When we think about food independence, we may envision growing fruits and vegetables in our backyards, supporting local farmers, and being mindful of our waste disposal.

In Puerto Rico, the intersection of food sovereignty challenges, landfill crisis, and corruption underscores the urgency for education on sustainable practices. Achieving food sovereignty proves challenging in Puerto Rico. According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), over 85% of the food products consumed on the island are imported, placing local farmers, or “jíbaros,” at a disadvantage.

Oscar Meléndez Colón, Chief Business Development Officer of Trito Agro-Industrial Services, Inc. (TAIS), a Puerto Rican organic recycling company, emphasizes the need to address the island’s flawed garbage disposal system to achieve food sovereignty.

“The problem with organics is that when they end up in landfills, they rot and create methane,” Colón explained, which is more than 28 times as potent as carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. “For about seven years, we’ve been recycling food scraps and composting them commercially.”

TAIS addresses this challenge by implementing a sustainable cycle: it collects food scraps, transforms them into compost, utilizes the compost to cultivate new food, and subsequently distributes the produce to the community. Despite these efforts, the cost of local food in Puerto Rico remains a hurdle, presenting difficulties for jíbaros.

Historically, the US encouraged an economy in Puerto Rico centered around sugar, tobacco, and coffee, leading to an economic boom during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Over time, sugar production overshadowed other crops, and diverse agricultural practices faded. By the 1930s, the sugar industry faced a decline, impacting the islands’ farming sector. Operation Bootstrap, a series of policies in the late 1940s, further shifted Puerto Rico’s economy from agriculture to industrialization, granting tax exemptions to private companies and sidelining agriculture.

By the time Puerto Rico adopted its current political status as a territory in 1952, many farmers were forced to leave their lands and move to urban centers in search of employment, a problem that persists today. In an effort to combat this trend, Colón and his colleagues at TAIS hope to “redefine the value of waste.” TAIS collects people’s food scraps, processes them into compost used to cultivate food, and redistributes it to those purchasing their services. 

Founder Engineer Carlos Pacheco coined this cycle ‘Recicloponía,’ an agricultural production model based on recovering organic waste, transforming it into inputs through fermentative composting, and returning these inputs to farmers for their farms.

However, an often overlooked issue with food sovereignty in Puerto Rico is the landfill crisis. In 2019, it was determined that most landfills have a remaining lifespan of two to four years. Most of the island’s 29 landfills exceed capacity and fail to comply with Resource Conservation and Recovery Act regulations. These landfills, often unlined and uncovered, overflow with waste, contaminate water supplies, attract pests, and release odors into nearby homes.

Colón pointed out that in improperly regulated landfills, leachate, the foul liquid from garbage cans containing food waste, can seep into aquifers. Properly regulated landfills have liners at the bottom to prevent leaching into aquifers, but not all Puerto Rican landfills meet these standards.

María E. Ocasio-Torres, environmental and sustainability educator for Proyecto Raíces, believes that part of this crisis is due to a lack of education. 

“In Puerto Rico, the focus has been on recycling, but recycling isn’t really the solution because almost everything ends up in the landfill,” she said. “The government has not taken the responsibility to educate the people on how to recycle, and there is no strategic plan to implement recycling in every neighborhood or condominium.”

At Proyecto Raíces, she tries to provide these educational services, but she admits that when it comes to landfills, it often falls into the hands of the municipality.

“There’s been a few vocal communities, I think the best example right now is Arecibo,” said Colón. Arecibo has a large landfill in the town of Toa Alta, and residents have been urging its closure due to leachate reaching their doorsteps.

The landfill has caused extensive damage, including pest infestations, fires, and permanent harm to natural resources like Caño Tiburones.

Torres pointed out other municipalities, like Cataño, where leaders often exchange “corruption for garbage.”

In 2021 in Cataño, former mayor Félix Delgado Montalvo agreed to receive illegal commissions totaling at least $305,000 in exchange for ensuring million-dollar contracts between the municipality and Waste Collection Corp. and JR Asphalt Inc. for solid waste collection and road pavement, respectively, confirmed a complaint and indictment in the Federal Court.

Another aspect of food independence is energy. According to Colón, many agrochemicals currently in use are fossil fuel-based and often imported.

“If we want to scale more agriculture, the way it’s being done on the bigger farm, it’s all based on buying fertilizers and pesticides from other places,” said Colón. However, he explains that through this process, “you’re not protecting the soil, you’re actually degrading it year by year and trying to make up for it with the fertilizers.” 

Through compost usage, the soil gradually improves. While on-site energy consumption might not decrease significantly, considering the entire system, reliance on fossil fuels diminishes. Additionally, there is no need to transport these inputs elsewhere.

In the long term, compost enhances soil health by providing essential macro and micronutrients, making plants healthier.

Local farmers also face challenges in the realm of renewable energy. Activists and environmental organizations, such as the Sierra Club, filed a lawsuit against the Puerto Rican government, contesting proposed sites for numerous renewable energy projects to address the island’s power challenges.

The legal complaint argues that the projects are planned on environmentally sensitive lands with significant agricultural importance, which goes against local regulations. The organizations have asked the court to prevent several local government agencies from approving projects on these lands. They emphasized that the projects should be constructed on rooftops, parking lots, abandoned landfills, and areas previously contaminated. 

“These are two very important issues, and sometimes ‘they’ try to greenwash us, but we cannot turn a blind eye,” said Torres. “Food is essential; without food, there is no life. And here, everyone has a roof. Let’s use the rooftops for solar panels and the ground for farming.”

Colón agrees that there are alternative ways to implement more solar energy and that this project “is still promoting a very centralized model, where energy is produced in one place.” He believes in islands like Puerto Rico, which suffered immense blackouts and whose energy is essentially controlled by one company, and this energy-distributed model feeds into that system. 

Colón contends that individual municipalities outfitted with solar panels on rooftops would offer higher efficiency, affordability, and fewer challenges related to energy transition losses. 

To date, Puerto Rico’s Energy Bureau has approved 18 projects on over 2,000 hectares classified as special agricultural reserves and specially protected rustic land, according to the lawsuit.

Given the scarcity of agricultural land, the existing competition with cheaper imported goods, and the evident environmental and social degradation resulting from waste mismanagement in different municipalities, Puerto Rico urgently needs a comprehensive solution.

“While eating local food is healthier and fresher, this is not political; it’s about health. Local food is healthier. It supports the local economy and reduces the need for transportation emissions. Local food is very positive,” said Torres.