January 21, 2011
CLF’s Sr. Research Program Coordinators Jesse Kurtz-Nicholl and Sarah Rodman are visiting Cuba as part of a Natural Environmental Ecological Management delegation. Members of the group will see first hand large-scale Cuban infrastructure developed to support its 18-year-old, world-renowned sustainable agricultural system in both the rural and urban sectors.
One highly anticipated activity on our trip to Cuba was a trip to the 19 and B farmers’ market in Habana. We had read that the farmers’ markets were a great example of the “opening” of the Cuban economic system, a true market of supply and demand where the economic incentives of profit drive increased efficiencies and productivity of the newly privatized agricultural cooperatives in Cuba. The large state farms of the last 50 years were decentralized during the 1990’s and 2000’s and now, while many farms still have production quotas that they must fulfill for the state, any surplus production can be sold in these farmers’ markets. For the last country in the world with a ration card, “la libreta,” these markets may offer a glimpse into the future of how food will be distributed in Cuba.
We met the manager of the market, Miguel Angel, who explained how his market worked. Whereas, at a local farmers’ market in the United States, a consumer is often meeting the farmer themselves at the market who can explain their growing techniques and establish that important relationship that attracts so many to the experience; in the Cuban market, the sellers are in fact middle-men who purchase produce directly from the farmers a few times a week in large quantities and then sell to the consumer everyday.
In this market, the sellers set a contract price with the market before the opening every single day. The price is not controlled by the state or the market, the individual sellers set the price. Obviously, there is some sort of profit margin set into place between the purchase from the farmers and the selling to the consumers. In addition, the sellers pay a 10% tax on their total sales at the end of the day. The market accepts produce from all kinds of farms imaginable, from urban organiponicos to various cooperatives to individual private farmers from the countryside. Anyone can bring produce to market and there seems to be no fee for acquiring space at the market.I did speak with various sellers and anecdotally received some interesting bits of information. I asked different farmers why they were selling tomatoes and other products for higher prices than other farmers. They responded “calidad” or quality. I pushed further, asking what was this added quality. Was it because it was organic? The answer was often about “durability” of the product, “freshness” and general “betterness,” but nothing related to how the food was grown. In fact, I asked if any consumers
at the market inquired about the organic nature of some of the produce and they responded no, even though they said their products were organic without chemicals. It is probably not surprising in a developing country like Cuba that other factors affecting purchasing decisions like price, taste and quality outweigh thoughts about the organic nature of production.
Even though we have heard that the Cuban government does have a strong propaganda campaign espousing the benefits of the organic vegetables grown throughout Cuba–and anecdotal discussions with various Cubans demonstrate high knowledge that vegetables are grown without chemicals–other discussions have given the impression that Cubans don’t really explore potential inconsistencies that organic growers are not held to a collective standard of organic growing techniques. This is demonstrated by the fact that the 19 and B market has both conventional produce that has been exposed to chemicals and organic produce that has not, without any obvious way to distinguish between the two.
Presently, Cuba is working on the establishment of an organic labeling system that is verified by a third party (Germany) for exports into European markets. This would systematize their organic producers who may at this point engage in both organic and non-organic growing methods depending on the economic incentives of the moment.