Food Systems After Peak Oil: A Look at Cuba

Organopónicos provide much of the food in Cuba

Peak oil is fast approaching, a reality that is widely recognized by many scientific communities and governmental bodies. Many estimate that oil will peak by 2030, if it has not already. When this occurs, oil supplies will begin to decline, making it harder and more expensive to extract every drop. Our food system as it stands today is not prepared to gracefully withstand that decline.

As Roni Neff and colleagues illustrate in their article “Peak Oil, Food Systems, and Public Health,” recently published in the American Journal of Public Health as part of a supplement addressing peak petroleum, our globalized industrial food system relies heavily on oil at every step. Pesticides and herbicides are petroleum products. Farm machinery is manufactured with and runs on petroleum as an energy source. And transporting food extraordinary distances is only possible because of the oil that powers planes, ships and trucks. A large shock in oil prices would have an enormous impact on the current food system. Read More >

Shovel Ready: Cuban Urban Agriculture as Job Creator

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.

I’ve just returned from eight days in Cuba studying their sustainable agricultural system — especially their urban agriculture sector — and I have several key take-aways.

cubagraphicOne of the biggest insights was the untapped potential of urban agriculture as a creator of good jobs. The Cuban system was reported to have provided over 300,000 employment opportunities and significant community development. (Koont, S. 2009) In a country of 12 million people, that means 2.5% of the Cuban population is employed in urban agriculture and its related industries.

Now, for many reasons, you cannot and should not compare Cuba to the United States with regard to agriculture. The two nations have different economic and political systems, cultures, climate and much more, but that does not mean that Cuban urban agriculture cannot provide lessons to us here in the U.S. I have long been interested in urban agriculture – not only as a way to provide healthy, local produce, but as a community development and youth development tool and, yes, a job creator. This is the mindset I had when I met Miguel Salcines and his Vivero

Kids playing at Vivero Organiponico

Kids playing at Vivero Organiponico

Organiponico.

Vivero Organiponico is a 10-hectare (24-acre) urban farm within Alamar, a neighborhood of Havana. It is surrounded by apartments, houses, parks and the normal activities of a Havana neighborhood. The farm produces 12 to 15 crops for market, from eggplant to tomatoes, to lettuce, cabbage and onions. It sends produce to market 365 days a year. The farm grows intensively, turning over beds at a blistering rate, sometimes getting eleven cycles of greens out of a bed in a single year. It uses no chemical pesticides and no artificial fertilizers, but can draw fertility from its cattle and its large vermicomposting and mycorrhizae systems.

This organiponico is called a UBPC (basic unit of cooperative production) which is a sector of Cuban agriculture where farms are run on a cooperative basis, managed independently by individuals not employed by the Cuban government. The farms’ managers pay salaries and taxes, make profits and set prices. While in certain situations UBPC’s have levels of production that they must meet for the state (often sold to the state below the cost of production), even in those situations they can sell much of their surplus produce into local farmers markets and keep the profit for their cooperatives. Read More >

Cuban Pesos: A Farmer’s Market Experience

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.

cubagraphicWe 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.

fm-cuba1In 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. Read More >

Greetings from Cuba!

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.

This is the first of a few blog posts from the island of Cuba, where we are lucky enough to be studying the world recognized, sustainable model of Cuban agriculture.  Before I begin reporting on some of what we have been exposed to so far, I think readers should have a short background on how the sustainable agriculture system developed in Cuba.

cubagraphicWith the collapse of the communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the Soviet Union in 1990, Cuba lost 80 percent of its export and import market practically overnight. Cuba had a heavily industrialized, export-oriented agriculture system, dependent on petroleum inputs related to fertilizer, pesticides and fuel.  During the three decades from the Cuban revolution in 1959 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, Cuba averaged 1.3 million tons of chemical fertilizers, $80 million dollars worth of pesticides and 600,000 tons of feed concentrates.

Cuba exported large quantities of sugar to the Soviet Union based on very favorable trading terms, allowing Cuba not only to receive enough oil for its domestic purposes, but as a revenue stream selling surplus oil on the open market.  Even though Cuba was very productive as an agricultural system, it was heavily dependent on food imports, which accounted for 57 percent of the calories of the Cuban people before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The period after the collapse of the Soviet Union, from the 1990’s to the mid 2000’s was interestingly called the “special period in peace time” when caloric availability in the country dropped significantly, along with the weights and the health of the Cuban people.

With no subsidies from the Soviet Union, and a serious lack of resources in the form of oil, fertilizers and pesticides, Cuba began developing a low-input, high yield, semi-organic agriculture system that has taken root throughout the country, with impressive production coming from urban centers.  Reports show over 50 percent of Havana’s fruits and vegetables, for example, are grown within Havana city limits. Urban farmers in Cuba alone provide nearly enough produce to meet the 300 grams of vegetables daily

Apartments overlooking an organiponico

Apartments overlooking an organiponico

that are recommended by the UN FAO. Cuba’s agriculture system is a source of pride with much information being disseminated from the Cuban government about the harmfulness of chemicals in agriculture and the healthfulness of Cuban food.   In addition to healthy foods, the system has provided over 300,000 new employment opportunities and significant community development. Read More >