Cuba: feast to famine to future food system


Burlington College course visit to Funez agroecology “polyculture” farm

Over a decade ago I visited Cuba to learn more about their "second revolution".

The first revolution was political. The second one was a response to economic pressures, forced on Cuba by the US trade embargo and then the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. This economic crisis profoundly affected Cuban’s basic needs, especially food. During the early 1990s imports of food from eastern Europe as well as agricultural machinery, fertilizers, pesticides and other needed inputs for Cuba’s industrialized agricultural system stopped abruptly. Cuban agriculture had to change or the people would starve. And change needed to happen fast.

Cuba acted; adopting decentralized farming policies that encouraged individual and cooperative food production. Soviet-model state-run farms were replaced with thousands of new small urban and suburban community gardens (organoponicos), market gardens (parcelas) and patio gardens.  Access to small-scale farming was increased as millions of acres of unused government lands were made available under long term lease to farm workers.

These land use and production changes helped to stabilize Cuban diets even as the average Cuban lost about 20 pounds during this “special period”.  And Cuba’s food system achieved this new balance without chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, tractor fuel, and other petroleum inputs because there were none available. Cuba was forced to provide food production inputs from compost, bio-pesticides, animal power and other “old ways” made better.  Economic realities forced Cuba to become a world leader in sustainable agriculture and “agroecology”.

Agroecology uses nature’s complex systems to fertilize without chemical inputs using compost, earthworm  “tea”, cover crops and nitrogen-fixing beans. Flowers are used to attract beneficial insects and predator wasps are released to manage pests instead of chemical pesticides.  Weeds are mechanically cultivated and crowded out with more intensive planting instead of using herbicides. The result is a sophisticated “polyculture”, producing many crops simultaneously.

Agroecology has helped Cuba to become almost 100% self-sufficient in producing fruits, vegetables and eggs for its 11 million citizens and a world leader in sustainable farming and gardening.  In 35 years Cuba has reduced its dependency on food imports from about 75% to 40%.  But Cuba still needs to import increasing amount of meat, grains, dairy products and vegetable oils so their food system remains part of the global economy.


In March 2015 I returned to Cuba and co-led a Burlington College course about Sustainable Food Systems.  Vermont has led the local, organic food system transition in the US with shorter market supply chains, management intensive and environmentally sound production techniques that close nutrient and economic loops, and entrepreneurial-based value added products with new models of distributed ownership and finance. We are doing this as a choice.  Cuba did it to survive.  With the course we wanted to explore a “third path” food system, between industrial monocultures and small-scale agroecology.

Just before the March President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro agreed to establish diplomatic relations.  It is expected this will lead to lifting the US embargo on trade with Cuba. While Cuba is a global model of progress toward truly sustainable food system capable of addressing hunger and re-localizing for supply while promoting environmental stewardship, during our visit we saw that the forces of industrial agriculture are ready to ‘pounce’ once the embargo is lifted.  Will the Cuban food system be allowed to thrive, building on the best of sustainable farming practices developed over almost 3 decades even as industrial agriculture products and practices return to Cuba?


I am working with Chuck Ross, Vermont Secretary of Vermont Agriculture, Food and Markets to develop educational and ‘best practices’ exchanges between Cuba and Vermont farming and food system experts. The world needs models of successful “third path” food systems.

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