Food Security and Debt: Rebooting Puerto Rican Agriculture as a Path Out of Crisis

April 14, 2022

by André Zollinger, MPA '22 for Annotations Blog

Few populations have experienced the meaning of being in debt as viscerally as Puerto Ricans did during the last decade. After decades of increasing prosperity led by a robust manufacturing sector, Puerto Rico’s economy began to lose steam in the early 2000s. The decline of manufacturing jobs and economic growth mirrored wider mainland U.S. trends. As noted in Anne Krueger’s influential report, the island experienced severe economic contraction and accumulated vast fiscal imbalances after the loss of special fiscal incentives, which was then compounded by the 2008 financial crisis, a housing crisis, and the rise in oil prices. Puerto Rico now faces an uncertain future. After announcing in 2016 that it would not be able to make current payments on over $70B of debt, the island took painful austerity measures imposed by a federal board in order to eventually return to fiscal and political normality. Yet some important voices - of which Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz is perhaps the most prominent - have pointed out that cutting public expenditures is not a sustainable solution; Puerto Rico risks falling back into a debt spiral and defaulting again if some key structural issues are not solved.

Some of the major challenges facing Puerto Rico right now are:

  • Entrenched poverty affecting 40% of the population
  • Mass emigration resulting in a 11.8% population decrease in the last 10 years and projected to continue
  • High energy costs inflating the cost of living and of doing business 
  • Vulnerability to extreme weather events

In January of 2022, a plan of adjustment was finally approved and allows the Puerto Rican government to begin planning for its future instead of reacting to the recent past. To effectively turn the page on the debt crisis, it is important to look not only at the much-discussed causes of the crisis, but also at the less visible, underlying issues that affect Puerto Ricans’ most basic necessities today, and scale up to persistent systemic challenges. One such underlying problem is food security. Over one third of Puerto Ricans report feeling food insecurity. The number increased significantly after natural disasters, most recently seen with Hurricanes Maria and Irma, and had also increased during the coronavirus pandemic. Yet this precarious food supply wasn’t always a reality in Puerto Rico. In the last three decades, a declining share of local food production has led to an increased dependence on imported food, reaching up to 85% of food on the island today. Once an agricultural exporter, Puerto Rico’s agriculture accounts for only 0.62% of the island's GDP today. To put this in a regional perspective, agriculture accounts for about 6% of GDP in the neighboring Dominican Republic. Adding to these problems is the Jones Act, a 1920 law designed to protect the US Merchant Marine, which requires that all shipments to Puerto Rico be done with US-built ships run by American crews. This results in higher prices overall, and is especially concerning for the food supply given the island’s high level of dependency. Finally, though Puerto Ricans are US citizens, the Puerto Rican Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) program equivalent is a federal block grant with limited funds that does not provide an adequate safety net to the most vulnerable Puerto Ricans, especially in times of emergencies such as natural disasters.

Despite these multiple roadblocks, Puerto Rico can and should see food security not just as a basic right but also as a potential engine for growth on the island. The case of economic growth in East Asia comes to mind as the most prominent example of this, even if the agrarian development context is significantly different from Puerto Rico’s post-industrial reality. The underlying argument for stabilizing production to withstand shocks still stands as the basis for a more balanced and beneficial relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. Pragmatically speaking, to move towards these goals in the near term requires action beyond reforming federal policies, as they are slow to change and easily reversed by a new administration. Recently, the importance of local production has been gaining traction as a number of success stories among Puerto Rico’s civil society and entrepreneurs demonstrate that weaknesses can be turned into strengths. Therefore, the island’s government should capitalize on this momentum to bring fresh investment, people, and ideas to take on the challenge. Making it possible to obtain affordable, sustainably grown food should be a rallying cry for Puerto Rico’s leaders and civil society alike because it is one of the basic tools necessary for long-term stability.

Coffee farmer in Puerto Rico
Coffee Farmer in Puerto Rico. Source: Unsplash. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

In order to make local production a reality, the government can incentivize certain types of agriculture by making it easier to access land ownership, expert advice, and public funding, both federal and local. As an island strongly dependent on mainland U.S. markets, supply chains, and federal policies determining terms of trade, the uses of local land and resources have a direct impact on the lives of Puerto Rico. That is why a revised land use plan that incorporates the complementary goals of food security and conservation is needed. In order to optimize productivity in an ecologically sustainable way, priority should be given to enterprises that grow locally adapted crops such as plantains, beans, yuca, papaya, vegetables, other hydroponic crops, and an acceptable amount of cash crops with high potential such as coffee. Some innovative practices such as agroforestry could be incorporated to provide improved ecosystem services and differentiate Puerto Rico from conventional markets. An example would be silvo-pastoral systems, the practice of raising livestock while strategically planting nitrogen-fixing shrubs and trees on grazing land. In other tropical climates, this has been shown to increase productivity while decreasing waste and chemical inputs. In addition, using trees in agriculture and grazing can significantly contribute to carbon capture, helping further local and national goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. By aligning incentives for production and ecology, the government has an opportunity to turn Puerto Rico into a leader in this space, attracting further investment and ensuring that the local population has a reliable food system.

Lastly, achieving food security through innovative methods would have positive spillover effects for other industries. Besides lowering the cost of living and of doing business, sectors such as tourism can benefit by offering eco-tourism and gastronomic tourism experiences targeting mainland markets. In a time of restricted or uncertain international travel, along with rising interest in the role of personal diets and food production on climate change, rebuilding Puerto Rico’s agricultural sector would generate interest from tourists looking for unique experiences, who are often willing to pay the premium.

In addition to providing very real benefits to the wellbeing of Puerto Ricans, working towards food security is also a powerful narrative to show that the government can put the island on the path of economic growth while delivering basic services to its population. Internally, it takes the focus away from paralyzing debates on statehood versus sovereignty, which dominate much of Puerto Rican politics today. Unlike those intractable questions, there are clear indicators of success for food security that are likely to be accepted by a plurality of Puerto Ricans. This approach also brings the stark differences between Puerto Rico and even the poorest of US states to the fore, while shifting the focus away from disagreements about fiscal “responsibility” to more productive discourses on breaking the cycle of debt through increased agricultural autonomy.

Despite multiple roadblocks, Puerto Rico can and should see food security not just as a basic right but also as a potential engine for growth on the island.

Global food insecurity has recently surged due to the war in Ukraine, making the case of Puerto Rico yet more pertinent as an example of its deleterious consequences to the economy and social stability. As global markets brace for the coming months of instability in food supply chains, the federal government should review policies towards its territories and states, as well broader trade mechanisms to ensure that the most vulnerable populations have viable sources of food. But perhaps just as importantly, the case of Puerto Rico shows us that long-term strategy should incorporate strong sustainable agriculture incentives as a pillar for resilient economies in a context of climate change, financial crises, and conflict.

Andre Zollinger
Meet the Author: André Zollinger 

André Zollinger is a second-year MPA candidate at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, concentrating in international development. His main interests are the effects of climate change on agriculture, poverty, and the ability of global governance bodies in bringing about systemic change.

Previously, André was part of the founding team of an innovation campus in France accelerating collaboration between public and private sectors. He also consulted for the EU and the FAO on sustainable consumption and food wastage, and worked as a political analyst for the U.S. Department of State.

André was born in São Paulo, Brazil, and later moved to Los Angeles, CA. He holds a B.A. in International Relations from Stanford University.