Saturday, May 21, 2005

"The Cuban Diet"

From Bill Totten's weblog, a fascinating essay about Cuban agriculture since the "Special Period," "the point in Cuban history where everything came undone. With the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba fell off a cliff of its own." The essay is very long - I've excerpted it somewhat - but I urge you to go back to his blog and read the whole thing.
Castro spent three decades growing sugar and shipping it to Russia and East Germany, both of which paid a price well above the world level, and both of which sent the ships back to Havana filled with wheat, rice, and more tractors. When all that disappeared, literally almost overnight, Cuba had nowhere to turn.

Cuba became an island ... an island outside the international economic system, a moon base whose supply ships had suddenly stopped coming.

Without oil, even public transportation shut down - for many, going to work meant a two-hour bike trip. Television shut off early in the evening to save electricity; movie theaters went dark. People tried to improvise their ways around shortages. "For drinking glasses we'd get beer bottles and cut the necks off with wire", one professor told me. "We didn't have razor blades, till someone in the city came up with a way to resharpen old ones".

So much of what Cubans had eaten had come straight from Eastern Europe, and most of the rest was grown industrial-style on big state farms. All those combines needed fuel and spare parts, and all those big rows of grain and vegetables needed pesticides and fertilizer - none of which were available.

In 1989, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the average Cuban was eating 3,000 calories per day. Four years later that figure had fallen to 1,900 ... The host of one cooking show on the shortened TV schedule urged Cubans to fry up "steaks" made from grapefruit peels covered in bread crumbs.

Now ... Cuba had learned to stop exporting sugar and instead started growing its own food again, growing it on small private farms and thousands of pocket-sized urban market gardens - and, lacking chemicals and fertilizers, much of that food became de facto organic.

[Cubans] have created what may be the world's largest working model of a semi-sustainable agriculture, one that doesn't rely nearly as heavily as the rest of the world does on oil, on chemicals, on shipping vast quantities of food back and forth. They import some of their food from abroad ... But mostly they grow their own, and with less ecological disruption than in most places.

There's always at least the possibility ... that larger sections of the world might be in for "Special Periods" of their own. Climate change, or the end of cheap oil, or the depletion of irrigation water, or the chaos of really widespread terrorism, or some other malign force might begin to make us pay more attention to the absolute bottom-line question of how we get our dinner (a question that only a very few people, for a very short period of time, have ever been able to ignore).

Before the "special period" began, Cuba had a few demonstration hydroponic gardens, quickly abandoned when the crisis hit. The name now means urban garden.
There are thousands of organoponicos in Cuba, more than 200 in the Havana area alone, but the Vivero Organoponico Alamar is especially beautiful: a few acres of vegetables attached to a shady yard packed with potted plants for sale, birds in wicker cages, a cafeteria, and a small market where a steady line of local people come to buy ... for their supper.

Sixty-four people farm this tiny spread. [Their manager said] "This land was slated for a hospital and sports complex ... but when the food crisis came, the government decided this was more important."

Most of his farm is what we would call organic ... [he's] planted basil and marigolds at the row ends to attract beneficial insects, and he rotates sweet potato through the rows every few plantings to cleanse the soil; he's even got neem trees to supply natural pesticides. ... He doesn't use artificial fertilizer, both because it is expensive and because he doesn't need it - indeed, the garden makes money selling its own compost...

For the last six months, he said, the government demanded that the organoponico produce 835,000 pesos' worth of food. They actually produced more than a million pesos' worth. ... Salcines predicted that the profit for the whole year would be 393,000 pesos. Half of that he would reinvest in enlarging the farm; the rest would go into a profit-sharing plan. It's not an immense sum when divided among sixty-four workers - about $150 - but for Cuban workers this is considered a good job indeed.

The Vivero Organoponico Alamar ... [is] incredibly productive - sixty-four people earn a reasonable living on this small site, and the surrounding neighbors get an awful lot of their diet from its carefully tended rows. You see the same kind of production all over the city - every formerly vacant lot in Havana seems to be a small farm. The city grew 300,000 tons of food last year, nearly its entire vegetable supply and more than a token amount of its rice and meat...

... the country redistributed as much as two thirds of state lands to cooperatives and individual farmers and, as with the organoponico in Alamar, let them sell their surplus above a certain quota. ... It's a lot like sharecropping, and it shares certain key features with, say, serfdom, not to mention high feudalism.

Fidel Castro, as even his fiercest opponents would admit, has almost from the day he took power spent lavishly on the country's educational system. Cuba's ratio of teachers to students is akin to Sweden's; people who want to go to college go to college. Which turns out to be important, because farming, especially organic farming, especially when you're not used to doing it, is no simple task ... To a very large extent, the rise of Cuba's semi-organic agriculture is almost as much an invention of science and technology as the high-input tractor farming it replaced, which is another thing that makes this story so odd.

In the town of Nuevo Gerona ... there is a statue of a cow named White Udder, descended from a line of Canadian Holsteins. In the early 1980s she was the most productive cow on the face of the earth, giving 110 liters of milk a day ... Fidel journeyed out to the countryside to lovingly stroke her hide.

She was a paragon of scientific management, with a carefully controlled diet of grain concentrates ... from abroad ("this is too hot to be good grain country", Funes said).

White Udder's descendants simply died in the fields, unable to survive on the tropical grasses that had once sustained the native cattle.

"We lost tens of thousands of animals. And even if they survived, they couldn't produce anything like the same kind of milk once there was no more grain...", Funes said.
Agricultural scientists crossed the country trying to figure out alternatives and engineer a recovery.
"Our work is really about preparing the fields so plants will be stronger..." It is the reverse, that is, of the Green Revolution that spread across the globe in the 1960s, an industrialization of the food system that relied on irrigation, oil (both for shipping and fertilization), and the massive application of chemicals to counter every problem.

I remember visiting a man in New Hampshire who was raising organic apples for his cider mill. Apples are host to a wide variety of pests and blights ... pesticide companies like Monsanto fund huge amounts of the research that goes on at the land-grant universities. But no one could tell my poor orchardist anything about how to organically control the pests on his apples, even though there must have been a huge body of such knowledge once upon a time, and he ended up relying on a beautifully illustrated volume published in the 1890s.

In Cuba ... [agriculturalists are] looking at antagonist fungi, lion-ant production for sweet potato weevil control, how to inter-crop tomatoes and sesame to control the tobacco whitefly, how much yield grows when you mix green beans and cassava in the same rows (60 percent), what happens to plantain production when you cut back on the fertilizer and substitute a natural bacterium called A chroococcum (it stays the same), how much you can reduce fertilizer on potatoes if you grow a rotation of jack beans to fix nitrogen (75 percent), and on and on and on.

In fact, since the pressure is always on to reduce the use of expensive techniques, there's a premium on old-fashioned answers. Consider the question of how you plow a field when the tractor that you used to use requires oil you can't afford and spare parts you can't obtain. Cuba - which in the 1980s had more tractors per hectare than California, according to Nilda Perez - suddenly found itself relying on the very oxen it once had scorned as emblems of its peasant past.

There were perhaps 50,000 teams of the animals left in Cuba in 1990, and maybe that many farmers who still knew how to use them. ... Veterinarians were not up on their oxen therapy.

Rios's institute developed a new multi-plow for plowing, harrowing, riding, and tilling, specially designed not "to invert the topsoil layer" and decrease fertility. Harness shops were set up to start producing reins and yokes, and the number of blacksmith shops quintupled. The ministry of agriculture stopped slaughtering oxen for food, and "essentially all the bulls in good physical condition were selected and delivered to cooperative and state farms".

By the millennium there were 400,000 oxen teams plying the country's fields. And one big result ... is a dramatic reduction in soil compaction, as hooves replaced tires.

Most of the farmers and agronomists I interviewed professed conviction that the agricultural changes ran so deep they would never be eroded. Perez, however, did allow that there were a lot of younger oxen drivers who yearned to return to the cockpits of big tractors, and according to news reports some of the country's genetic engineers are trying to clone White Udder herself from leftover tissue.

If Cuba simply opens to the world economy ... it's very hard to see how the sustainable farming would survive for long. We use pesticides and fertilizers because they make for incredibly cheap food. None of that dipping the seedling roots in some bacillus solution, or creeping along the tomato rows looking for aphids, or taking the oxen off to be shoed.

For instance, consider Mexico and corn. Not long ago the journalist Michael Pollan told the story of what happened when NAFTA opened that country's markets to a flood of cheap, heavily subsidized US maize: the price fell by half, and 1.3 million small farmers were put out of business, forced to sell their land to larger, more corporate farms that could hope to compete by mechanizing (and lobbying for subsidies of their own). A study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace enumerated the environmental costs: fertilizer runoff suffocating the Sea of Cortez, water shortages getting worse as large-scale irrigation booms. Genetically modified corn varieties from the United States are contaminating the original strains of the crop, which began in southern Mexico.

You can also ask the question in reverse, though: Does the Cuban experiment mean anything for the rest of the world? An agronomist would call the country's farming "low input", the reverse of the Green Revolution model, with its reliance on irrigation, oil, and chemistry. If we're running out of water in lots of places (the water table beneath China and India's grain-growing plains is reportedly dropping by meters every year), and if the oil and natural gas used to make fertilizer and run our megafarms are changing the climate (or running out), and if the pesticides are poisoning farmers and killing other organisms, and if everything at the Stop & Shop has traveled across a continent to get there and tastes pretty much like crap, might there be some real future for low-input farming for the rest of us? Or are its yields simply too low? Would we all starve without the supermarket and the corporate farm?

Farmers in northeast Thailand, for instance, suffered when their rice markets disappeared in the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s. "They'd borrowed money to invest in 'modern agriculture', but they couldn't get the price they needed. A movement emerged, farmers saying, 'Maybe we should just concentrate on local markets, and not grow for Bangkok, [or] for other countries'. They've started using a wide range of sustainability approaches-polyculture, tree crops and agroforestry, fish ponds. One hundred and fifty thousand farmers have made the shift in the last three years."

Almost certainly, he said, such schemes are as productive as the monocultures they replaced. "Rice production goes down, but the production of all sorts of other things, like leafy vegetables, goes up". And simply cutting way down on the costs of pesticides turns many bankrupt peasants solvent.

And what about the heartlands of industrial agriculture, the US plains, for instance? "So much depends on how you measure efficiency", Pretty said. "You don't get something for nothing". Cheap fertilizer and pesticide displace more expensive labor and knowledge - that's why 219 American farms have gone under every day for the last fifty years and yet we're producing ever more grain and a loaf of bread might as well be free.

On the other hand, there are those bereft Midwest counties. And the plumes of pesticide poison spreading through groundwater. And the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico into which the tide of nitrogen washes each planting season. And the cloud of carbon dioxide that puffs out from the top of the fertilizer factories. If you took those things seriously, you might decide that having one percent of your population farming was not such a wondrous feat after all.

Many environmentalists and development activists around the planet have grown to despair about everything the Green Revolution stands for [and] propose a lowercase greener counterrevolution: endlessly diverse, employing the insights of ecology instead of the brute force of chemistry, designed to feed people but also keep them on the land.

in a world where we're eager for the lowest possible price, it's extremely difficult to do anything unconventional on a scale large enough to matter.

Is it also possible, though, that there's something inherently destructive about a globalized free-market society - that the eternal race for efficiency, when raised to a planetary scale, damages the environment, and perhaps the community, and perhaps even the taste of a carrot? Is it possible that markets, at least for food, may work better when they're smaller and more isolated?

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At 12:29 AM, Blogger Kimberly said...

What a fascinating essay! I haven't read the whole thing at Bill's blog yet, but I will.

These natural crop management techniques are the same sort that my grandmother learned growing up during the Depression, which she continued to use in the vegetable garden that she had when I was a child.

Thanks for sharing this.

At 9:31 PM, Anonymous Pearl said...

Wonderful research and scope. I learned a lot. I was totally unaware of NAFTA's effect in this way.


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