SAN JUAN – Puerto Rico imports 85 percent of the food its residents consume due to the lack of competitiveness among companies in this U.S. commonwealth, Agriculture Secretary Javier Rivera told Efe.
“Although we have the technical capacity, we’re not able to produce competitively,” said Rivera regarding Puerto Rico’s problem in becoming self-sufficient in food production, a situation that forces the island to rely on shipments from the continental United States.
Rivera also noted that according to the most recent available statistics published in 2008, Puerto Rico has reduced its agricultural production by 20 percent since 2003.
The secretary attributed the drop in production to the high operating costs of growing food on the island, which are, in turn, a result of high labor costs, as well as rising energy and fertilizer prices.
Rivera acknowledged that therefore many farmers – of which there are fewer than 2,000 on the island, according to recent statistics – have come to depend on government subsidies to stay in business.
He said that it is not easy to invest in farming in Puerto Rico, where farmers cannot compete with the economies of scale of larger agribusiness firms abroad.
Rivera emphasized, however, that the objective of Gov. Luis Fortuño’s administration is to reinforce the creation of jobs in the agricultural sector as a way of combating a jobless rate above 16 percent.
“Agriculture is an additional alternative for employment,” he said, after lamenting the lack of business initiative in the sector and, above all, the scarcity of innovation on the part of the island’s businessmen.
Rivera said that to change the situation his department is promoting a training program for farmers to allow them to more easily adopt modern technology and to transform them into the basis for a future “business incubator” for the sector.
He referred to the Agricultural Biotechnology Companies Promotion bill, which is aimed at establishing a proper public policy to foster the founding of companies oriented toward biotechnology in Puerto Rico.
On the other hand, Rivera acknowledged that the Puerto Rican poultry industry is suffering the effects of competition of cheaper – and smaller – eggs from the U.S. mainland.
He urged local poultry farmers to “connect” with the Puerto Rican consumer to explain the advantages of their product compared with an egg that – before it arrives on the island – must go through a days-long shipment process which could reduce its quality.
Regarding the repercussions that the AH1N1 swine flu virus had in the production of pork on the island, he said that after a small slowdown measures were taken that had managed to stabilize that sector. EFE