HAVANA — In Cuba, desperation spawned a brilliant agricultural system. Economically, Cuba has had to navigate very difficult situations in the past few decades. Following the revolution in 1959, trade with the United States of America and many of their Western allies became impossible; as a result, Cuba became solely dependent on trading with the Soviet Union.
Also during this time, 30 percent of Cuba’s agricultural space was devoted towards growing sugar cane. The country imported 57 percent of its food supply. In their trade with the Soviet Union, they received gasoline to power their tractors as well as various chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Then, in 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed and so did the Cuban economy and food supply.
Cuba was suddenly faced with having to shift the focus of their agriculture towards feeding their own people. Additionally, they had to do so without the use of industrial technologies they could no longer afford to sustain. Initially, this change resulted in massive crop declines between 1990 and 1994; during this time, the average Cuban lost 20 pounds.
Feeling the effects of this disastrous turn of events, city dwellers took matters into their own hands. Not only did they grow what plants and livestock they could on their balconies and in their backyards, they also took over state land that was unproductive and began to cultivate it.
In Cuba’s rural areas, farmers also changed their methodology. Instead of tractors and chemicals, they utilized oxen and natural fertilizers. Adopting these various agroecological principles created a sustainable agriculture in Cuba. This was further incentivized by the government’s decentralization policies. Essentially, they incentivized farmers to collaborate in groups and sell their produce together.
These changes produced effective results. Between 1996 and 2005 the annual, per capita food production increased by 4.2 percent, while the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean stagnated.
The sustainable agriculture in Cuba presents interesting opportunities for the future. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, approximately one in nine people in the world have insufficient food. This is a clear indicator that industrial agriculture has failed to satisfy the world’s need for food; however, a sustainable, agroecological model such as the one that has succeeded in Cuba may be one that developing countries around the world can follow.
Of course, Cuba has a unique political structure — land rights, policies and agricultural systems are all managed in a very centralized way. In a capitalist system, elements such as the farmer communes may not be allowed to function or even exist. However, the concept of urban farming is one that could easily be transferred to other countries.
In most countries struggling with food production, those dwelling in the cities are affected the most. This is mostly because they are dependent of receiving food from the rural areas. During difficult times, the rural areas of a country may not produce enough to also feed the cities. Many malnourished countries also have underdeveloped infrastructure, further hindering the supply of food to the cities.
However, the sustainable agriculture in Cuba may be threatened by reconciliation with the United States of America. An increase in export opportunities and tourism may see Cuba shift its agricultural focus back to these areas. In recent history, U.S. involvement in foreign agricultures has resulted in power placed in a few large corporations. Such a system would threaten the intricate system of many individual farmers that has produced a sustainable agriculture in Cuba. Hopefully this system will fail to occur, and sustainable agriculture in Cuba will continue to prosper.
– Zachary Pappas