Last night I went to the launch of Julia Wright’s new book, Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security in an Era of Oil Scarcity: Lessons from Cuba. Since the book costs an eye-watering £60.00, I thought I would share with you some of her key findings. Wright has spent the last 15 years studying the Cuban response to the collapse of the Soviet Union, from which it had previously imported 50 percent of its food. The agricultural revolution that ensued, particularly in organic urban agriculture, has become the stuff of legend – so much so that the WWF described Cuba as the only example of sustainable development in the world.
Wright does not deny that Cuba’s urban farms, or organopónicos, have been a success.
However she points out that they only supply 5 percent of the nation’s food, so can hardly be held up as an example of urban farming feeding a nation. More interestingly still, she has found that 75 percent of Cuban farmers use agrochemicals, and 83 percent would apply more if they could. Indeed, Cuban imports of these are increasing steadily, and the nation now imports 80 percent of its food.
In fact it turns out that the Cuban agricultural miracle, if not exactly over, is in the process of turning back into something far more familiar. Despite a wealth of evidence that, according to Wright, shows that organically farmed land was in fact more productive than industrially farmed, the nation is reverting to the latter – with all the associated problems of oil dependency and soil degradation (25 percent of Cuban soil is already degraded).
Despite their extraordinary achievements in response to an unprecedented food crisis, it seems that most Cubans yearn for a food system more akin to that of the West. The permanent conversion to organic self-sufficiency seemingly never occurred to them.