Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A Revolution in the Fields

If you've looked recently, you may have noticed that TV is a mostly vast wasteland of mindless crap. As the fella said, "Four hundred channels and nothing on."

I turned on the set to watch the news over the weekend, forgetting that on the weekends the early news is supplanted by the emetic "Family Guy". I flicked the channel, looking for news and happened on Suzuki's "The Nature of Things".

This episode was on the Cuban agricultural revolution, and proved to be absolutely fascinating. Back in the days when the Cuban economy was propped up by the Soviets Cuba used to export sugar and citrus fruit to the Soviet Union. It imported most of its food. According to the Cuban government, they were pouring 10-15 calories of energy into the production of a single calorie of food. In other words, they were doing exactly what the rest of the industrialized world is doing now.

When the Soviet Union collapsed and the ships full of oil, fertilizer, pesticides, and staple goods quit coming, Cuba's economy fell to pieces. And the agricultural system turned toes up. The calorie intake of the average Cuban fell from about 2,600 calories a day in the late 1980s to between 1,000 and 1,500 by 1993. Essentially, people had to get by on about half the food they had been eating.

So, with an US-enforced embargo cutting them off from the most basic industrialized products, they went back to basics, and prioritized food production and the small-scale farmer. With no fertilizers and pesticides, they turned to composting, vermiculture and organic methods of farming. Tractors were parked and farmers began working their fields with oxen. Elderly farmers who had worked with animals in their youth were recruited to help train a new generation of farmers.

Seed programs were started, where farmers saved seed from their most productive plants, and a free seed exchange was set up. This improves productivity for all farmers, and produces the kind of bio-diversity in plants which gives them resistance to pests.

Cuba now has over 7,000 urban allotment gardens, (called organoponicos, which fill more than 80,000 acres. Some are tiny plots in the middle of apartment-block complexes or tucked between the crumbling colonial-era homes that fill Havana. More than 200 such urban gardens in Havana supply the city with more than 90% of their fruit and vegetables.

The Vivero Organoponico Alamar is considered one of the most successful. Started less than 10 years ago, the one and three-quarter acre plot employs about 25 people and grows a variety of healthy, low-cost food for local consumption. Average daily calorie intake in Cuba is back to 2,600 a day, and what's more it's fresh, organic and almost entirely sustainable grown. Cuban food production uses just 5% of the energy used to grow food in the US and other industrialized nations.

In Cuba farming is a desirable occupation and farm communities are thriving, rather than dying, as they are where agri-business has taken over.

May be time for all of us to take a good close look at Cuba's agricultural revolution and learn a thing or two.

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