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In June, I walked into a room in Havana to sign on the University of Florida’s behalf an agreement with the Cuban Ministry of Agriculture to do joint research on citrus, sugar cane, grains, and more.

I never got to hold a pen. Yet I didn’t leave discouraged, and we continue to pursue the agreement. UF has been working on this relationship for more than 20 years, and we know progress doesn’t always keep pace with our goals.

We’ll keep at it because it’s too important not to. After all, since passage of the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act in 2000 (which allowed U.S. firms to sell food and agricultural products to Cuba for the first time in nearly 40 years), U.S. agriculture has sold more than $5 billion worth of food products to Cuba. 

Even though U.S. sales to Cuba are declining (due to legislative restrictions that prohibit credit sales), Cuba remains an important potential market right on our doorstep.

It’s in our national interest to tap into Cuban expertise on crops that Florida and Cuba have in common. We need to establish the strongest scientific links possible to prepare for any additional opening of economic doors that could whisk pests and disease in both directions across the Straits of Florida.

Also, the Southeastern United States, as productive as we are, cannot feed the world on our own. Our neighbor 90 miles away from Key West has fertile soil, knowledgeable farmers, well-trained researchers, and a culture that esteems scientists as agents of progress.

Yet Cuba imports most of its food. This could be a nation that produces enough to feed its 11 million people (and its growing number of visitors) instead of one where staples are rationed. Cuban farming is characterized by low productivity and high post-harvest loss. Investment, knowledge transfer, mechanization, and enhanced coordination could help transform Cuban agriculture.

We all have an interest in that transformation occurring with our input and without severe environmental damage. So there is also much potential in joint science on natural resources – conservation of our shared fisheries and iconic animals such as the manatee and the mitigation of invasive plant and animal species.

Now is an opportune moment for us to establish some relationships and expand on others by identifying areas of common interest – with Cuba, and among ourselves. As the doors to trade with Cuba are just opening and the relationship is still in its infancy, fostering positive relationships with the island nation could not be more important.

UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, which I lead, hasn’t waited. We have been deeply engaged with our Cuban counterparts in both academia and other agricultural research institutes, and we hope to expand the breadth and depth of that relationship by bringing in additional partners.

The Cubans will choose their partners carefully from among many suitors. If academia and business can approach Cuba as a consortium, it increases our potential to get the focused attention of our Cuban collaborators as researchers as well as potential trade partners. This will also help facilitate a coordinated and strategic approach across NGOs and businesses to bringing Cuban agriculture into the new millennium sustainably.

UF/IFAS participates in talks with the Cuba Consortium, an assembly of companies, non-profit organizations, and academics to inform and prepare its members for potential future opportunities.

Florida is arguably the state that has the most to gain or lose as U.S.-Cuba relations thaw. So you can bet we’re going to keep our eye on the ball.

Here’s some of what we’ve done recently to build a bridge to Cuba:

On September 1, World Food Prize laureate and Cuban-born soil scientist Pedro Sanchez started working at UF/IFAS. A team of faculty led by forest entomologist Jiri Hulcr has received Farm Bill funding to research Cuban forest pests and assess the likelihood of their invasion into the U.S.

Last year UF/IFAS brought University of Havana marine research leader Jorge Angulo to Gainesville as a visiting scholar.

In the fall of 2015, UF/IFAS admitted its first Cuban student to pursue a graduate degree in over 50 years; Anmari Alvarez, who was on the team that discovered Florida manatees in Cuba, is pursuing a Ph.D. in the School of Natural Resources and Environment. We’re going to keep working to finalize that pact on citrus, cane, and other crops, as well as others to complement the agreements we’ve already established.  

My observation from three trips to Cuba is that already the island is struggling to accommodate the visitors it receives. This historic moment offers an opportunity to assemble high-impact agricultural and environmental science partnerships that could inform business opportunities, develop sustainable techniques, and enhance agriculture development throughout the food system. 

I fear that if we wait until all travel restrictions are lifted, we could find ourselves lost in a stampede of tourists, investors, entrepreneurs, and anyone else out to “discover” Cuba. So let’s join together now to create those partnerships.

About the author: Jack Payne is the University of Florida’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. jackpayne@ufl.edu; @JackPayneIFAS

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