Franka Schmidt is nutritionist and food economist. She is also a creator of the blog called ‘The Truth About Food’ with latest news and background information on healthy food and sustainable farming. Currently she is also initiating ‘Veggie Travel Guide’, a travel blog with focus on the vegetarian and vegan cuisine of various travel destinations.
If you had to guess, which country in the world has the most sustainable farming practices, what would you choose? Would you pick the same country also to be a global example on how to adapt to a significantly reduced availability of oil?
The answer to these questions might surprise you – it’s Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean and a country that is still a communist state. What follows is the review of why and how the agriculture and living in Cuba are close to meeting a lot of sustainability criteria, from which a lot of farming activities in many industrialised nations are still very far away.
The fact that the current developments in Cuba conform to various sustainability aspects is, of course, related to the country’s historical background. Until three decades ago, the island had close political connections to the Soviet Union and associated states, while not trading with geographically much closer Western countries, for example, the United States, amongst others. Accordingly, Eastern Bloc countries supplied Cuba with all kinds of production and consumption goods, including machines and other external agricultural input such as fertilizers. In turn, when that political system collapsed in the early 1990’s, Cuba did not receive this help anymore. As a result, Cuban agriculture was about to collapse, too.
What were the reasons for this extreme situation? During the decades of intensive farming and Soviet support, Cubans mostly produced goods like sugar cane that was exported to its partner states. Evidently, such agriculture highly depended on oil and other goods manufactured from it, and did not provide the local population sufficiently with basic food stuffs. For many years, this had not been a problem since the necessary cereals and vegetables were imported to Cuba from its trading partners. However, the moment these partners disappeared, there was a significant lack of food to subsist from one day to the next. The island’s population needed to find ways to adapt and keep their farming activities and domestic food production going on.
Cubans thus have started to rely on the methods to cultivate their crops that used only the means available on the island. For that reason, they started to re-apply traditional farming techniques, which had almost disappeared due to the intensive use of external inputs. Because of Cuba’s geographic and economic isolation, it had become necessary again to take advantage of close operating and nutrient cycles. Not surprisingly, agriculture in Cuba was adapting to techniques that are typical in organic farming, too. Amongst others, a diverse crop rotation and the natural preservation of soil fertility have played an important role. Moreover, urban farming has gained importance due to the need to continuously supply the inhabitants of Havana and other cities in Cuba with fresh fruits and vegetables. Nowadays, practically the whole agriculture in Cuba can be considered organic, even though certification mechanism known in Europe and Northern America does not exist there.
Moreover, today Cuba is not just a country with widespread sustainable farming practices. The island has become a global example on how to deal with scarce resources and how to manage a crisis caused by the limited supply of oil. It’s widely accepted that the world’s oil reserves are not going to last forever. Yet we are still consuming oil in extraordinarily amounts because our lifestyles depend on goods made from the ‘black gold’. The theory of ‘Peak Oil’ says that global oil production will reach its peak, and after passing this point prices will rise significantly since production becomes more complex and costly going into the future. There is evidence that the world is already at Peak Oil, but we do not have a functional plan yet how to continue with less oil available for consumption.The Power of Community: How Cuba survived Peak Oil (duration 53:06)
The award-winning documentary ‘The Power of Community: How Cuba survived Peak Oil’ (by Faith Morgan, 2006, watch above) gives us a great insight in the happenings related to Peak Oil and sustainable agriculture in Cuba, and underlines the island’s claim to have a leading and exemplary position in sustainable development. Among other things, it says that Cubans have understood that they need to act as a community if they want to be able to produce enough food to cover the population’s needs. As they had to go through difficult times, people know that it’s for everyone’s benefit to use the island’s services and resources in a responsible way.
Resources and related articles
- City Farmer News: Cuba (cityfarmer.info)
- Cuba’s organic revolution by Hugh Warwick (forum.ra.utk.edu)
- Cuban agriculture as a strategy for food sovereignty (monthlyreview.org)