Thursday, December 15, 2005

Here is a really cool article about Farming Advances in Cuba

Since we were discussing Cuba a little bit below, I wanted to link to a really cool article that I read in Harper's magazine (my sister got me the subscriptions - thanks, Sis). After the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba was left completely isolated, or thereabouts, from the world economic market. Their people, already poor, suffered even more. However, in a testament to the adaptability of people, the Cubans began finding innovative solutions to many of their economic problems:

In other words, Cuba became an island. Not just a real island, surroundedby water, but something much rarer: an island outside the international economic system, a moon base whose supply ships had suddenly stopped coming. There were other deeply isolated places on the planet—North Korea, say, or Burma—but not many. And so most observers waited impatiently for the country to collapse. No island is an island, after all, not in a global world. The New York Times ran a story in its Sunday magazine titled “The Last Days of Castro’s Cuba”; in its editorial column, the paper opined that “the Cuban dictator has painted himself into his own corner. Fidel Castro’s reign deserves to end in home-grown failure.” Without oil, even public transportation shut down—for many, going towork meant a two-hour bike trip. Television shut off early in the evening to save electricity; movie theaters went dark. People tried to improvise their waysaround shortages. “For drinking glasses we’d get beer bottles and cut the necks off with wire,” one professor told me. “We didn’t have razor blades, till someone in the city came up with a way to resharpen old ones.”

But it’s hard to improvise food. So much of what Cubans had eaten had come straight from Eastern Europe, and most of the rest was grown industrial-style on big state farms. All those combines needed fuel and spare parts, and all those big rows of grain and vegetables needed pesticides and fertilizer—none of which wereavailable. In 1989, according to the United Nations Food and AgricultureOrganization, the average Cuban was eating 3,000 calories per day. Four yearslater that figure had fallen to 1,900. It was as if they suddenly had to skipone meal a day, every day, week after month after year. The host of one cookingshow on the shortened TV schedule urged Cubans to fry up “steaks” made fromgrapefruit peels covered in bread crumbs. “I lost twenty pounds myself,” saidFernando Funes, a government agronomist

Anyway, the article, and it is a long article, goes on to explain how Cuba was able to thrive despite the fact that they could no longer get parts for tractors or fertilizers for their crops. In fact, while I say that Cuba came up with farming advances, what they really did was look to the past for ideas on how to increase their yields. They did this by taking an holistic approach to farming, from there they were able to make some pretty cool advances:

Cuba had learned to stop exporting sugar and instead started growing its own food again, growing it on small private farms and thousands of pocket-sized urban market gardens—and, lacking chemicals and fertilizers, much of that food became de facto organic. Somehow, the combination worked. Cubans have as muchfood as they did before the Soviet Union collapsed. They’re still short of meat,and the milk supply remains a real problem, but their caloric intake hasreturned to normal—they’ve gotten that meal back.

In so doing they have created what may be the world’s largest working model of a semi-sustainable agriculture, one that doesn’t rely nearly as heavily as the rest of the world does on oil, on chemicals, on shipping vast quantities of food back and forth. They import some of their food from abroad—a certain amount of rice from Vietnam, even some apples and beef and such from the United States. But mostly they grow their own, and with less ecological disruption than in most places. In recent years organic farmers have visited the island in increasing numbers and celebrated its accomplishment. As early as 1999 the Swedish parliament awarded the Organic Farming Group its Right Livelihood Award, often styled the “alternative
Nobel,” and Peter Rosset, the former executive director of theAmerican advocacy group Food First, heralded the “potentially enormous implications” of Cuba’s new agricultural system.

The really cool thing about Cuba's current agricultural system is that they have learned or relearned how to increase their yield and decrease their pest problems by growing certain plants next to others, placing magnets on irrigation pipes (to reduce the surface tension of the water), and a bunch of other cool things. I see no reason why other nations can't borrow from Cuba's successes and rearrange their agricultural systems in a way that takes advantage of the best of systems that possess great technologies as well as Cuba's holistic approach.

See, I'm no dirty hippie or whacko environmentalist nut who does more harm than good, but I am fascinated by systems and the notion that a tweak here and a tweak there can have tremendous impact for good or ill. For that reason, it seems to me that under the right conditions, not only can organic farmers in the U.S. benefit from the lessons learned from Cuban farmers, so too can "traditional" farms. If that happens, I forsee a future with greater or equal crop yields and fewer chemicals and artificial fertilizers that can have a negative impact on the surrounding environment.

Sorry for the lengthy post - someone needs to teach me how to "hide" parts of my posts so that people can click a link if they want to continue.

Kid Handsome


Blogger Rhino-itall said...

To say that cubans learned to "thrive" is a little bit off. they learned to "survive" but that's about it. However i realize your point and it is interesting how they survived without the outside world.

2:02 PM  
Blogger Kid Handsome said...

You are right about thrive - I meant it in the very limited context of "organic" farming. I certainly hope the imminent (hopefully) death of Castro leads to better things for the common Cuban.

4:01 PM  

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