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Reporter Anna Glayzer visits Cuba....

Since the 2006 film directed by Faith Morgan, “The Power of Community: How Cuba survived peak oil,” Cuba has been heralded as an example of how to respond to a sudden and severe shortage of resources. Aficionados of permaculture and urban agriculture look to Cuba as a source of ideas to replicate when the oil runs out for good.

The break-up of the USSR in the early 90s signalled the beginning of a time in Cuban history that is referred to as the ‘special period’. Cuban agriculture was highly industrialised and had relied heavily on USSR oil for farm machinery, fertilisers and pesticides. Cuba lost more than 50 percent of its oil imports, much of its food and 85 percent of its trade economy when the USSR collapsed. Transportation systems ground to a halt and people went hungry.

The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture (UNFAO) food balance sheets for Cuba illustrate the extent of the crisis. Food balance sheets provide an estimate of a country’s total food imports, exports, food production and daily calorie availability per head of population. Between 1989 and 1993, Cuba’s total daily calorie availability plummeted from 3,012 to 2,325. In comparison, the UK’s calorie availability in 1993 was 3,216. In 2007 (the latest available data from UNFAO) Cuba’s calorie availability was back up to 3,274 and the UK’s was 3,458.

The Cuban response to the crisis included a series of major shifts in the way food was produced. According to Morgan’s film: 50% of Havana’s 2.2 million population is now supplied by urban agriculture, in which 140,000 people are employed. Lack of access to fertilisers and pesticides means that 80% of Cuba’s production is organic. Whereas in the 1980s Cuba used 21,000 tonnes of pesticides, it now uses 1,000 tonnes. Use of oxen has increased in place of petrol fuelled farm vehicles. Large state run farms have given way to smaller co-operatives, with 10,000 acres leased rent free by the state. State regulations have been relaxed and 12-15% of Cuba’s total arable land is now in private hands.

The Vivero Organipónico Alamar is a flagship for the urban agriculture movement, frequently shown to visiting foreign academics, journalists and organic farming specialists. The 11 hectare farm in an outer neighbourhood of Havana is run as a co-operative by a 164 strong team of workers. The farm is highly diversified. The 2 hectares of vegetables produce 200 hundred tonnes of vegetables per hectare. The farm also produces herbs, spices and fruit, as well as organic fertiliser and ornamental plants. The produce is sold from the farm to the local community and to hotels and restaurants across Havana. The co-operative’s management estimates that 32,000 people benefit from the produce in one way or another.

An internet search for Vivero Organipónico Alamar brings up swathes of glowing articles. There is little doubt that it, and other farms like it, represent truly innovative and sustainable alternatives to the intensive, commercial, oil heavy agriculture that dominates much of the world. That said, Cuba still imports a massive 70% of its food. In 2008, Cuba spent $2.2 billion on food imports including $700 million on rice and beans and $250 million on powdered milk.

During my recent visit it was clear that food shopping, and indeed daily life, in Cuba is hard work, made harder by a bafflingly complicated dual currency system. Most markets and certain shops that sell staples like fruit and vegetables deal in ‘national money’. Shops that sell anything considered more luxurious, like cheese or beer or clothes, take the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), also known as ‘tourist money’. About 25 times more valuable than the peso, one CUC is worth roughly the same as the American dollar, and was introduced in 2004 to replace the US dollar as an alternative currency. If you consider that the average Cuban wage is between 15 and 20 CUC a month and a beer costs around 1CUC, you can start to see how Cuba is renowned for its thriving black market economy.

Kath Taylor, a British student living in Havana, told me that shopping was a very lengthy affair: “When I first got here it was really hard. I’d find myself trawling the streets for an hour trying to buy a bottle of water. Shops are very few and far between and you never know what they’ll have in stock and when. Eggs seemed to be virtually non-existent and even buying bread or rice was a challenge. Some shops are only for rations, but it wasn’t entirely clear which ones they were. If I went into the wrong shop I’d be shot a dirty look. I now know where to buy what and how to get black market eggs and if I see somewhere open and selling bread at any time of day or night, I make sure I get some.” Kath’s experience is not exclusive to foreigners. Cubans can be frequently overheard asking eachother what is on sale in the market today, or where did you get that chicken?

That said, Cuban food production continues to increase. Reuters recently reported that Cuban rice production increased by 44.6% from 2008 to 2009, from 207,500 to 300,000 tonnes. Since Raul Castro took over as president from his brother Fidel in 2008 the state has increased what it pays for crops; decentralised agricultural decision making and distribution; and leased 50% of vacant state lands to 100,000 individuals and private and state co-operative farms. Investment continues in agricultural alternatives to fossil fuelled farming. State run Cuban national newspaper Granma International reported in May that the production of bio-pesticides saved the Cuban economy $15 million annually.

Part of the state’s strategy to increase food production also includes the development of genetically modified (GM) crops. Cuban developed GM corn has been planted across an area that totals over 1,000 hectares across 14 provinces. The objective for the corn was to develop a variety that is resistant to the palomilla moth. According to Granma International, the corn has been developed under strict measures of biosecurity and subjected to rigorous eco-toxicologic studies.

I asked a young Cuban academic if he was concerned about the biodiversity implications of planting GM crops. He told me: “No. The main problem with GM crops in other parts of the world is their development and ownership by multi-national companies. In Cuba that won’t be a problem.”

Cuba’s embracing of GM seems less likely to sit as well with environmentalists as its organic production methods. It does not quite fit with the slightly romanticised image of Cuba presented by Morgan’s film. It can perhaps be seen as symptomatic of an intensely pragmatic and very Cuban approach to food production that will certainly be watched with interest by the rest of the world.