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October 2003 • Vol 3, No. 9 •

Cuba’s Agricultural Revolution

By Eliza Barclay

Across the Florida Straits from Miami in the capital city of a country ranked 90th in GDP by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), students in Havana, Cuba, are munching on a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, picked by their own hands in the school garden, or grown nearby in urban organic gardens.

In the early 1990s, the average Cuban dinner table did not boast a spread even remotely close to the bounty enjoyed by many today. During these years, when foreign economic support disappeared with the collapse of the Soviet Union, average caloric and protein intake dropped to nearly 30 percent below 1980s levels.

Faced with the possibility of widespread starvation, the Cuban government foresaw that a full-scale mobilization of domestic resources, both human and natural, would be required in order to increase production to meet the demands of a hungry populace. And with few options to import food given the stringency of the U.S. embargo, Cuba turned over a new leaf by converting almost entirely to an organic production system within 10 years.

Cuba’s nationwide commitment to food self-sufficiency without reliance on chemical or mechanical technologies has borne some startlingly successful results, not only in terms of food production but also in the development of a more personalized food culture, woven deeply into patterns of food consumption, nutrition, and community.

These trends, which many sustainable agriculture experts enthusiastically champion, also appear to be on the brink of a major confrontation with the powerful forces of the global market, from which Cuba was virtually exempt until 2001, when U.S. policy toward agricultural exports to Cuba began to shift slightly. The strength of Cuba’s food security, with all its growing bureaucratic and market support, will inevitably be put to the test as small but increasing concessions are made to expand trade between Cuba and its closest potential trading partner, the United States.

Collapse and Revival

In 1989, as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent retraction of petroleum, farm equipment, food subsidies, and the preferential trade relationship that had come with Soviet support of the Cuban state, the country lapsed into a phase of dire food, energy, and morale shortages, known as the “Special Period” (Periodo Especial).

Cuba had been under the thumb of various colonial empires from Spain and the United States since the 16th century. The Soviet Union, during its phase of supporting Cuba, continued with a system that encouraged the production of sugar and tobacco for foreign markets, leaving little land for food production. In 1989, however, no one came to scoop up the Caribbean island and ladle in more subsidies, and the Cubans felt a new sense of excision from the global market.

Cubans from all walks of life suffered during this period; shortages were reminiscent of wartime, though the country was diplomatically at peace. The crisis was worsened by the tightening of the U.S. trade embargo through two pieces of legislation in 1992 and 1996, zapping any possibility of Cuba looking outside its boundaries for assistance—except to a few friendly governments like Venezuela and Nicaragua.

The agricultural model inherited from the 1980s was not a particularly advantageous one. Farming in Cuba before the Special Period was characterized by large quantities of chemical inputs in a highly monocultural and intensive system. In this period, Cuban farms had been using roughly 200 kilograms of nitrates per hectare. Without the Soviets delivering these expensive inputs at subsidized rates, Cuban farmers and average hungry citizens had no choice but to look to alternative models in developing a new agricultural system.

After 10 years of hard work and major food shortages, most Cubans can feel secure in having access to fresh, nutritious food through the extensive network of intensively cultivated urban gardens, (organoponicos), and state-run farms and cooperatives outside the cities. They can also take comfort in the fact that nearly all the food they eat comes from a self-sufficient agricultural system that relies only minimally on pesticides, fertilizers, or expensive machinery.

Given the highly restrictive nature of the U.S. embargo on trade with and from Cuba, the Cubans have been forced to virtually sink or swim in terms of procuring or growing food. Because of the terms of the trade sanctions, Cuba has been ineligible to receive food aid from international aid agencies.

Peter Rosset, co-director of Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy based in Oakland, Calif., has been researching food issues in Cuba since the early 1990s. He said, “Cuba has resisted three things: the blockade of the U.S. embargo, the fallout of the Soviet Union, and the industrial green revolution and economic globalization that has taken its toll elsewhere in the world.”

Fortunately, with a combination of solid scientific expertise and institutional will, Cuba was able to replace conventional farming practices with more practical and affordable alternatives. By charting new courses in research, land management, and market supply, government officials and scientists were able to avert a full hunger crisis and activate farmers and urban citizens to dedicate themselves to meeting food demands.

Key ingredients in the new agricultural model are the urban agriculture movement; traditional farming techniques like composting and intercropping (growing two crops together that benefit each other by warding off particular pests); new nontoxic biopesticides and biofertilizers; worker-managed collectives; quotas for farmers to insure adequate supply for the whole country; and opening farmers’ markets where excess food crops can be sold by farmers for profit.

The government also addressed land availability for domestic food production by redistributing parcels of land that had formerly operated as cane plantations for the sugar industry, which exchanged its products for oil from the Soviet Union. Each of these initiatives has created a fertile environment for technological innovation in organic production and economic incentives that encourage more people to farm.

According to Rosset, “Cuba has been able to change farming techniques in order to survive, but it has been an ongoing process of institutionalizing the farming alternatives.”

Throughout the past decade, government agencies like the Ministries of Agriculture, Health, Education, and Communication have been developing increasingly coordinated efforts to integrate agricultural extension education, nutrition education, and outreach to the Cuban people. The government has committed to make fresh fruits and vegetables available to every citizen, but so far, they haven’t quite managed to do this. Cuban authorities say that at this point, availability is not so much of an issue. Instead, they are now working on ways to bring down the prices so that even the poorest consumers can enjoy the bounty.

Urban Agriculture on the Rise

Cuba’s commitment to sustainable farming practices demonstrates how huge improvements in food production can be achieved even under stressful economic and environmental conditions. Urban agriculture has played an integral role in achieving food security, and Cuba is at the vanguard of the global urban agriculture movement. In 2002, Cuba produced 3.2 million tons of food in urban farms and gardens.

In 2002, more than 35,000 hectares (86,450 acres) of urban land were dedicated to the intensive production of fresh fruits, vegetables, and spices. According to Dr. Nelso Campanioni Concepción, deputy director of the National Institute for Fundamental Research on Tropical Agriculture (INIFAT), “The goal of urban agriculture is to gain the most food from every square meter of available space. The secret to the success of urban agriculture in Cuba has been the introduction of new technologies and varieties and an increase in areas farmed.”

Another factor favoring urban agriculture is that Cuba does not have the transport infrastructure—especially since the Soviets stopped delivering fuel—to deliver large quantities of food from rural areas to the cities on a regular basis. This means that urban residents benefit not only from feeding themselves but also by guaranteeing the freshness of their daily sustenance.

Extra food is shared in the community. Retirement home and hospital kitchens receive anywhere from a steady supply to seasonal, fluctuating donations from neighborhood gardens. These gardens, coupled with the comprehensive rural and suburban farms, play a critical role in completing the sense of food security that Cubans now enjoy.

Nutritious and Delicious

Filberto Samora, the administrator of one of the oldest organoponicos in Havana, which won recognition from President Fidel Castro, said, “This organoponico is very much a part of the neighborhood. We give food to the school two blocks away, and all the neighbors come to buy food from the stand.”

Samora’s organoponico grows bok choi, lettuces, and cilantro, but farmers from outlying areas of Havana are also allowed to sell their produce at Samora’s stand. The organoponico facility has also begun to produce its own seeds and compost for distribution to other farms in Havana.

The farmstands and neighborhood gardens have not only provided a consistent source of fresh and affordable food, but the fact that fresh produce is now readily available has also played a critical role in guiding the Cuban diet in a healthier direction.

“After the Special Period, once food was plentiful again, people were stuffing their faces with foods like meats and sugars that they had been deprived of,” said Madelaine Vásques Gálvez, owner of El Bambú, a vegetarian restaurant outside Havana, and editor of Germinal, a journal that focuses on food education for sustainability. “We now know that there are many diseases associated with diets high in sugar and fat.”

Vásques has been involved with ecological cuisine in Cuba for 11 years. Her cooking style utilizes a wide range of native fruits and vegetables grown in the restaurant’s own permaculture garden. Permaculture is an approach that emphasizes holistic design and maintenance so that the food system mirrors a biologically productive ecosystem. In other parts of the restaurant as well, Vásques sticks to ecological principles. For example, her stoves are powered by solar panels.

The Cuban diet has not always included copious amounts of vegetables, especially not those of the leafy green persuasion. As strange as it seems to some Cubans, especially the older generations whose diets have primarily depended on Soviet subsidies, vegetables appear to be catching on. There are now nine vegetarian restaurants in Havana, and urban gardeners from all walks of life expound upon the importance of fresh food.

The government and market have worked together to both feed the people and nurture the soil, and so diversity in diet has evolved, mirroring the crop diversity in the field. In the past few years, the Ministry of Health has become strongly supportive of and involved with urban gardening and the diversification of the Cuban diet.

Samora said, “It is still too early to determine where the new program of educating children on the healthy aspects of vegetables is really having an impact on their concept of what tastes good. We do find, though, that they want vegetables just as much as their parents when they come to the stand.”

Secure in Food, but Secure in Future?

The news of Cuba’s success has been slowly leaking out since the early 1990s, and the country is beginning to take on legendary status as a model for sustainable agriculture and local food production in the eyes of environmental advocates, farmers, and development specialists. Already lauded for years by the steady stream of sustainable farming gurus from around the world who have made the pilgrimage to observe the success of organic and local food production, Cuba’s experiment with sustainable agriculture has succeeded beyond its trial period.

American farmers have been shuttled to Cuba in “fact-finding missions” and “reality tours” by crafty NGOs who have obtained the highly coveted U.S. Department of Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) licenses allowing them to sponsor travel to Cuba for educational purposes. Whether many of these trips will be allowed to continue is unclear; in March 2003, OFAC announced the end of people-to-people exchanges. Most groups who have had the appropriate licenses are scheduled to lose them by December 2003.

But a rapidly approaching future of shifting economic opportunities poses serious questions and potential risks to Cuba’s model, regarded as precious by so many of its advocates.

Despite the embargo, in 2000, President Clinton signed the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act (TSRA), which re-authorized the direct commercial export of food products and agricultural products via cash transactions from the United States to Cuba—but not from Cuba to the United States.

In September 2002, after the U.S. Food and Agribusiness Exhibition took place in Havana, the Cuban government purchased more than $91.9 million in food and agricultural products from subsidiaries of U.S. companies based in Latin America and Canada and directly from U.S. companies.

Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), one of the world’s largest exporters of cereal grains and oilseeds, signed a $19 million contract for soybean oil, soybeans, soy proteins, corn, margarine, and rice. In 2001, ADM’s lobbying—combined with wreckage in Cuba after Hurricane Michelle—was the tipping point that persuaded the Bush Administration to allow the first sale of goods directly from the United States to Cuba since 1962.

The American Corn Growers Association (ACGA), which, to date, has not taken up trade negotiations with Cuba, would be interested in trade sometime in the future, said its chief executive officer.

“We should be exporting to any nation that needs food,” said CEO Larry Mitchell.

With Cuba’s well-documented ability to feed itself, why would the Cuban government be interested in spending $91.9 million on food imports?

John S. Kavulich II, president of the U.S. Trade and Economic Council based in New York City, said, “There is a strong political component to the Cubans’ decision to purchase food products from us. Of the products purchased since 2001, nearly all of them are available from other sources at better prices.”

Kavulich cited rice as an example. The Cubans could buy rice from Vietnam at a significantly lower price, but they choose to purchase from purveyors like ADM instead.

Food First’s Rosset agrees. “I believe the Cubans are buying from the U.S. as a political gesture. They hope the food corporations will lobby the U.S. government on their behalf to lift the embargo.”

Aside from the disruption in self-sufficiency, there is also growing concern that if the embargo is eventually lifted, global agricultural giants will persuade farmers to drop their organic methods in favor of high pesticide and fertilizer usage.

However, Dr. Nelso Campanioni Concepción of INIFAT responded: “We are not going back. We will increase production, but we will not degrade the environment doing it.”

Speculating on the possible institutional reactions to a global market that peddles genetically engineered seeds, pesticides, and fertilizers, Rosset said, “There is a possibility of a negative impact on the Cuban model. There may be a short term increase in pesticide use and a stronger interest in biotechnology, but they may not last because they may not fulfill Cuban agricultural needs.”

The members of the U.S. Trade and Economic Council Inc. seem to be chomping at the Cuban market bit. Kavulich said, “We have many members who have begun discussions with the Cubans over a wide array of products like food and hospitality services and biotech products.”

As of now, the only McDonald’s in Cuba is located on the Guantánamo Bay naval base, which has belonged to the United States since 1934. Cuban fast food chains exist and are popular, but they do not dominate the landscape or pepper the national concept of food, largely because advertising does not exist. If McDonald’s and U.S.-produced corn, peas, and carrots in a can are eventually allowed into Cuba, it will still be up to the Cubans whether they prefer the foreign food to their own backyard-grown papayas, yucca, and lettuce.

Environmental News Network, September 12, 2003





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