It is undeniable that Puerto Rico’s climate is changing. The territory has warmed by more than 1°F since the mid-20th century. Its surrounding waters have warmed by nearly 2°F since 1901. The sea is rising approximately an inch every 15 years, and heavy rainstorms are becoming more severe. In the coming decades, rising temperatures are likely to increase damage from storms and the frequency of extreme heat waves.
All this poses a significant threat to the islands’ agriculture. We saw this with Hurricane Maria in 2017 where 80% of the island’s crop value was damaged. In 2022 Hurricane Fiona destroyed $159 million worth of crops. Natural disasters will only continue to jeopardize Puerto Rico’s agriculture.
Extreme weather conditions have created a new wave of interest in food and farming. Especially amongst young Puerto Rican farmers. Since before Hurricanes Maria and Fiona, food security has been a threat. Forty percent of its residents experience food insecurity. In addition, 85% of its food is imported. This makes it difficult for residents to access food during natural disasters.
Climate-related challenges and diminishing food sovereignty have created a flourishing movement. A small-scale farming method known as agroecology is beginning to revitalize local economies. This allows farmers to mitigate and adapt to more extreme weather patterns. It also can improve food sovereignty.
Agroecology is a low-impact agricultural method. It protects biodiversity and soil quality by working with nature to produce food sustainably. The movement incorporates farming principles and practices that can adapt to any ecosystem. It maximizes ecological conditions in the form of water retention or natural fertilizers. This method of sustainable agriculture increases organic matter in the soil. This includes organic matter such as microbes, fungi, manure, or even decomposing animals. According to John Reganold, a professor of soil science and agroecology at Washington State University, this increase in organic matter provides structure to the soil. This helps water infiltrate it rather than washing away during floods. As a result, the soil acts as a sponge to store nutrients during droughts. It may also reduce the effects of flooding from frequent and more intense hurricanes.
Ian Pagán-Roig is a founder of the agroecological farm El Josco Bravo. He believes that more sustainable agriculture methods are needed. This would help mitigate the effects of climate change. It would also reduce Puerto Rico’s reliance on outside food sources. According to Pagán-Roig, “… it’s very risky to be dependent on imports for our food, and we have enough good land in Puerto Rico to sustain our fruit, vegetable, and starchy dietary needs, but we lack capital resources and political will.”
Agroecology has been introduced by farmers across the islands. This includes Ian Pagán-Roig who in 2004 founded the agroecology program called the Josco Bravo Project. Agroecology was initially ridiculed and labeled a hippy movement by universities and government officials. Since then, agroecology has spread across the territory. Today only 2% of the workforce is employed in agriculture. This project may help expose more young Puerto Ricans interested in farming to agroecology. The project now works with several universities. It helps students explore scientific and sustainable techniques. These techniques are taught within a social and environmental justice framework. Yet, industrialized agriculture still remains dominant. Projects such as this allow agroecology to spread and become more mainstream in politics and farming.
Proponents believe that in the future agroecological farms could produce two-thirds of the food that 3.2 million Puerto Ricans consume. This would help to mitigate the islands’ reliance on importing the majority of their food. It would also protect it from food shortages after natural disasters. As climate change continues to impact Puerto Rico’s agriculture, incorporating agroecology may benefit ecosystems across the territory.