Until 1989, Cuban agriculture was similar to what we would have seen in North America; modern equipment, monoculture and dependence on inputs. Cuba depended highly on an international market, with a good trade agreement for their sugar with Russia and other communist states, in exchange for food, and agrochemicals and fuel for agriculture.
When trade relations collapsed in 1990, things turned desperate in Cuba and the “Special Period” was declared. Over 85% of Cuba’s trade was with Russia and communist states and that decreased by 53 to 77% depending on the item (petroleum, fertilizer, pesticides and animal feeds). Food imports dropped even more (Rosset, Peter and Bejamin, Medea. 1994. The Greening of the Revolution: Cuba’s experiment with organic agriculture. Ocean Press, Australia). By 1993, trade had decreased to $750 million from $8.7 billion in 1989 (Louis A. Perez, http://www.historyofcuba.com/history/havana/lperez2.htm). This all happened in addition to the US trade embargo imposed in 1962. Cuba was facing a significant food crisis with an average 30% drop in daily caloric intake.
Despite not running into very serious health effects, the deprivation was deeply felt and is still very much apart of the visible Cuban lifestyle today. As a traveller to Cuba, one is pleasantly stunned by the kindness and good nature of Cubans despite what they have been through. In 1993, over 50,000 suffered optic neuropathy due to a vitamin B complex deficiency. This is commonly seen in the eyes of older Cubans and some middle aged Cubans as well. Also obvious is that those that were infants during the early part of this period have grown up ‘petite’. Apparently, malnutrition in children under five was evident within just a few weeks from the start of food shortages. Transportation had to be drastically modified and solutions that were offered are still used today, such as retrofitted large vehicles like dump trucks that transport Cubans to work. Understandably, Cubans still fear the lack of that period today and will pack away food from resorts. Travellers need to be more understanding and compassionate about what Cubans have been through.
As devastating as this period was to Cubans, their situation became an experiment in post ‘peak oil’ agriculture that many have since studied. Cubans had no choice but to turn to more resilient farming practices. They learned organic and permaculture techniques and even Havana (capital of Cuba with a population of 2.14 million in 2010) was producing its own food in raised beds and on rooftops. Organic agriculture became mandated. Farm machinery was replaced by animals and the Cuban Ministry of Agriculture drafted up an ‘Alternative Model’ to agriculture. This entails much of what we hear about today: diversification of crops and using crop rotation, biological control of pests and weeds, use of technology and scientific knowledge including the introduction of new varieties dependent on soil type, soil management, maximum use of grazing (ie. animals graze everywhere!), knowledge sharing, mobilizing labour (more on this in the Transylvania discussion) but most important to my work in Ag3.0, promoting ‘cooperation among producers, within and between communities’ (p.31). This, to me, is the key to the future of agriculture. As Fidel Castro stated in 1991 at a national congress, “we must convert farming into one of the most honoured, promoted and appreciated professions.” “We will achieve miracles with intelligence and sweat” (p.33). Does this not define the future farmer?
Cuba’s Special Period is not over but Cubans have adapted and no longer suffer the effects of food shortages, at least directly. It might take change in politics to move them out of this Period that has now become a necessary lifestyle. What I notice, with the return of obesity just like everywhere else in North America and Europe, is the lack of nutritious food items. Green vegetables just don’t seem to exist and fresh produce is limited to tomatoes, cucumbers, and a wee bit of lettuce. The food rations they receive are items such as white sugar and flour. There does not seem to be any understanding of healthy eating or evidence of sharing knowledge on nutrition.
Cuba has shown the rest of the world how to face a crisis in food supply and farming. As much as we talk about alternative models for agriculture, Cuba has done it, more than once. In 1993, they were struck even harder when the storm that devastated the US also destroyed half of the food crops that were planted in Cuba, just before harvest. There is much we can learn from Cuba and our best way to support them is by becoming a tourist to their country. Cubans openly welcome Canadians into their homes in areas where they are used to tourism and will invite you to become a part of their family.