Sustainable Farming & Food Sovereignty in Cuba

Madaly Alcala | 02.28.2018

This post was originally published on Staff Viewpoints at Fresh Approach.

This past fall, I had the honor of traveling to Cuba on Food First’s Food Sovereignty Tour.

These tours explore Cuba’s agrarian and political history, focusing on the emergence of a new, state-supported model of sustainable agriculture since the 1990s. The non-profit Food First is a “people’s think tank” dedicated to ending the injustices that cause hunger and helping communities to take back control of their food systems. Their work both informs and amplifies the voices of social movements fighting for food justice and food sovereignty.

I was interested in participating on the Food First tour because of my passion for sustainable practices of agriculture, such as agroecology, and the role these practices have in the environmental and food justice movements. My goal for the trip was to build solidarity with Cuban campesinos and community leaders, and gain understanding on how I could be a supportive ally in the food sovereignty movement in Cuba.

I was one of 15 people in the tour group. Our group was mostly made up of people from around the US, and one person from Denmark. We all had some sort of connection to the food movement, whether it be food security legislation, farmer education, intentional living cooperatives, or “gangster gardening”. With a variety of food focused work, our conversations on food sovereignty were ripe and fruitful.

In 1958, the Cuban revolutionaries saw a victory; this led to an alliance with the USSR, while the US created a blockade. From 1958 – 1989, Cuba heavily depended on the USSR to import food, machinery, oil, and other goods. When the USSR collapsed, the Cuban economy fell. The Cuban people were the ones impacted the most. The 90’s came to be known as the “Special Period”, a period of unmanageable hunger and chaos for the Cuban people. With 85% of the food imports gone, hunger grew. With no parts or oil for agricultural machines, the only other alternative for the Cuban people to get fed were diversified organic farming practices.

Almost three decades after the start of the Special Period, farmers and consumers alike have learned to appreciate sustainable farming practices. They value the holistic effect of such farming practices that provides people with organic produce, and leaves the environment resilient to climate change and natural disasters. Today, 80% of Cuba’s farms have organic practices. The truth is that the farmers have no access to machines or agri-chemicals because of such high expenses, which are exacerbated by the US blockade. Even if farmers wanted to explore green revolution practices, they couldn’t due to lack of resources and finances.

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I think Cuba is a great example of how organic farming could supersede conventional agriculture. It did come out of necessity with no other alternatives, but what must the US experience to acknowledge that organic/sustainable farming practices benefit the environment and the people that live in it? There are many organic farmers in the US, but they experience a higher cost of production than conventional farms because of the lack of federal subsidy for organic practices. The small California farmers from which I purchase for Fresh Approach’s mobile farmers market, all have sustainable practices. It is difficult for some of them to gain an organic certification due to lack of funds and the time it takes to get certified. It would be in their benefit to have a government supportive of organic and sustainable farming, just like that of Cuba.

As part of Cuba’s agrarian reform, all land became government property. Any Cuban can have access to farm land via usufruct if they show an interest in farming. If they are successful, they are able to appeal for more land over time. Many Cuban agricultural cooperatives are built on the premise of gaining land from the government and producing what the immediate community needs, as well as what will get sold back to the government. In the US, I believe this usufruct strategy would benefit people interested in urban and rural farming. There are so many vacant plots in the Bay Area and in the US where food can be grown!

The Cuban government provides its people with food rations, which include diet staples like rice, bread, milk, eggs, salt, and oil. Rarely do the rations provide fruits and vegetables. This means that Cubans have to purchase fruits and vegetables from farmers markets, a local urban farm if available, or at stores for tourists, which use a different currency (and which sell goods at a higher price).

From my observation, the Cuban diet consists of lots of pork, rice, and beans; all things accessible in the ration. I was told many times, “THIS is what Cubans eat, we don’t really eat vegetables.” Some may continue this diet even after being diagnosed with high blood pressure or cholesterol. And this is simply due to the fact that fruits and vegetables are not commonplace in the Cuban diet. When I asked how healthy food access is being advocated for in communities, I was told by the Ministry of Agriculture that health and nutrition education is taught in schools. The nutrition knowledge exists, but it is hard to implement. This lack of healthy food access and nutrition education is comparable to the experience of low-income families in the US, the very communities Fresh Approach aims to serve.

The issues surrounding food access, security, and sovereignty in Cuba and the Bay Area are different in geography, but are similar institutionally and systematically. The most marginalized communities in both places are the ones most affected. Fresh Approach’s work focuses on increasing Bay Area community health and wellness through nutrition education. This further empowers individuals to make healthy food choices for themselves and their families. The mobile farmers’ market makes healthy food access possible in “food desert” communities. The mobile market successfully provides Bay Area communities with 100% local produce. Providing these services at the community level is much more impactful than expecting a bigger institution to do so successfully. Building these bonds at the community level is what’s necessary to help make the knowledge into a lifestyle change with infinite benefits!

My trip to Cuba widened my understanding of Cuba and its food system. It grounded me in the idea that the issues we face in the Bay Area are not unique, and that people all over the world face food injustice in its many forms. It reminded me why I do the work I do. It lit a fire, forever imprinting that people matter; that we must always keep fighting to help people attain the basic necessities for survival. Once we attain these things, we will know peace.