• The San Juan Daily Star

Puerto Rico said losing needed farmland to solar projects

Food security is an ongoing concern in Puerto Rico, but ensuring access to power, amid recurrent electrical shortages and blackouts, is a priority too.

By The Star Staff

While Puerto Rico imports around 85% of its food products, its own farmland is increasingly being absorbed by solar farms, a report from Efe says.

The Puerto Rico Energy Bureau has authorized 16 projects, which combined would require over 14,000 acres of agricultural land.

Finding a balance is complex. On the one hand, food security is an ongoing concern in Puerto Rico, but ensuring access to power, amid recurrent electrical shortages and blackouts, is a priority too, the Efe report says.

“The loss of agrarian land is enhancing food insecurity. We are witnessing desperate times,” Manuel Reyes, vice president of Puerto Rico’s Chamber of Food Marketing, Industry and Distribution (MIDA by its Spanish acronym), told Efe.

Reyes said the island should “aspire to guarantee food security through integrated planning for the present and future.”

One of the key challenges for Puerto Rico is the fact that it has lost up to 70% of its arable land since 1966, which has made it rely almost entirely on food imports to feed the population.

“Every year this is of greater concern,” Marissa Reyes, an agroecological farmer, told Efe. “Not necessarily due to imports, but because of the climate crisis and environmental insecurity.”

Puerto Rico covers around 2.1 million acres of land. Only 22% is classified as agricultural terrain, according to data from the Agriculture Department collected in 2018.

However experts in the field told Efe that the central government has to adapt around 635,000 acres of land for farming.

“We have been losing agricultural land since the 1960s in a disastrous way,” agricultural expert Alfredo Vivoni said. “And we must put a stop to this. And this is done despite laws that prohibit it.”

Vivoni said the percentage of imported products has hovered at around 85% for at least 20 years, “a clear indicator of [Puerto Rico’s] vulnerability.”

An example of this occurred in July when a labor dispute left some 5,000 containers stranded in the port of San Juan, triggering widespread panic over possible shortages across the island.

“Other options for the development of renewable energy that do not imply sacrificing land of agricultural value” are needed, Vivoni said.

But many have accused the government of indifference and a lack of action amid the crisis.

“The government has traditionally been absent in terms of providing adequate solutions, because when it comes to local production, we also depend on other imported foods,” Reyes, the MIDA vice president, lamented.

Despite the agricultural sector being mired in challenges, over 60 project proposals for the construction of solar farms have been logged with government agencies.

José Alicea, sales director at Windmar Home, has defended the solar farms as essential if the island is to meet its clean energy goals of consuming 100% from renewable sources by 2050.

“The panels we use are for energy that is sold to the state Electric Power Authority [PREPA],” Alicea, whose company has projects in the southern municipality of Ponce, in the offshore island municipality of Vieques and in the northern municipality of Canóvanas, told Efe.

PREPA is in charge of power generation, while distribution and transmission is administered by LUMA Energy, a private company that has been in the eye of the storm for months due to a recent price hike and recurring blackouts.

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