Although the availability of food in Puerto Rico has not been affected, nor is there any indication that the coronavirus emergency may affect in the short term, citizens anxiety seen in local supermarkets during the past few days has once again exposed a great vulnerability in Puerto Rico: our excessive dependence on food imports.
Government spokespeople, grocery store owners, and shipping companies have made it clear that there is no cause for alarm about food availability in supermarkets. Restrictions imposed on crew members on cargo vessels do not affect goods distribution and therefore their usual availability.
However, over the past few days, supermarkets have been crowded with customers seeking to buy essential products.
This action, although unjustified, has an explanation: those difficulties we experienced with cargo ships affected after Hurricane María are still fresh in our minds. Furthermore, we are all to some extent aware of the island's dependence on food imports. We live in fear that any interruption in normal life will lead to food shortages in supermarkets.
There is never a bad time to remember that this is a matter that should have been dealt with years ago. Several studies show that we import 80 percent of the food we eat. Furthermore, food industry experts say that in case of a major disaster disrupting the flow of cargo ships (which, we insist, is not the case now), the island would have food available for just about six weeks.
Authorities, economic sectors, and citizens have been aware of this scenario for a long time without finding a solution.
The strategies to solve this situation are not easy, but they should not be postponed any longer. To begin with, we need to encourage the expansion of the agricultural industry, which currently accounts for less than 1 percent of our economy. In the 1940s, that contribution was over 30 percent. As the island established different industrial models - textiles first, petrochemicals later and pharmaceuticals in recent decades - the agricultural sector was left behind.
It's time to seriously bring this sector back to the table. There are, in fact, very good examples of the possibilities this sector provides, as shown by the many farms which are producing, even for export, in the south of the island. Young entrepreneurs in other parts of the island working with ecological agricultural join these efforts. At the family level, home gardens represent another sensible food sustainability alternative.
Agriculture has proved its great potential for food sustainability and economic activity. Not only would it help us to resolve our dependence on imports, especially in times of emergency, but it can also make an important contribution to our economy, which today needs to be strengthened with industrial diversity.
Agriculture, moreover, has a great virtue that is rarely considered: it is an economic sector with more than 95 percent of Puerto Rican capital supporting it, according to a 2018 study by the firm Estudios Técnicos.
As a Chinese proverb says, the best time to plant a tree is always 20 years ago. And that the second-best time is always now. We must apply that lesson to Puerto Rico in terms of agriculture. Since we did not do it before, let us do it now. Better today than tomorrow.