A business of questionable legality is tempting farmers in the south of the island.
They lease their land to companies that produce genetically modified seeds to supply to the agriculture of other countries, instead of producing food, necessary to deal with the lack of food security we’re experiencing in Puerto Rico. Or, instead, they themselves plant corn, cotton, soybeans and sorghum that these corporations use for their genetic engineering experiments.
“I harvest for several of them, 200 or 300 cuerdas (194 to 291 acres), depending on the year,” said Ramón Gonzalez, president of the Puerto Rico Farm Bureau, one of the leading organizations that should protect, promote and develop the island’s agriculture. He would not say to which companies he offers this service.
It”s about questionable contractual relationships. The lands that most of the eight transgenic seed producers occupy on the island exceeds the 500-acres limit (some 515 cuerdas) that an agricultural corporation may own, pursuant to Article VI of the Constitution. That was a measure created in the last century to prevent monopoly and foreign sugarcane landowners from displacing local agriculture.
Rafael Rosado, a former agronomist from the Department of Agriculture’s Juana Díaz region, found that these agreements have other overtones of apparent illegality. During several field visits in Juana Díaz, in 2010, he saw Monsanto employees working on a farm it had not leased from the Land Authority. It was leased from a local farmer.
“It is quite visibly obvious and acknowledged by the farmers with land leased from the Puerto Rico Land Authority (known as the ATPR for its initials in Spanish) that seed companies like Monsanto Caribbean made contractual financial arrangements with farmers to plant in plots of their land for relatively short time periods,” the agronomist stated in a letter dated July 12, 2010 to the Department of Agriculture, to get the institution to start an investigation. The claim was never addressed.
Subletting public lands from the Land Authority is a contractual breach of the lease. In addition, the government, which subsidizes part of the seed producers’ wages, may be encouraging two companies (the local farmer and the corporation) in the same farm. And it is encouraging Monsanto for work performed by its workers on lands they are harvesting without permission.
It is tough to dedicate a life to farming in Puerto Rico, where the government does not give priority to this industry, and where consumers favor foreign products. So the farmers prefer to lease the land to seed producers at about $650 per private cuerda (0.97 of an acre) each year. It’s good business but in the end, a crumb, when compared with the more than $1,000 the seed producers pay for that same piece of land in Hawaii, another major development center for the world’s transgenic products.
The seed producers, meanwhile, take advantage of the best arable public land in Puerto Rico at rock-bottom rates. They pay the Land Authority, $400 per cuerda leased a year, twice what a local farmer pays for the same amount of land.
However, Monsanto had received a better deal when in 2006 it began the lease of 226 cuerdas (219.22 acres) from the Land Authority in Juana Díaz, according to documents from the Comptroller’s Office. They started out paying $225 per cuerda with irrigation, and $62.50 per cuerda without irrigation. From August to December of that year, they paid $225 per cuerda annually. From January 2007 to September 2010, they paid $450. The 2011 rate, which should be renegotiated, does not appear on the Comptroller’s records.
This is about the best lands Puerto Ricans have to development their agriculture, because they are fertile, flat and have adequate infrastructure for irrigation. However, it is not part of Puerto Rico’s public policy to increase agricultural production, and Puerto Rican society does not gives priority to local products when shopping, so that 85% of food consumed is imported. That puts the island in a serious situation of food insecurity.
This context is coupled with the fact that productive farmlands are decreased. In 1935, the island had 85% of agricultural lands, but now it only has 25%, largely because the government has favored cement planting, and short-term revenue from the construction industry, without a planning system to ensure sustainability. This vulnerability increases when it is taken into account that the majority of food enters through only one place, the bay of San Juan. Supplies could be disrupted because three quarters of the supplies come by boat from the port of Jacksonville, Florida, navigating the path of hurricanes, which are becoming more intense and frequent. Meanwhile, food prices increase globally, and hovering over the globe is the threat of a shortage, while climate changes caused by global warming increase.
That is how things are, while in the south of the island, on farms that seed producers occupy, the land not being used to capacity to produce food. Here and there, away from each other, they open spaces of dark earth for themselves, on which they raise small groups of experimental genetically modified corn. Crops are at a distance to avoid pollination and to maintain control over the experiment.
Regardless of the amount, but about finding the “perfect seed,” the one that maintains the desired traits through several generations, the one that shows the ability to resist pests, extreme weather changes or that have more nutritional value.
Due to the island’s good climate, the seed produces harvest up to three generations per year. Hence the importance of Puerto Rico for these corporations and farmers in the U.S. that due to winter conditions can only produce one generation annually.
Generally speaking, experimentation is possible because they have the best minds that the University of Puerto Rico’s Mayagüez Campus develops. Its students perform internships in Monsanto laboratories, and many end up working in this company in Puerto Rico.
“The seed producers has become the largest employer of agronomists,” says a source of the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI) close to the Agriculture Department. “They start as laborers in the field until a job opens. And if they do not work here they send them to work in the cornfields and offices in the U.S.” The eight seed producers combined hire about 460 people full time, says Juan Carlos Justiniano, president of the Association of Agricultural Biotechnology Industry of Puerto Rico.
So, seed companies, once they get the desired product, send it to their affiliates in the U.S. and other countries where large-scale planting is done to obtain more seeds and sell them to farmers who will plant them. Thus, a corn seed developed in Puerto Rico’s best farmlands can return later to the island in the form of corn syrup in a canned drink or in junk food.