters. Puerto Rico does not have the same political power as the states, and because of this, Puerto Rico does not receive the same benefits as the states do. But Puerto Rico also does not get the same say in the laws that govern their territory. The 2018 Farm Bill made cockfighting illegal in the territories as well as the states, but cockfighting is much larger part of the territories economies. In Puerto Rico, it is a $18 million dollar industry that employs almost 30,000 people. Puerto Rico does not have voting representation in the US Congress, but federal laws are imposed on them.

Another federal policy that should be taken into consideration is the Jones Act. While repealing the Jones Act would bring much needed financial relief by decreasing the cost of importing fuel and food, the lower import prices may also disincentivize the creation of long term power generation and food production capacities in Puerto Rico itself. These trade-offs and more will need to be taken into consideration when determining the direction that Puerto Rico’s food and energy transitions should take.

While restricted by minimal federal assistance, and limited by the imposition of federal laws, Puerto Rico has the opportunity post-Maria to reshape it’s food and energy systems. Maria has brought issues of scarcity of land, water, food, and energy to the attention of citizens and politicians. The Puerto Rican government has the opportunity to build policies that support local food and energy production to increase resilience and decrease costs. Addressing the limited nutritional assistance, insufficient economic farmer supports, the Jones Act, and deeply entrenched systems of colonialism and exploitation are necessary steps for Puerto Rico to create equitable food and energy systems.

Regardless of the political party in power, the governor and congresspeople of Puerto Rico will have to act to address food and energy issues on the archipelago. Citizens across all of Puerto Rico will have to determine what they want their food and energy systems to look like, who they want to own and operate them, and how they are supported.

Regardless of the political party in power, the governor and congresspeople of Puerto Rico will have to act to address food and energy issues on the archipelago. Citizens across all of Puerto Rico will have to determine what they want their food and energy systems to look like, who they want to own and operate them, and how they are supported.

Questions to Consider in Puerto Rico’s Food and Energy Transitions:

Will increasing land demands for solar conflict with increasing land demands for agriculture? How will this impact conservation efforts and biodiversity on the archipelago?

Will the best sites for utility-scale solar conflict with the best places for agriculture? If so, how will these conflicts be resolved? What is the Land Authority’s role in this process, and who are the other stakeholders involved?

Could utility-scale solar be a way to increase profits on low-yielding lands? If yes, how will this increase cattle production, and how will beef and dairy markets in Puerto Rico be affected?

How do companies exceed the 500 acreage limit set in place by the Land Authority? Will Puerto Rico continue to let agribusiness giants exceed these limits? If so, will they change the financial structures and payments to bring in more revenue to support farmers who live in Puerto Rico?

Why does Puerto Rico not receive the same supports as the states do?