Cuba’s sustainable agro-ecological model could save the world

Monday, October 24, 2016

A new report from the United Nations released on October 17 brought another dire warning of the catastrophic consequences of climate change, Common Dreams said that day. The report warned that without putting immediate environmental safeguards into place, more than a hundred million more people could be driven into extreme poverty and hunger by 2030.

A potential alternative to the world might be found in Cuba. In 2006, the World Wildlife Fund named Cuba the only country in the world to achieve “successful sustainable development”, in large part due to its sustainable food production.

In Cuba, external conditions — such as the crippling US blockade in place for more than five decades and the collapse of Cuba’s main trading partner, the USSR, in the early 1990s — have compelled Cuban farmers to adopt an independent model of agriculture to feed the population. Not reliant on expensive, imported chemicals, this model has developed into a world leader in sustainability.

On World Food Day on October 16 Marion Deschamps spoke to Professor Raj Patel, an award-winning writer and advocate for food security and sustainable agriculture, about Cuba’s approach — and the threats it faces. The interview is reprinted from TeleSUR English.

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What do you think will happen to the future of the agro-ecological model in Cuba? Could the normalisation of diplomatic relations with the US prove to serve the US agricultural sector pushing to grab its share of Cuban markets?

I am very worried, just as everyone in Cuba should be. The model that has flourished in Cuba is a model of sustainability, where scientists are directly accountable to farmers, where farmers are not treated as idiots, but partners in the field who experiment and innovate.

The real genius of the Cuban experiment has been the democratisation of expertise, knowledge and power.

And my great worry about the US is that we’ve had a lot of reports, and documents from WikiLeaks, that every member of the administration is pushing for Monsanto and Genetically Modified Organisms. Cuban citizens need to know what’s at stake as the promise of this beautiful example could be extinguished soon, and I think we have to do everything we can to avoid that.

Because of the circumstances — the US blockade and the collapse of the USSR — Cuban farmers had to adapt and produce food without the support of imported pesticides or fertilisers. Has the production been able to guarantee food security for all Cubans?

Cuba would not produce enough to feed the population if the population wanted to eat like Americans. That’s to say the US diet requires so much in terms of water, fuel, etc, because of the high level of meat consumption.

But it’s not a defect in Cuba’s model of agriculture, rather in the US model of consumption — we consume too much meat. If everyone ate meat as much as the US does, we would need seven planets to feed everyone.

It’s the US diet that is unsustainable, rather than the model of agriculture in Cuba being under-productive.

Does Cuba still rely on food imports, like cereals?

They are importing rice, I believe. But they are producing most of their fruits and vegetables.

It’s hard to assess the model fairly, because now with the Venezuelan oil coming (since Hugo Chavez’s election in Venezuela in 1999), there’s a lot more of industrial agriculture happening.

That means a return to old kinds of models, and it’s hard to know how much of the current situation in Cuba to attribute to a sustainable model as opposed to the unsustainable model because there’s a big mix at the moment. It’s not a pure case study.

But what we do know is that this kind of agro-ecology is a lot more sustainable model, and a lot more food per unit of area, than if you are farming in the mid-west in the United States.

In this agro-ecology, you are growing food very intensively, recycling nutrients through the land. You are not just growing a single crop but multiple crops, building soil fertility and managing well water resources, using less fertilisers and pesticides. [The advantages of this are] backed up by dozens and dozens of peer-reviewed studies comparing agro-ecology with industrial agriculture.

And it’s also more disaster-proof — a crucial quality with worsening natural disasters because of global warming?

Absolutely, particularly now that we’ve had one hurricane pass through the Caribbean and there are more on the way. It’s important to remember that if you have a diversified portfolio of crops, then if one crop bites the dust then you'll still have a range of options.

We haven’t had evidence yet but talking with farmers, agro-ecological soil is much better at resisting floods, because there's a lot more topsoil, so it does not get washed away as much.

Could the agro-ecological model implemented three decades ago in Cuba be transposed in other parts of the world today, as we face new challenges like climate change and urbanisation?

Actually many countries are already adopting this model, in Latin America (check the work of SOCLA) but also in Laos and Malawi — where I’ve seen incredible results to fight malnutrition on very unpromising land thanks to the agro-ecological approach.

But people need to realise that the story of agro-ecology is not just about “you must grow corn! And beans! And squash!” What defines agro-ecology is understanding the ecology you are in, and then using that knowledge in order to develop appropriate systems that match where you are in the world.

Agro-ecology is about principles, there’s no recipe. Not only can it work in other parts of the world, it is already working, because a lot of farmers are experiencing climate change.

It does require a shift away from meat consumption, for instance, consuming less of it but of much better quality. Of course, it is possible to have unsustainable production of — let’s say — lettuce. You don’t need animals to make agriculture unsustainable, for instance if you grow only lettuce with tons of chemicals and a huge amount of water.

But that’s not a fair comparison, and actually many agro-ecological systems do include meat, but much less meat. It’s not about meat-eaters versus vegetarians, it's about sustainable versus unsustainable.