Food Security in Cuba

By Koont, Sinan | Monthly Review, January 2004 | Go to article overview

Food Security in Cuba


Koont, Sinan, Monthly Review


In 1996, Via Campesina, the recently formed international umbrella organization of grassroots peasant groups, introduced the term "food sovereignty": the right of peoples and states to democratically decide their own food and agricultural policies and to produce needed foods in their own territories in a manner reinforcing the cultural values of the people while protecting the environment.

A related but distinct concept of "food security" has been defined by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to include, among other aspects: (1) the production of adequate food supplies; (2) stability in the flow of these supplies; and (3) secure access, both physical and economic, to available supplies for those in need of them. Recently, Cuba, unlike most other countries in the world, has had to grapple with these questions under circumstances that would try most people's souls.

In the Caribbean, neither the history of colonial domination, including slavery and monoculture agriculture based on export crops, nor the climate, tropical and unsuitable for feed-grain production, allow for the easy satisfaction of food needs with local production. This has been made more difficult by the post-1990 disintegration of the Soviet Union, which resulted in the collapse of Cuban exports and imports and the loss of the preferential terms of trade of Cuban sugar for Soviet off. In addition, during this time there has been a tighter U.S. blockade and increasing U.S. hostility. This is the "periodo especial" (special period) announced by Fidel Castro in 1990. By 1993, as Cuban production and imports plummeted, the daily intake of the average Cuban citizen had descended to 1863 kilocalories, including 46 grams of protein and 26 grams of fat, all figures well below FAO recommended minimums for a healthy diet.

It was obvious that something had to be done, and a rapid increase in imports of foodstuffs or inputs to food production was out of the question. The bywords for food security, by necessity, had to be self-reliance and, to the extent possible, self-sufficiency: a tall order for any Caribbean economy, and doubly so for an economy under a hostile blockade by a powerful neighbor.

Cuba had to make full, efficient use of all available resources related to agriculture to (1) produce food directly using domestic inputs, (2) earn foreign exchange by exporting food and other cash crops (such as tobacco, sugar, and coffee), and/or (3) produce previously imported inputs into food production (such as petroleum) to allow the importation of indispensable necessities such as powdered milk, thus assuring the availability of food supplies and the stability of their flow.

A number of approaches have been used to put these overall strategies into practice over the last decade. The first was to identify and put idle lands to use, sometimes in ingenious ways. The second was to develop new schemes of work organization, pricing mechanisms, and incentives to stimulate, both quantitatively and qualitatively, the supply (and efficient use) of agricultural labor. The third approach involved researching, introducing, and disseminating new methods of work and technologies, including finding ways to minimize the need for hard currency expenditures on such things as petroleum and protein-rich animal feed. Since such dollar expenditures cannot be totally eliminated they also increased efforts to penetrate dollar markets with agricultural goods (food and non-food) so that these dollars--or at least those that end up in government hands--can be used, in part, to support food production and to import goods still needed for food production or for the direct needs of the population.

Creating "New Land"

Eighty percent of Cuba's population is urban. The Cuban government, acting through its Ministry of Agriculture, the Department of Urban Agriculture (created in 1994), and the National Urban Agriculture Group established soon thereafter, started promoting the approach of creating "new land" for cultivation as a way of finding local solutions to the food problem in Havana and elsewhere. …

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