ABOUT ORGANIC AGRICULTURE
IN PUERTO RICO
by Sadhu Govardhan
I receive a relatively high volume of gardening and farming related questions on a regular basis. Once in a while, they touch upon issues that I am very concerned about. The following questions were sent by a Puerto Rican student of the Syracuse University in New York:
My name is NM. I am currently writing a paper for a class about the organic production in Puerto Rico and I came across your website and I was wondering if you could answer a few questions that I have.
Question: How do you think the accessibility of people who do not have a lot of money influence the amount of organic foods produced?
Answer: Interestingly, in today’s world, rich people produce (low quality) food for the poor, and poor people produce (high quality) food for the rich. The vast majority of food produced in the U.S. (Puerto Rico imports at least 94% of it’s food from the U.S.) is denatured, homogenized low quality food, primarily produced by extremely rich corporations. The highest quality food is currently produced by small scale alternative farmers and since they have to pay the real cost for real food, their products are primarily bought by affluent people.
But price is not the only factor to look at. People are trained through the media to eat cheap, unhealthy food and spend most of their hard earned money on other things in life. There are relatively poor people who don’t follow that trend and spend a considerable amount of money on high quality food. They want to eat well and see their expense as an investment into their health. So, one’s food expenses depend on income and health consciousness, or on setting priorities with one’s expenses.
Another factor to consider is transportation costs. The more food is produced locally, the lower the cost of food will be. As an added benefit the quality of food is generally higher when it is produced locally using sustainable and ecological practices.
Q: How does a farmer's understanding of what it means for a product to be organic or non-organic influence the amount of organic foods produced?
A: In Puerto Rico there is still no curriculum of agricultural education that deals with organic, or more importantly, sustainable farming education. So, naturally, our farmers are still misguided and there is practically no sustainable, diversified farming in Puerto Rico. Without education, there is little hope that a higher form of farming can take off in the island. Currently, less than 0.1% of all locally produced food is truly organic. Even the very concept of “organic food” is hardly understood by many of the few farmers who are claiming to be “organic”.
The term “organic” itself has been altered over time and has lost its original meaning. Today, the “organic world” is in the hands of corporations whose only interest are profits, and not sustainable, decentralized and diversified agriculture.
None of the more conscious farmers I know of are using the term “organic” anymore for their products. They were essentially forced to come up with new terms like “eco-organic”, “sustainable”, etc. – but any of these terms can eventually be hijacked again by a government agency and then sold out to greedy corporations. So, what we need is not just a new and better term than “organic” but true role model projects that are self-effulgent enough to inspire and convince the public. One thing every concerned person should always remember is that even the smallest step in the right direction can and will eventually go a long way. That’s why it is so crucial to understand issues well if one wants to help and make a difference in the world.
Q: What are ways in which we can increase awareness of organic production in Puerto Rico?
A: There is hardly any organic production in Puerto Rico. In general, the state of agriculture is completely derailed here. With less than 6% of all food consumed being produced locally, the island has one of the lowest agricultural productions of any nation worldwide. Less than 0.1% of the small amount of food produced is organic.
I wrote articles about this fact already years ago ( Food Security in Puerto Rico ) and only now is the issue being discussed in public.
The best way to increase awareness is always education. Unfortunately, our entire educational system is strongly influenced by various industries with vested interests. Even universities rarely teach knowledge for the sake of knowledge but have become mouth pieces of industries with purely materialistic objectives.
Before our teachers can educate about sustainable diversified farming, which still does not exist here, they need to get trained themselves. In other words, we don’t have qualified teachers at present to begin with.
Q: Could encouraging Puerto Ricans to do more gardening help increase organic production in Puerto Rico?
A: Potentially, yes.
In order to successfully grow food in a sustainable way, the following factors are essential:
1) Knowledge of tropical food crops.
Currently, many of the food crops grown are not truly tropical. About 99% of all existing tropical food crops on the planet are virtually unknown to our local farmers.
2) Tropical seed sources
Currently, it is very difficult to import seeds from tropical regions. There are too many regulations in this regard that make it practically impossible for people to acquire optimal germplasm. Almost all seeds imported are from the U.S. – which means they are not truly tropical but from temperate climate or subtropical regions. In order to bring this issue to the public awareness, I wrote another article last year: Puerto Rico's Stolen Seed Future
3) High quality soil
There is practically no true topsoil left in Puerto Rico. Successful gardening or farming is dependent on high quality (= live) soil. In order to create that soil, composting and the use of high quality manure is required.< /FONT>
4) Knowledge of advanced gardening practices
There are many ancient traditions that teach how to combine crops, when to plant them, and how to keep the seeds. We don’t have a single farmer in PR who has an extensive background in this regard.
5) Discipline in maintaining a garden / farm
To maintain a garden over a lifetime or even throughout generations requires knowledge, experience and commitment. It is relatively easy to start a farming project but very challenging to keep it going in a sustainable way.
In general, none of these prerequisites are easy to meet – we live in a world that is increasingly estranged from nature but where there is a will, there is always a way!
There is hardly any continuity with agricultural projects in PR. The government and educational system have mostly pushed monocultures like coffee, sugarcane, etc. which are stimulants at best, but not food. There is not a single diversified vegetable, grain, fruit or herb farm in operation for generations, or even for a few decades.
Q: Does organic certification from the USDA really matter?
A: Absolutely not. I wrote an article about “ Organic Certification in Puerto Rico ”. For decades, there was absolutely zero interest in organic farming by the government or the educational system. Now, that “green” is trendy, there is interest, but instead of supporting farmers, it is all about regulating organic agriculture while there is no regulation for conventional agriculture. The USDA process of certification is mainly another means of government control and the standards of USDA certification are very low. The process of USDA certification is primarily designed for people with agro-business minds, and not for those who truly care about the environment and sustainable farming.
An even bigger problem than the ones mentioned, is that the USDA has watered down the original meaning of the term “organic” (which was not a good term to begin with because it allows too many loopholes) and sold out that term to corporations. The largest “organic” producers today, are corporations like Coca Cola, Dole, M & M Mars, who have absolutely no interest in true organic farming practices, but produce their crops in pure monoculture, without following even the most basic principles of diversification or sustainability. Their sole motive of using the term “organic” is to take advantage of the good reputation of “organics” and to rake in higher profits than with conventionally grown produce. In other words, the term organic has been distorted over time and the original idealistic organic movement has been systematically destroyed.
There are many alternative ways of certification, and all of them are more affordable and devoid of invasive government intrusion into a farmer’s life. Any insider knows that the entire certification process is quite meaningless. More important, by far, is for the public is to be in close touch with their food providers – there is no better way of knowing the quality of produce than that.
Some of the loopholes in the legal terminology of the word “USDA Organic” allow for the use of “organic” pesticides and herbicides. Many organic pesticides for example are derived from toxic plants which, in most cases, are not as harmful to humans or soil life as synthetic pesticides but are not ideal especially considering the wide array of alternative methods one could use for any agricultural problem. Also, in packaged foods, USDA certification allows as much as 5% non-organic ingredients in foods that are labeled as “USDA Organic”.
Q: It would be really helpful if you could answer these questions and also comment on anything that you might think would be relevant. Thank you very much, I really appreciate you answering these questions, NM.
A: When I wrote my book “Oro Verde – Securing the Future of our Food” in 2007, we had less than 50 organic farmers on the island, and practically no organic farming education at all. Today, we have dozens of former pesticide, chemical fertilizer and herbicide proponents and users who are now promoting “organic farming”. The main reason why they eagerly support the USDA certification is because there are hundreds of millions of Dollars in federal government grants available and they are eager to get as much money for their newfound love of “organic farming” as possible. Without supporting the USDA certification, there is very little chance to get any of these federal grants offered. Most see organic farming merely as a business and not as what it was originally intended to be: a lifestyle in harmony with nature and decentralized small scale production for subsistence and benefitting the immediate local neighborhood.
In today’s world, it has become very difficult to even attempt to set up a sustainable agricultural project because every single agricultural law passed by our governments favors corporations who work with a handful of transgenic crops, and disfavors small-scale farmers who want to diversify and be sustainable.
Realistically speaking, sustainable farming in Puerto Rico has very little future, if any. Every year, thousands of acres of farm land are lost to development. There are practically no tropical grains grown locally. The fruit and vegetable market is still dominated by temperate climate produce, and there are hardly any culinary or medicinal herbs grown for broader use. In fact, there are several laws in the works to ban as many herbs as possible, as well as independent farming in general.
The only solution to change these unfortunate facts is self-education and a new generation who can stand up against all the atrocities committed by our governments, the food industry in general, as well as the educational system that is bought off by various materialistic industries. That generation is your generation. Please stand up and fight for a better future!
I hope this answered your questions. Let me know if you have more.
© Sadhu Govardhan, 2010