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A Dietitian’s Tour of Cuba

A Dietitian’s Tour of Cuba

When I learned about the opportunity to go to Cuba on a trip dedicated to Sustainable Agriculture Food Systems, and Wellness, I knew I could not pass it up. With the recent excitement around renewed relations between the US and Cuba this trip was a priceless opportunity to see the status of agriculture and nutrition in Cuba before things change in the coming years. To quote, the trip was mean to provide “an understanding of the agricultural and social transitions Cuba has experienced” as well as “new models addressing issues of sustainability, community development, food security and wellness.”

Prior to the trip I had certain expectations about how things might be in a country that has for all intents and purposes been cut off from America for the past 50 years. Perhaps I am naïve or maybe I am disenchanted with our current corrupt large agro food system, but I figured that an absence of America over the past 50 years would mean agricultural utopia for Cuba. No GMOs, no pesticides –completely unadulterated nature. Boy was I wrong.

For starters, a majority of the food that Cuba eats is imported. Following the collapse of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) in the 1990’s and with the US embargo still in place, Cuba was left without access to the pesticides, fertilizers, and petroleum it needed to help with its agricultural production. As a result, Cuba entered a food crisis. To put this into perspective, Cuba’s total daily caloric availability dropped from 3,012 to 2,325 between 1989 and 1993.

In response to the food crisis, state-run farmland was turned into worker-owned enterprises where Cubans were given land for free. In return, they had to meet production minimums for certain crops. Farmers who produced more than the quota were allowed to sell their excess at the local markets, which provided more motivation to have a flourishing harvest. It also incentivized people to turn otherwise fallow land into agricultural farmland.

But with no access to pesticides and fertilizers, Cuba was essentially forced to produce food the way nature intended: organically. I had the privilege of visiting one of their urban organic gardens in Alamar. There, farm animals are used instead of tractors, farmers hand pick all of the crops, and instead of pesticides, crop rotation, intercropping, and pest-repelling plants are used to prevent crop-destroying pests from ruining the harvest.

In theory, a country where food production is, by default, organic sounds like agricultural heaven. Unfortunately, that is not the case in Cuba. With a lack of infrastructure, climate change, drought, and natural loss from pests, organic farming in Cuba simply does not produce the quantities that are required to feed everyone. To make matters worse, with the high demand for organic food and the high price people are willing to pay for it, Cubans end up exporting most of their organic food.

As such, Cuba must resort to importing 80% of its food from countries in Europe and South America. Because  it is cheaper, most of the imported food is conventionally grown with artificial pesticides and fertilizers and have been genetically modified. For example, rice, which is the basic staple of the Cuban diet is imported and genetically modified.

Now, with the lifting of the US embargo comes the possibility for big change within the Cuban agricultural system. This is a crucial turning point for Cuba because the decisions they make now will likely dictate the kind of growth that will take place within its food system.

One big question is whether or not they will revisit the technology of GMO’s. (They briefly tried to experiment with bt, but in 2011 they stopped.) Unlike before, now Cuba has access to US GM seeds (read: Monsanto). The question is: do they want them? Interestingly, while much of the food Cubans are already eating is genetically modified (due to the fact that it is imported from countries that utilize GM seeds), the country seems to be against the idea of utilizing GM technology on its own soil. When asked about this, Manuel Rodriguez, the CEO of the Cuban Ministry of Agriculture said, “To date we haven’t even considered working with (the US company) Monsanto…The policy of the country thus far is to not negotiate with anyone to produce transgenic seeds.”

However, that is not to say that there haven’t been offers. On our visit to the Antonio Jimenez Nunez Foundation, which is a not-for-profit organization that is dedicated to nature preservation throughout Cuba, we were informed that ConAgra has already put in an offer to buy 100 hectares of land. Whether or not anything has come from that offer is unknown, but the idea is there: large agro is eyeing the island.

During Obama’s recent visit to Cuba, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack met with Rodriguez, to discuss future collaboration between Cuba and America’s agricultural departments. After that meeting, Vilsack reported, “U.S. producers are eager to help meet Cuba’s need for healthy, safe, nutritious food…The agreements we reached with our Cuban counterparts on this historic trip, and the ability for our agriculture sector leaders to communicate with Cuban businesses, will help U.S. agricultural interests better understand the Cuban market, while also providing the Cuban people with science-based information as they grow their own agriculture sector.”

From the sounds of it, the future holds significant changes for Cuba’s agricultural world.

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