Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Food sovereignty: a long-term aim

More than 100,000 farms have now been distributed, covering more than 1 million hectares in total. Photo: Alice Mutasa
By Wendy Emmett and Lorraine Tillett

The recent devastation of agricultural areas in eastern Cuba by Hurricane Sandy is a tragically large but, hopefully, temporary setback to the slow progress towards food sovereignty in the country. Fortunately, over the past few decades, even despite the blockade and other natural disasters such as hurricanes, Cuba has been decreasing the amount of food imported into the country despite the image often portrayed of a country entirely and eternally dependent on others for sustenance. Since the 1990’s this progress has been of a noticeably different order as the Cuban government has officially recognised the significance of food sovereignty.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent disappearance of both the market for Cuba’s agricultural exports (sugar, tobacco and citrus), and the source of its food and agricultural imports, the situation was so bad that, for a time at the start of the ‘90’s (the ‘Special Period’), Cuba posted the worst growth in per capita food production in all of Latin America and the Caribbean.

 By contrast, and absolutely because of the socialist basis on which the country is organised, Cuba has rebounded over the following years to show the best performance in food production in the region: an annual growth rate of 4.2 % per capita from 1996 to 2005, where the regional average was 0 %.

As ever, detractors have tried to deny the progress Cuba is making in this area. One in particular, Denis Avery, (a climate-change denier working for the Hudson Institute, a conservative US think tank that runs the Centre for Global Food Issues, promoting  pesticides and biotechnology) has spread the myth of Cuba’s total dependency on imported food and continually detracts from the advances being made in the eco-agronomy movement in Cuba. In an article entitled “Cubans Starve on Diet of Lies,” written in 2007 he stated:
The Cubans told the world they had heroically learned to feed themselves without fuel or farm chemicals after their Soviet subsidies collapsed in the early 1990s. … Now, a senior Ministry of Agriculture official has admitted in the Cuban press that 84 percent of Cuba’s current food consumption is imported... The organic success was all a lie.
Avery has used such distortions to promote a campaign discrediting both academics and practitioners of Cuban eco-agronomy. The figure of 84% came from a statement from the Ministry of Economy and Planning in 2007 but referred only to basic food distributed via the ration card. The picture elsewhere is very different. In fact, in his ‘The Issue of Food Security in Cuba’ report for the University of Florida, José Alvarez states that, between 1980 and 1997, despite many setbacks, food imports fell from 71% to 42% overall.

According to statistics from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations from 2003, while there were still high levels of imports in such foodstuffs as oils and cereals and nearly 50% of meat was brought in, there was negligible or no importation of  fish, starchy roots (a staple of the Cuban diet), other vegetables, fruit, eggs, and sugar. In fact, overall, there was a net importation of less than 20%.

Dependency rose again later in the 2000’s: after being hit by three especially destructive hurricanes. In 2008, Cuba satisfied national needs by importing 55% of its total food, (ironically much of this from the US which has permitted limited food exports to Cuba since 2000). However, as the world food price crisis drives prices higher, the Government has re-emphasised food self-sufficiency. Regardless of whether food has been imported or produced within the country, it is important to recognise that, since the Revolution, Cuba has been generally able to adequately feed its people, despite the blockade and external factors such as the fall of the USSR. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Cuba’s average daily per capita dietary energy supply in 2007 (the last year available) was over 3,200 kcal, much improved over the lows of the Special Period and now the highest of all Latin American and Caribbean nations.

How the changes have been achieved

Since the Revolution, as in most countries in the latter half of the 20th century, there has been a huge rural to urban migration. In Cuba much of the reason for this lay in the high levels of education achieved by its excellent and accessible education system which initially drew people away from the rural lifestyle. The Cuban government, recognising the need to move away from dependence on imports for their food and specifically following the USSR withdrawal, began in the mid-1990s to give over some farms to people with the proviso that they cultivated the land. More than 100,000 farms have now been distributed, covering more than 1 million hectares in total. Most of these new farmers are members of Credit and Service Cooperatives. The government is currently trying to accelerate the processing of an unprecedented number of land requests

The most important developments, following these moves were in this cooperative sector, which in 2006, while controlling only 25% of the agricultural land, produced over 65% of the country’s food. Production of vegetables fell drastically between 1988 and 1994, but by 2007 had rebounded to well over 1988 levels. This production increase came despite using 72% fewer agricultural chemicals in 2007 than in 1988. Similar patterns can be seen for other crops like beans, roots, and tubers, all Cuban staples.

Changes in crop production and agrochemical use
% production change
%change in agrochemical use

1988 to 1994
1988 to 2007
1988 to 2007
General vegetables
Roots and tubers

Source: Peter Rosset, Braulio Machín-Sosa, Adilén M. Roque-Jaime, and Dana R. Avila-Lozano, “The Campesino-to-Campesino Agroecology Movement of ANAP in Cuba,” Journal of Peasant Studies 38 (2011): 161-91.

Thanks to the considerable input from highly-trained technicians with a scientific background working closely with the farmers themselves, the process of refining methods and practice in the field has been very successful and has brought extra benefits such as breeds and practices with resilience to climate change. All of this is closely followed by Cuba’s Alba neighbours, many of whom have benefitted from visits by Cuban technicians who have initiated some of the best practice procedures in countries such as Venezuela and El Salvador.

Hurricane Sandy

Sandy was the most devastating hurricane in the eastern part of Cuba for a century. A total of 2,695 hectares of banana and plantains were destroyed in Santiago de Cuba, also a significant number of hectares of coffee, potato, yucca, rice and other basic products of Cuban diet were seriously damaged by the floods and strong winds. Significant damage to industrial crops like sugar cane, plantain and others will affect the economy and employment in the short term. Substantial losses were registered also in individual farms and small plots of permaculture production suffered innumerable damage; these will impact on the food security in this region. In Holguin, 85% of plantain production was lost. As well as damage to crops, food and coffee processing units were damaged and the strong winds caused soil erosion.

Food and practical help were received from other parts of Cuba immediately and international solidarity began within days. Venezuela sent over 300 tons of non-perishable food, water, equipment and machinery. Bolivia sent two shipments of water and food totalling 120 tons of aid, noting the solidarity Cuba had shown in helping to eliminate illiteracy and train Bolivian doctors.

Of course a major obstacle to hurricane recovery is the 50-year old US economic blockade which has cost Cuba up to $1.07 trillion. However, despite the blockade, the hurricanes and other effects of climate change, Cuba is gradually making significant advances in self-sufficiency. Detractors of the gains of the Cuban revolution will always present false information and a negative view of what has been and continues to be achieved. La victoria in food sovereignty may not be just around the corner, but it is on its way.

This article draws heavily on a Monthly Review article by Fernando Funes-Monzote and Miguel A. Altieri to be found here

Fernando, who researches at  the Experimental Station Indio Hatuey, University of Matanzas, Cuba, visited the UK in 2010 and spoke at several CSC meetings on the topic of eco-agronomy.

This is a corrected version of the article that appeared in CubaSi magazine. 

No comments:

Post a Comment