TAMPA — Florida is prepared to allow the import of some foreign produce into the state but the federal government needs the best technology possible to detect any danger coming with it, said Adam Putnam, Florida’s commissioner of Agriculture Services and Consumer Affairs.
Speaking at the first Fresh From Florida Summit held at Port Tampa Bay Wednesday, Putnam said that danger could be the tiniest insect, like the one that has brought the deadly citrus greening to the state’s largest crop or a more obvious danger.
Speaking to people involved in shipping, cargo handling logistics and trucking, Putnam said expansion of both import and export from Florida is important to the state’s future, but it could come with a price if the proper safeguards aren’t in place.
While the feds are involved in detecting terrorists, human traffickers and drug traffickers, inspection programs needed for fresh produce are being inadequately funded, he told the crowd and more needs to be done.
Putnam also said he welcomes the idea of more import and export from Port Tampa Bay.
Recalling how, as a youngster, he used to get a kick out of seeing the banana boats pull into Port Tampa Bay, Putnam said he’s excited to see the port get ready for the future, with new massive cranes to better handle cargo from wider ships, to the refrigerated warehouse in the planning stages that will be able to store pears, grapes and other fresh commodities coming into Tampa.
At the same time the port is making changes, so is the shipping industry, Port Tampa Bay President and CEO Paul Anderson said.
Much like airlines that form alliances with each other, he said, the ocean carrier industry is making similar moves.
“This week, four of the largest ocean carriers in the world came together and formed a new alliance and it’s going to change the dynamics” of the shipping world, Anderson said. “Carriers are scrambling to figure out who their new partners will be. Frankly, I think Port Tampa Bay can benefit from this.”
Those alliances will at least partially determine which ships go in and out of the port.
Meanwhile, Anderson said, Port Tampa Bay is the largest port, land wise, in the state and is looking to grow by making more and better connections with trucking, CSX rail and with distribution centers along the Interstate 4 corridor, which has easy access to the entire state and to the southeast.
“It’s a rapidly changing world filled with opportunity” and Florida could play a key role in that future, Putnam said, with the middle class growing in other parts of the world creating a need for more food.”
“Agriculture has traditionally been in a defensive crouch when it comes to trade,” Putnam said. “New trade opportunities historically have had a negative impact on Florida agriculture and any number of commodities you can identify as examples of that. We believe we can play offense and highlight the export opportunities for premium products produced here in Florida.
“By 2050 we will have 10 billion mouths to feed on Planet Earth. The only way we will meet the demands of that population will be through productivity and yield gains in agriculture,” he said. “The broadest gains will come from American agriculture. Florida is very well positioned to play a major role in that.”
Putnam said he’s not the only one looking to that future, noting that Bill Gates has purchased over 50,000 acres in Florida near the Georgia border in an area with “high value soil” and access to the water. “He and (Warren) Buffett and others realize that arable land is going to be very valuable. Florida commodities will continue to gain traction.”