16 days of my trip are between me and my own bed. My experience here in the Dominican Republic, while not quite finished, has opened my eyes to several things, and has iterated time and time again that the global agricultural community has much to do, in spite of how far we have come.
First and foremost, this trip has highlighted the vast difference between the opulence of North America, and the relative simplicity of life in a developing nation. Prior to this trip, I had never spent much time in communities where running water is not guaranteed, the safety of that drinking water is never secure, and electricity is unstable and irregular. My previous international experiences have always been as a tourist, where one sees the brighter, painted side of a Caribbean island, and the everyday towns and homes of the populace are largely hidden from view.
It came as a surprise to me, then, that as close as this island is to North America food security is relatively low, and food comprises a huge amount of the budget of the average agricultural employee. After speaking with farmers here, tourism sounds like a bit of a devil-in-disguise. As the tourist industry continues to boom, the demand from the resorts rises, causing an increase in the prices of everyday staples, without a noted increase in the average wage for a farm labourer. The profits of those tourist traps rarely reaches very far, and mostly greases the palms of politicians and the owners of the resort. I’m not saying that the proprietors are terrible people, and I am all for free-market capitalism, but the demand for food created by the resorts has increased the prices of food for the whole island, leaving less money available to be spent in other areas of the economy.
This island is covered, it seems, in sugarcane. Acres and acres of the crop cover every square inch of arable land, right up to the edge of the highway and as high as possible up the mountain sides. With such an expanse of 15 foot cane, it’s hard to imagine that people would ever manage the crop without modern, industrial harvesters. Yet, here, they do. Approximately 50% of the sugarcane harvested in the Dominican Republic is harvested by hand. While it is necessary in some areas, which are too steep to harvest by machine, many other areas are as flat and level as an Iowa cornfield, but are harvested by machete.
When I asked why this was, the answer surprised me. I expected it to fall along the lines of, “the machines are too expensive for small farmers,” or, “they’re not effective enough to match the human hand.” However, the primary reason for employing hundreds of temporary workers to harvest sugarcane has more of a humanitarian angle. Many of the workers are Haitian, legal or illegal, who have fled from the poverty of the west side of the island (Haiti is the poorest nation in the western hemisphere). They are many, and they are usually unskilled, and they need employment to support families here and across the border. There are so many people available to cut sugarcane, in fact, that the cost of harvesting by hand is nearly par to harvesting by machine, with the added benefit of supplying some form of income to Hispaniola’s most destitute.
And, so, I dare say that agriculture has done amazing things all over the world. Since the idea of planting and harvesting monoculture crops began tens of thousands of years ago in the Middle East, agriculture has literally allowed for everything the human race has accomplished since. Without agriculture, we would have no cities, no roads, no civilizations, because each of us would only have enough energy to scrounge around for berries, tubers, and small animals to kill. As far as we have come, though, we have much yet to do in countries all over the world. Developing nations are light years behind North America, but with the development of technologies like genetically modified organisms, we can bring efficient, effective, agricultural advancement to these nations, much faster than we ever have before. Science and agriculture can provide inexpensive, fast growing, nutritious, and widely available food for the world, domestically produced and processed.
And, as we have seen time and time again, if agriculture prospers, everything else falls neatly into place.