Imagining an emancipatory and regenerative food system that will nourish people, the economy and the environment in Puerto Rico.
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
I am Puerto Rican. I was born and lived in Puerto Rico until I was 25 years old, when I moved to the US to go to graduate school. After finishing my PhD, I got a job as a professor at the University of Michigan, where I have been ever since. However, throughout my entire life, I maintained very strong family, friends, and professional relationships in Puerto Rico and have been working on various projects related to the food system. At the University of Michigan, I worked with colleagues from several schools and department to establish the Sustainable Food Systems Initiative, which is an active participant in this vision. Over the last 5 years two other faculty members of the SFSI and I had been engaged on several agroecological research projects in Puerto Rico and established strong collaborations with 1) the Sustainable Agriculture Program at the University of Puerto Rico-Utuado, a branch of the UPR located in the central mountainous region that serves a primarily rural population, 2) Casa Pueblo, a 35 year-old community organization that focuses on community self-sufficiency especially in the food and energy sector, 3) Boricuá, the main farmer organization in Puerto Rico that promotes regenerative agriculture and agroecology, 4) El Bosque Modelo Nacional de Puerto Rico, a broad concept of “forest with people” that integrates environment, economy and society and promotes agroecological projects, and 5) the Institute for Investigation and Action in Agroecology, an institute that trains people on sustainable food production and sustainable food businesses. The people behind these organizations have been leaders in the food movement in Puerto Rico and have been working for decades on the transformation of the food system using emancipatory principles. I am very excited to bring together this talented and diverse group of people to develop a vision for a regenerative food system in Puerto Rico
Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.
Agroecology course by Boricuá
Puerto Rico (PR) is a Caribbean archipelago with a long history of struggle for independence and self-sufficiency. One of the last remaining colonies in the world, PR has been under colonial rule for more than 500 years. Throughout its history, PR’s economy was crafted to serve outside consumption needs, leaving behind a landscape exploited and disconnected from its own potential to feed our people. In the 1950s, “Operation Bootstrap” shifted the economy from agriculture to industry generating an illusion of prosperity and modernity. The illusion came at the cost of ripping families from the land, tearing rural communities apart and changing cultural norms. Agriculture was disincentivized and PR became almost completely dependent on imported food. Later, the proliferation of fast foods further transformed the diet and eating habits, to the detriment of our children, now plagued with disproportionate numbers of chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes. In 2006, when tax exemptions ended for US industries, many left PR, causing economic collapse and stimulating the debt crisis of 2014.
The US government responded by establishing a fiscal oversight board which is now working towards restructuring the debt through draconian measures that threaten land, health, and education, without any input from the Puerto Rican people. A month after the restructuring was announced in 2017, PR was hit by hurricanes Irma and Maria, causing catastrophic damage to the deteriorating infrastructure, including the electric grid, devastating agriculture, and generating a humanitarian crisis that resulted in more than 3,000 deaths. It was the first time a recovery process was started in a location with deep inequality and imposed austerity measures. The fragmented foodscape led to hunger, even among rural families.
In the midst of all this devastation and suffering, a new PR is rising. The hurricanes laid bare the vulnerability of the islands to climate change and the inability of the government to respond. The hurricanes also laid bare the communal culture that US colonialism could not eliminate. People organized mutual support centers in their communities to generate endogenous alternatives for self-sufficiency. Community engagement continued in the form of the governor’s 2019 ouster, and transformed in town assemblies. Our culture and traditions have been our means of resistance to colonialism. Root crops and legumes, Puerto Rican diet staples before industrialization, were critical in post-Maria survival and are regaining popularity as new recipes combine traditional cuisine with innovative flavors. A new cadre of young agroecological farmers, educators, chefs and entrepreneurs are working toward a more just and regenerative food system. Puerto Rico is ready for its biggest historical shift yet, the integration of a community-centered foodscape that is resilient to climate change, heals the land and nourishes our people, body and soul.
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
The economic growth of the 60s and 70s stalled when US industry left PR. The financial crisis in 2014 and the hurricanes of 2017 further deteriorated the economy. By 2020, 45% percent of the population lived below the poverty line, with official unemployment for youth as high as 25%. Less than 1% of GDP came from agriculture, less than 8% of the land was protected for conservation, and there was a decreasing amount of land for agriculture.
PR’s multiethnic heritage, has been significantly eroded by 200 years of US colonialism, especially around food. Traditional diet, known for its diversity of root crops, tubers, legumes, and tropical fruits, has declined due to the imports of processed foods and the proliferation of fast food establishments, hence deteriorating the diets of Puerto Ricans, who primarily have access to cheap processed food. A large percentage of the population participates in federally sponsored food programs that hinder the ability to access fresh vegetables. Climate change is making matters worse. Models predict stronger hurricanes and longer dry seasons, which had already impacted agriculture in 2020.
Economic control of food and land ownership concentration by a small percentage of the population has been reinforced by agricultural policy focused on large scale monocrops leading to 85% of the food being imported and land being prioritized for construction and development rather than food and energy. All goods shipped to PR are required to be transported by U.S. vessels, causing food and resources to be 151% more expensive.
By 2050, we expect the Jones Act to be repealed, but this could generate a race to the bottom in food prices due to the opening of PR market to cheap food imports. We expect a revival of our food traditions and prepare for a possible increase in prices of commodified traditional foods.
By 2050, grassroots led organizing will generate public policy that diverts the mass incentives received by corporations to small scale agroecological production and research. However, the localized needs are not served by overarching state policy that remains slow in adapting swiftly. Further, the shift that phased out GMO corporations could lead to increased unemployment at a localized scale.
Obsolete, fossil fuel dependent technologies required massive maintenance operations. The government could not avoid periodic outages, cope with rising oil prices, or invest in a system overhaul to improve technologies. By 2050, PR has moved away from fossil fuel dependency, with renewable solar energy and micro hydroelectric at the vanguard. On farms, biodigestors and community gasification projects connect to microgrids. Challenges remain on how we recollectivize energy and think of the places for locating microgrids to satisfy larger scale needs. These are areas where we will negotiate technology implementation to avoid individualistic tendencies.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
Agroecological and sustainable food system’s education permeates every aspect of education in the PR of 2050, from informal schools that focus on peasant to peasant knowledge transfer, to formal K-12 programs that promote healthy eating and a better understanding of the connection between food, environment and society. Data show integrating schools and community gardens into the curricula helps kids understand sustainability. Research universities emphasize sustainability, agroecology and regenerative economies. To curb out migration after higher education, university graduates prepare curricula for workers in the transition to new jobs, such as building solar energy microgrid networks, replenishing degraded soils, monitoring aquifers, and using information technologies to connect farmers with each other and with consumers. Local universities train agroecological extension agents and by 2050, we will be able to create an agroecological extension service and continuing education program that supports local farmer innovation. As a consequence, the general population will have a high level of food literacy and civic engagement in the food system.
With people trained and ready to work the land, we will secure land resources. Small scale farms will be incentivized in public policy and dot the landscape with a diversity of management alternatives that create aesthetic and cultural value. Collaborative agreements with public agencies could foster policies that guarantee minimum areas for conservation and agroecology. The current mass incentives received by large corporations will be diverted to small and medium scale agroecological production and research. Economic policy should recognize externalities and incorporate them into real prices of agricultural products equalizing the market after the Jones act repeal, and avoiding a race to the bottom.
Each community will reduce its ecological footprint by generating micro-grid energy production systems. Each farm will use any remains for energy production and soil restoration, through composting and biodigestors.
The cultural reawakening will be a change of diet going back to our ancestral roots. To strengthen the connection between culture and food we use agro-ecotourism to promote food and music festivals. As landscape level management becomes part of public policy, agroecological landscape aesthetics are valued as “production” activities, whole landscape enjoyment through multi-functional farms could be promoted by local community leaders. Communities rely on their knowledge networks for innovative creations of traditional dishes generating new markets for traditional foods and locally produced food. Cultural commodification is avoided through participatory planning, devolving power to the participants. Negotiation will get communities thinking of the places where localized microgrids meet at a larger scale, areas where we will still be negotiating technology and implementation challenges.
High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.
A regenerative, agroecological and emancipatory food system in PR will have renewed the relationship between people and their environment, integrating their immediate community and society at large. Whole communities will have closed the production and distribution cycle, and reduce the ecological footprint by creating their own economies from local resources. Small scale farms offer a mosaic of production and diversified markets for consumers from raw to prepared foods. Production emphasizes environmental conservation, water preservation and climate resilience, while showcasing cultural traditions and innovation. Rural and urban people, now feel connected through their food system. Placing local healthy food in school cafeterias, restaurants and markets, will have reduced the gap between producers and consumers, diversifying production, and increasing opportunities for food entrepreneurs. We will see a circular economy that focuses on creating spaces of education and cross cultural exchange. The multifunctional landscape will provide aesthetic and leisure activities for all, enhancing a tourism that strengthens economic networks eliminating exploitation and consumerism. Land access is secured collectively and above all, this new system honors the dignity of our peasants. Nobody in the archipelago will go hungry and the number of people suffering from malnutrition or food-related chronic illnesses will decline dramatically. Agricultural landscapes will reflect multifunctional areas for biodiversity conservation, cultural preservation, germplasm and technological research, water conservation, energy and food production. The diverse agricultural matrix will make our islands resilient to climate change. The food system will reduce our ecological footprint so that our country becomes a place in which our descendants live happy and prosperous lives; a source of dignity and pride for our people and an example for the Caribbean, Latin America and the world.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
Diverse agroforestry system in the mountains of Puerto Rico
December 2050 Town Assemblies Meeting Minutes
Phase I Challenges and Next Steps
Summary: After 30 years since we embarked on this journey for a regenerative food system we celebrated the team’s last Phase I National Town Assembly. The original members are all but retired, and the first stage of our food system vision, Whole Communities, has been successfully implemented. A new generation is taking over and placing their own values and cares into the new tasks, generating a vision based on the new reality we fought so hard to forge. As part of today’s meeting we reviewed how we confronted our greatest challenges. We looked at the communities engaged with this vision and reviewed what still needed to be done. The second part of the meeting, focused on listening to challenges and fears from phase II team members and offering advice, understanding that we would not be long on the road with them, and that they have grown up with the skills to face any challenge.
We started imagining a new Puerto Rico in 1989, 25 years on we started this visioning exercise, but never imagined what the events of 2017 triggered. Preparing the food that kept us alive through tough times, we started gaining some semblance of control over our future when politics and nature seemed to be in cahoots to keep us in chains. Our team developed interconnected transformational strategies for each whole community backed with policy strategy at the state level; regardless of our hope for success, we knew each community engaged was a victory. Today Puerto Rico is a mosaic of sustainable communities, connected through an agroecosystem management perspective. As my last task, I have summarized the major areas of work we addressed in the first thirty years.
Creating Whole (sustainable agroecological) communities
Agroecological sustainable food systems are now an integral component of formal and informal education. By promoting healthy eating and a better understanding of the connection between food, environment and society in K-12 schools, school-aged students increased food literacy by 80% and have become engaged citizens consuming 50% more agroecological products in their school meals, including those sown in their gardens.
University research teams gathered data in energy, food system planning, and economics, to demonstrate the direct benefits of agroecology and regenerative agriculture. Out migration of university graduates was curbed through training programs where they created transition pathways into new jobs for workers.
Land and Environment
The expansion of regional agroecology schools throughout the archipelago reached 50,000 by 2050. Agroecological training along with policies that supported small scale farmers, inspired a new generation of people ready to work the land. We stepped up to the challenge of securing land for new farmers with strategies that focused on collective land policies and strengthening local food distribution networks and markets.
We were able to place 25,000 thousand small family farmers in approximately 600k acres of land and these families are now producing 65% of the food consumed in the archipelago. Because of collective land access, family farmers were able to work the land as communities rather than isolated factions, the roadblock to previous land title programs.
In a legal victory, public policy promotes first option buy-in of productive lands from large corporations to agricultural workers. Small scale farms are incentivized in public policy and dot the landscape with a diversity of management alternatives that create aesthetic and cultural value. Collaborative agreements with public agencies foster policies that guarantee minimum areas for conservation and agroecological production.
PR had begun water capture and energy production initiatives in agroecological farms and key locations affected by extreme events. In 3 decades, each community was able to reduce its ecological footprint establishing micro-grid energy production systems. Farms use “waste” for energy production and soil restoration, through composting and biodigestors. In the central mountainous region, where most of the farms are agroforestry systems, microgrids are supplemented with syngas generated through gasification of biomass, with the added benefit of the production of biochar that is re-applied to the soils. Micro-hydroelectric, small emergent wind technologies integrated to community microgrids also power alternative energy means for food processing. Keyline methods are implemented for water and soil conservation in tandem with reclaiming tools such as plowing with oxen and walking tractors. Innovative technologies such as salt batteries and solar public lighting will draw from the strength of PR’s high education levels to generate low waste non-exploitative alternatives to renewables. Information technology is now leveraged to connect farmers and food entrepreneurs with consumers and to trace local products to their source in order to provide consumers with more information about the who, how and when their food was produced.
Public policy was approved to divert the mass incentives received by corporations to small scale agroecological production and research and put into practice. Economic policy recognizes externalities and incorporates them into prices equalizing the market after the Jones Act repeal. Using landmark legislation and national campaigns such as the fight against diabetes, we now have a national commitment towards healthy diets, reinforcing school programs.
We leaned on existing legislation to support diverse multifunctional agroecological farms in the central mountain region and adopted a landscape level community based approach to land use planning and management. Through these efforts we were able to secure the 600k acres for agriculture and in yet another landmark victory we gained an additional 150k acres that favored regenerative agriculture.
Cultural transformation and economy
The cultural reawakening in whole communities was accompanied by a change of diet going back to our ancestral roots. We transformed consumption patterns connecting culture and food through agro-ecotourism to promote markets, food and music festivals. As landscape management and conservation are public policy, aesthetics are valued as part of “production” activities, and agrotourism activities promote multi-functional farms. Communities rely on their culinary networks for innovative creations of traditional dishes generating new markets for traditional and locally produced food. Community engagement through participatory planning avoided cultural commodification and reinforced a participatory democracy system that devolves power to the people.
PR shifted to regionally adaptive crops, like gandúl (a legume), breadfruits, tropical fruits, and tubers, reducing our use of natural resources. Universities in collaboration with farmers have improved varieties. We have stronger direct connections between producers and consumers including restaurants and food processing and delivery businesses; creating market tiers from local, community, family markets, and restaurant circuits that help farmers and production collectives directly reach consumers. Community restaurants connected people with healthy and justly produced foods. Locally administered regional markets buy food directly from agroecological farms and sell them at a base price. Each family buys precisely the quantities of produce they need and pay by overall weight. This policy allows for food and packaging waste reduction and made fresh, local and sustainably produced food to be accessible for all.
Production cooperatives and food hubs have been incentivized and created using accompanying business incubators and funds redirected from large biotech companies. Entrepreneurial activities related to food-related businesses, including on-farm value-added, and locally processed foods; is now carried out in food hubs where collective industries and kitchens collect and process produce from local farms. Food hubs ranged in production from value added, concentrates, sauces, preserves, textiles production ink and tinctures.
Next generation challenges
By 2050, Puerto Rico has made important inroads towards freedom from the chains of debt and colonialism. However, PR still does not produce all the food it consumes. Solid waste concentration led to high levels of contaminants and lands used by GMO transnationals was so degraded that less land was available than originally thought and new technologies for reclamation are necessary. Seed privatization affected our capacity to generate our own stock, many seeds were lost due to abandonment and invasive species dominated local food production by the time we were able to implement some of the agroecological technological support. We face the creation of a new farm bill now through the participatory process we have implemented in our communities. Extreme events and climate change keep things changing, but having diversified farms and foodstuffs we can now adapt much more easily and we leave that as your legacy.
Meeting ended with the election of the new work committees focused on soil restoration technologies, regional integration for the Caribbean.
It’s hard to believe that just 30 years ago, bankrupt, under a colonial financial management board and devastated by hurricanes Irma, Maria and earthquakes, we, the Puerto Rican people, began the journey of changing towards environmentally sound, sustainable and just islands. Food and agriculture, the interaction between people, their land and wellbeing had to be at the center of this transformation–food nourishes the people, the economy and the environment, and by growing our own food, we have finally started to be truly free. A free Puerto Rico shines in the Caribbean, a lighthouse of regenerative participatory and integrated food systems for other small island states.