By Peter Ruddock, Slow Food California President
You will often hear that Cuba has the most sustainable food system in the world. After the Soviet Union dissolved, Cuba lost its main trading partner, from whom it got most of its agricultural equipment and much of its food. Food became scarce during the early 90s, a time that became known as the Special Period. The government, and people, of Cuba, however, buckled down and learned to grow their own food, using only the resources that they had, and their own ingenuity. Urban gardens flourished. Food became organic. After a period of hardship, a period of learning through trial and error, Cuba came out the other side with a model food system, which is the envy of the world.
There is a lot of truth to the story of Cuba re-learning to feed itself. As with most stories, however, there is a bit of exaggeration and wishful thinking. Cuba did learn to grow its own food again and most of that food is organic, if not certified in the way that organic food is certified in much of the world. However, there are a number of asterisks to that story. It’s not quite as rosy as it is often told.
In 2019, Slow Food California sponsored a tour to Cuba. In March, a group of Slow Food members flew to Havana for a trip inspired by the Food Sovereignty Tours operated by Food First for much of the preceding decade. That is, they went to study the food system of the country, while meeting people, eating very well and having lots of fun. They got to learn about those asterisks in Cuba’s story and appreciate the hard work behind what really happened – and the fragility of what exists today.
The most significant asterisk has to do with the food being organic. Perhaps two thirds of the food that is grown in Cuba is organic. One third of it never was. Farm equipment and big farms did not entirely disappear. Export crops, like sugar, got the equipment and chemicals needed to operate in the commodity world. Sugar remains one of Cuba’s main exports. Staple crops, like onions and potatoes are also not organic. And the farmers who grow these crops don’t necessarily want them to be organic. Like people elsewhere, they are often happy doing things the way they are. Why change?
Another third of the food is organic and will likely stay that way. Some of the people who turned to farming, especially those who created urban farms, are true converts. No matter what becomes available in the future, they are not likely to change their behaviors.
The final third of Cuban-grown food is also organic, but it may not remain so. These people are not so much organic proponents as organic farmers by default. Cuba is changing fast as it has been opening up to the world. Equipment and chemicals are becoming more available and as the people who grow this food gain access to them, many are tempted to switch to conventional methods. The future of Cuban food will revolve around these farmers, those who can be swayed. In fact, American agrichemical companies have been pushing to end the US embargo of Cuba significantly so that they can sell to these farmers.
Not surprisingly, our tour visited mostly the true converts, from whom there was a lot to learn. Not only are these farms often exemplars of the methods that Slow Food cherishes, but they operate under structures that give them resilience. Some our community owned; others, like Vivero Alamar, a 27-acre urban farm in the suburbs of Havana, are worker-owned cooperatives; many use permaculture methods; and others are family farms.
Our trip wasn’t all about farms. We ate in a variety of places, including Cuba’s famous paladares, restaurants set up in private houses. While California struggles to implement AB 626, the Homemade Food Operations Act, having licensed just over 20 home cooks, all in Riverside County, Cuba marked 25 years of residents operating home restaurants. California regulators fear a future of food poisoning, which is the main reason for our slow going. We heard that Cuba has had a few such issues over the years, but that on balance, the experiment has been a success, incubating small businesses while providing a variety of good, safe food to people. In fact, the law has been expanded and liberalized to a point way beyond California’s current imagination.
We had the opportunity to meet members of Slow Food Cuba, rekindling friendships started in previous years when those folks came to the EcoFarm Conference and to Slow Food Nations. We visited local farmers markets, but we were too early for the new Earth Market that Slow Food folks in Havana started after we returned home.
It wasn’t all food, of course. Old Havana was getting a renovation for its 500th anniversary, which took place this summer. It’s a beautiful old town. We visited some museums and some historical sights. And we met many wonderful people who generously shared their time, wit and wisdom with us. We came home glowing.
If you missed out on the trip, don’t fret. Slow Food California is sponsoring a return visit in 2020 and you can go! At the end of March we’ll convene in Havana for 11 days. We’ll visit many of the same places – Cuba is changing so fast, that it will be good to compare them a year on. We’ll also visit some new places, including Slow Food’s new Earth Market. We’ll strengthen friendships, eat very well, and undoubtedly come home glowing, the ties between California and Cuba having been made stronger than ever.
To sign up, visit: https://altruvistas.com/cubas-organic-revolution-slow-food-march-2020/