Friday, May 22, 2009

Cuba: Feast or famine?

Okay, the title is expressly over-the-top, but the topic of this post is the situation regarding food security in Cuba. As I've written elsewhere, as have a number of others, Cuba has had some amazing successes, among them innovation with alternative agriculture and food security. One of the Averii (Dennis & Alex), "prominent" (by which I mean, often-quoted at the very least) critics of organic/alternative agriculture recently wrote a critique of Cuba's system, saying that over-eager leftists had willfully or credulously parroted stories of Cuba's successes, when in fact, Cuba is presently importing 84% of its food. Well, respected (by which I mean, I personally and a number of others in and out of academia respect their work) students of food security Miguel Altieri, Peter Rosset, and Cuban Fernando Funes (who is the first author) responded, (with the full version pdf to be found here), finding (you know, with research, actual visits to Cuba, empiricism, all those pesky details) that Avery perhaps reversed his numbers, as 2003 FAO data show that Cuba imported 16% of its food, or the exact inverse of Avery's number (which came from a supposed quote from a Cuban minister, possibly true, the three note, but nonetheless uncited and uncheckable in Avery's article). The three do admit that Cuba has had recent setbacks:
To be fair to him, anecdotal evidence gleaned by the authors on recent trips to Cuba does reveal a probable deterioration of this situation. To the best of our knowledge, after being hit by three hurricanes last year, Cuba imported 55% of the total food that it consumes (unofficial figures). There is also the more insidious effect of food imports from the U.S. under the humanitarian food purchase loophole in the trade embargo. It seems that the Cuban government at some point made a political decision to try to enlist support in the U.S. against the trade embargo and against possible military actions toward the island, by purchasing increasingly large and expensive amounts of essentially unneeded food products from American corporations. These growing imports have in recent years depressed national production in Cuba, something which President Raul Castro has stated that he is determined to address.

As for its agroecological/organic/alternative ag programs, Altieri recently expressed to me concern that there is some conflict within Cuba as to whether to continue or expand the alternative programs, as some apparently viewed low-(synthetic)input agriculture as a necessity of the "Special Period" following the collapse of Cuban patron state, the USSR, a necessity now no longer, er, necessary. Nonetheless, much has been written on the Cuban system, which remains a singular and powerful example of the potentials of alternative agriculture:
Cuba’s achievements in urban agriculture have also grown and are truly remarkable: 383,000 urban farms, covering 50 thousand hectares of otherwise unused land and producing more than 1.5 million tons of vegetables (top urban farms reach a yield of 20 kgs per square meter of edible plant material using no synthetic chemicals) enough to supply 70% or more of all the fresh vegetables in cities such as Havana, Villa Clara and others. No other country in the world has achieved this level of success with a form of agriculture that reduces food miles, energy use, and effectively closes local production and consumption cycles.

In the general sense that all systems are vulnerable to valid critiques, and the specific critiques possible of Cuba more generally (which I won't review extensively here, except to say that I find the typical American critiques wildly overblown but still acknowledge, as do all Cubans, pro-Castro or not, that there remains much to improve about their democracy; Cubans acknowledge this and point out that that should always be the case and that viewing democracy as a static, achieved ideal as we do in the US is actually inimical to real democracy) Avery has a point. But in the specifics -- the lack of productivity of Cuba's system, the evidence from its imports that its experiment has failed (indeed, Funes et. al point out that even such countries as, say, ours, the US, has recently imported around half of its agricultural supply, going into an agricultural trade deficit in the months of June and August of 2008) -- the senior Averii remains incorrect, as he has often been.

(Nota bene on the last link: some have maintained that Avery is correctly quoting Tauxe; I did once find the original source, a letter to a journal that quoted epidemiologist Dr. Tauxe, but having read extensively on the incident, plus having seen Dr. Tauxe present personally at a recent conference, I can personally guaruntee you that he does not presently, at least, view organic agriculture as having any systematically differing epidemiological risks as compared to conventional ag, him having specifically answered this question at the con.)

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