Promise and Precarity: Local Food Systems and Hurricanes in the Caribbean

Written by Beth Timmers

In the spring of 2017, NPR covered Puerto Rico’s burgeoning local food movement. The amount of land cultivated to grow food had risen by 50% in four years after a 60-year decline. People were starting to grow a wide range of food on small farms. Restauranteurs were buying it, creating a sophisticated, creative farm-to-table food scene. Puerto Rico, like many other Caribbean countries, imports between 80-85% of its food, but this movement gave hope for a more sustainable food system. Then, on September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria touched down in Puerto Rico, destroying around 80% of the country’s crop value.

This precarious outcome is not unique to Puerto Rico. About 500km west, a similarly devastating storm hit Barbuda. Hurricane Irma passed over the 62 square mile island on September 6, 2017; all 1,700 residents evacuated as Irma destroyed nearly all of the island’s backyard gardens and communal livestock sector that balance a heavy dependence on imported food. Irma compromised Barbuda’s historic community wells, designed to sustainably supply farmers with valuable freshwater[1]. In this case, the storm threatened a long-standing, culturally significant tradition.


Image 2- Barbuda, 1 of 2.jpg
Barbuda, Source: NASA Earth Observatory (2017)


In 2016, Jamaican farmers nearly faced a similar climate-related disaster. At the time, I was conducting fieldwork to study the contribution of small-scale farming to food access in Jamaica’s capital, Kingston. I was collecting data along the south coast, the island’s breadbasket. This area is known for small-scale production of fresh fruit and vegetables integral to renowned Jamaican cuisine. Like Puerto Rico and Barbuda, Jamaica balances high dependence on food imports with domestic farming that provides people with affordable, healthy, culturally-appropriate food.

Out in the field, we received warnings that Hurricane Matthew was approaching the island as a Category 5 storm. We covered windows, bought batteries and waited for the storm to pass, but it never made landfall. It changed course and made a devastating landing in southern Haiti. Preparing for the storm, farmers shared stories of previous storms and their aftermath, including how they bore the responsibility and cost of adaptation.

Food systems across the Caribbean face a precarious future; climate-related disaster and increasingly unpredictable precipitation patterns are impacting small-scale agriculture, food supply chains and market prices. Scientists at the University of the West Indies note that this precarity is compounded by a problematic history of colonialism and global agricultural policy. Countries like Puerto Rico, Antigua and Barbuda and Jamaica have substantial foundations to build sustainable food systems. However, threats to both newly-established and also longstanding local food systems should not be left to chance. Support for sustainable food systems in the Caribbean ought to build upon farming practices and food culture that make sense, in context.

Beth Timmers is an environmental social scientists and PhD Candidate in the School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability at the University of Waterloo. Her research on the domestic food system in Jamaica is funded by the International Development Research Centre’s Doctoral Research Award and a doctoral fellowship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.


[1] Boger et al. (2014). Water resources and the historic wells of Barbuda: tradition, heritage and hope for a sustainable future. Island Studies Journal9(2), 327-342.


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