According to early estimates, Puerto Rico lot some 8,000 acres of vegetables in the destruction brought by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. That’s roughly 13,000 farms and a large part of the $780 million in crop loss, by official estimates from the Secretary of Agriculture.
A group of scientists has a plan to help replace the losses.
Puerto Rico is already less food secure than you would expect. In spite of a year-round growing season and plenty of arable land, Puerto Rico imports about 80% of its food. Partly this seems to be a response to a stigma that has developed around growing your own food. But other observers point to the mid 20th century shift from agriculture to manufacturing under Operation Bootstrap.
Still, Puerto Rico has recently been rebuilding agriculture. Small farms grow vegetables for local restaurants, stores like Walmart are working with local vendors, and schools offer agriculture programs. Before the hurricanes, Puerto Rico was beginning to reduce the percentage of imported foods.
There are immediate food needs. FEMA has provided four million meals, which sounds like a large number. Consider, though, that this is over a period of almost four weeks, for an island with about 3.4 million residents. Those meals work out to an average of just about one per person. Obviously, one meal per month is not sufficient.
With electrical power still out on most of the Island and widespread flooding, imported food is not the stable source it used to be, even for those who have cash to buy it. While 87% of grocery stores are now open, according to government reports, videos shared on social media show stores without food on the shelves, flooded, or unable to accept payments except in cash.
Disaster response continues in Puerto Rico, and it is to be hoped that immediate needs for food will be met soon.
Over the long run, getting fields and farms replanted could make a big difference. Three agronomists are taking a very practical step: gathering seeds.
Sarah Dohle of Delaware Valley University, Vivian Medina, of Bioversity International, and seed industry researcher Leonela Carriedo decided that getting seeds to farmers in Puerto Rico was the most helpful thing they could do.
They have set up a way station at Delaware Valley University, where they are gathering donated seeds, sorting them, and packing them ready for shipment to Puerto Rico. Many donations are currently coming from individuals who buy them at garden centers and bring them to the university. The agronomists, with the help of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture and nonprofit organizations, is working to find large donations from seed companies, as well as cash donations to cover postage. Carriedo has gone ahead to Puerto Rico to work on getting ready for planting.
“Seeds are powerful,” Dohle told the Bucks County Courrier-Times. “An ounce of lettuce seeds is about 23,000 seeds and that can replant an entire acre. That’s a lot of salad from one small package of seeds.”