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Local Food – Global Food – World Hunger – Ohio – Cuba

March 8, 2009

Farming and the Global Food Crisis


Cold weather crops being harvested at George Jones Farm in Oberlin, Ohio. Photograph: John Seyfried

Absolute reliance on science and technology has repeatedly proved fallible when addressing agriculture and food supply, especially in the long run. The ironically named Green Revolution, which followed on the heels of World War II, gave rise to the use of pesticides, synthetic nitrogen fertilizer and lab-bred crop varieties in fields all over the world. While the environmental impacts of chemical- and petroleum-based farming are clear, the birth of industrial agriculture also had a hidden societal cost, particularly in the Third World. Large farms producing monocultures ripe for national distribution and export edged out subsistence farmers, who have traditionally grown multi-crop polycultures. Polycultures allow farmers to diversify their harvests, ensuring variety and food security — if one crop gets a blight or is otherwise inedible, the garden offers many other options. While cereal production doubled in “developing” nations between 1961 and 1985, diets became based around just a few crops and nutritional values plummeted.

The first page of Wired Magazine’s November 2008 cover article on food shortages (entitled “The Future of Food: How Science Will Solve The Next Global Crisis”) brandishes the catchphrase, “It’s time for a new Green Revolution.” While the set of charts and facts that comprise the article suggests interplanting and crop rotation, Wired’s strong support of genetically modified crops and biotechnology overshadowed these sustainable practices. Distribution, which has often been cited as a greater reason for hunger than sheer lack of food, is not considered. In a society where “our capacity for innovation is as limitless as our appetites,” (Wired’s audience is primarily middle to upper-class American, adding a hint of irony to its word choice) the unknown effects of technological experiments are seen as less risky than the loss of First World political and economic capital inherent in scaling back and re-localizing.

It would be wise for the United States, however grudgingly, to follow an unlikely example: Cuba. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, they were the major exporter of food and sole provider of petroleum to the Caribbean island. Over the next four years, Cuba’s food production was halved and its people struggled to feed themselves on a quarter of the supply they had access to during the Soviet era. Food prices skyrocketed and calorie consumption dropped from 3,004 to 2,323 a day.

With no other choices afforded them, Cubans began feeding themselves. The methods they developed from the grassroots up were premised on a few simple tenets: localize food production, elevate the status of the farmer and institute organic agriculture. Farmers founded small, collectively and individually owned farms, many of them urban-based. (80 percent of Cuba’s population is concentrated in its cities.) The Ministry of Agriculture supported the initiatives and 350,000 high paying agricultural jobs were created. Because they no longer had access to Soviet petroleum, Cuba’s farms and urban gardens were organic by default, using natural and recycled inputs. Food access and nutrition began to steadily climb. The typical Cuban now consumes 3,547 calories per day, more than what is recommended by the United States government. Their prior export-import based monoculture food system collapsed under political pressure, but small gardens scattered across cities have been able to provide produce to most of the Cuban people for over a decade.

Havana alone has 200 urban gardens, called organoponicos, with 7,000 farmers manning them. They provide neighborhoods with mangos, plantains, basil, parsley, lettuce, garlic, collards, beans and sweet potatoes, 70 percent of which are organic.

Because farmers sell from simple tin carts, overhead costs are low, allowing garden-fresh food to be priced at affordable levels.

Cuba does maintain monocultures, but many of these also employ organic practices, resulting in 68 percent of corn and 72 percent of coffee being grown without petro-chemical inputs.

Cubans have managed to feed themselves in ways that are healthy for the earth and for their bodies.

Critics have suggested that Cuba’s agricultural program is not an applicable model for the United States for political, geographic and demographic reasons. Cuba is a single-party communist state with tight government controls. Farmers do not have to compete with big, ruthless agribusiness as they do in the United States. Furthermore, Cuba is an island nation with a population of 11.5 million, as compared to 300 million Americans. And, like almost anywhere else, there is still a degree of hunger and poverty in Cuba.

Urban agriculture in Cuba did not, however, begin as a national government initiative, but rather as a grassroots movement of communities and individuals responding to the pressing lack of food availability. While government support certainly smoothed the path for development and expansion of a localized, organic food system, it did not initiate it. Likewise, solutions to an oncoming food crisis are unlikely to be top down. As petroleum-based farming and transportation become unfeasible, people in the United States and elsewhere will be forced to look locally for answers to shortages and hunger.

Oberlin’s focus on local and sustainable sources, manifested in co-op produce fridges, town restaurants and some dining hall offerings, will put us in a unique position if and when food shortages begin. The knowledge of sustainable living that many college students and community members possess will prove invaluable in developing local sustenance strategies. There is much work to be done democratizing access to locally grown, healthy food — especially during long Ohio winters — but we are a step ahead of most of the United States. The government will never look to Cuba when preparing to deal with a national crisis, but we can look to the Cuban people for the tactics and resolve to build a truly inclusive network of sustainable food communities.

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