The recovery of hurricanes in Puerto Rico hinders the research of seeds of agricultural companies: The Salt: NPR


The hurricane left millions of people without light and destroyed the water infrastructure. He also broke plants throughout the island, washed the land of the fields and knocked down fences.

Carlos Giusti / AP

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Carlos Giusti / AP

The hurricane left millions powerless and destroyed the water infrastructure. He also broke plants throughout the island, washed the land of the fields and knocked down fences.

Carlos Giusti / AP

Winter days and the warm nights of Puerto Rico have played a key role in the global seed business for more than 30 years. Then, the devastation caused in the US territory by Hurricane Maria in September extends to the farmlands of the Midwest and the Great Plains.

Fields in Puerto Rico are used for research and development of up to 85 percent of commercial corn, soybeans and other hybrid seeds grown in the United States, according to the Association of the Agricultural Biotechnology Industry of Puerto Rico.

From small regional seed producers to multi-million dollar players like Monsanto, Bayer and DuPont, companies that strive to improve the quality and consistency of their products. products or want to verify the purity of their seeds before putting them on the market resorting to Puerto Rico. There, one can plant three seasons of corn and soybeans throughout the year. Sunflower, sorghum and cotton are also grown for research.

The hurricane left millions of people without light and destroyed the water infrastructure. He also broke plants throughout the island, washed the land and knocked down fences.

"The winds were so powerful that they basically devastated and blew everything that was green," says Beatriz Carrión, executive director of PRABIA. "Everything that was standing, trees, everything."

Some projects moved quickly to other places where seed research is carried out, such as Hawaii, Chile and Argentina. Because most of the planting for this winter had not yet started, Carrión says that biotechnology companies could start up their operations.

"Our companies have water and some already have electricity," she says. "We are open for business." But that does not mean that business is as usual.

Third Millennium Genetics (3MG), headquartered in Minnesota, has farms in Puerto Rico to help Midwest seed growers carry out winter research projects. This year's plan was to have two farms in Puerto Rico, says 3MG's first science officer, Raechel Baumgartner Delgado.

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The company climbed to just one after the storm wiped out the generators, stole the roof of a building and damaged other. Instead of squeezing more profits from the single farm by growing contract research plants, 3MG produces watermelon, sweet melon and melon.

"One of the things we talked about was stopping the cultivation of fruits and vegetables on behalf of our customers," Baumgartner says, "and when we thought about it, we realized that we could not because we needed the food in the island. "

There have been other challenges: irregular cell service, limited electricity and firing of employees when it became clear that there would be less work.

"We operate as if we were family," she says, "so having to reduce the number of staff has been difficult."

However, the projects are for the most part as scheduled, and planting is already underway.

This is good news for MayerSeedline's Les North, who leaves his Iowa home every winter to inspect the rows of corn that 3MG has planted in Puerto Rico for his company. Look for anomalies that, if they are very common, can indicate a problem with a complete batch of seeds.

Your trip may be shorter than normal this year because federal emergency teams were occupying all the rooms until the end of the year when you called last month.

"I hope to be there probably between Christmas and New Year," he says, although the earliest he could make a reservation was on January 2. "The hotel does not have rooms available at this point."

Still, he hopes to be able to verify the quality of his customers' corn seeds in time to send them to farmers in the spring.

Purity standards have existed since the Federal Seed Act of 1939, which aimed to protect farmers.

"I was trying to end the situation," let the buyer be careful, "says Mike Stahr, manager of the Iowa State Seed Laboratory." And so the seed companies, if they want continue in the business, they will have to keep farmers happy. "

North estimates that between 50 and 70 percent of the maize seed sown in the USA. UU a test in the field, either in Puerto Rico or other places. Although laboratory tests have become more sophisticated over the decades, Stahr says there is no substitute for growing the plant.

"There is value in doing both," says Stahr. "There are certain characteristics that we can not see in the laboratory."

Liliana Sánchez Cortés directs the operations of Puerto Rico for the seed giant Syngenta. He left the hurricane at his home in Ponce, but quickly returned to work to badess the damage.

"My boss asked the question immediately," Are you going to be able to run the season? "And I explain, yes, this is my work plan and that's how I need your support."

The company gave its employees generators, water and ice, needs on a tropical island where almost two months after the hurricane more than 60 The percentage of residents is still without electricity and almost 20 percent has no drinking water, according to a report by International Medical Corps.

Sánchez says he received the support he asked for, but things are difficult for the 45 full-time. Three lost their homes and some still do not have kitchens running.

In addition, he is struggling to find the 500 seasonal workers Syngenta needs for the winter because thousands of people have fled the island.

"We are trying to find people who usually come to work for us," he says, "and they are no longer on the island."

Seed companies remain committed to Puerto Rico because its climate and location make it in an accessible and practical place to work during the winter. That is something that even Hurricane Maria could not despoil.

This story comes to us from Harvest Public Media, an informative collaboration focused on food and agriculture.

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