Updated: May 25
By Kaira Wallace
The US has turned its food system into a well-oiled machine that operates relentlessly, growing as much as possible no matter the social, economic or environmental impacts. Monoculture, heavy chemical and pesticide use, fossil fuel reliance, farm debt & globalization are sewn into the fabric that is the US agricultural system. In some ways it has been hugely successful, producing yields that were unthinkable just a few decades ago. But at what price? There needs to be more parameters for success than just profit and yield, and surprisingly Cuba has some valuable lessons to teach the US in terms of sustainable agriculture.
Cuba’s agricultural system today functions in a vastly different manner than the US’s. It wasn’t always that way, though. Prior to the 1990s Cuba practiced widespread monoculture, growing vast amounts of sugar cane for export. They imported a majority of their food and large amounts of chemicals and fertilizers from the Soviet Union. Around 57 percent of total calories that Cubans were consuming came from imports. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, along with the US trade embargo on Cuba, there was a sudden and drastic reduction in the amount of available food. Their two options were adaptation, or starvation.
The shortages of oil and fertilizer imports meant that the traditional large scale growing operations soon failed. Cuba’s cities were hit hardest by the shortage of food, and soon citizens took to unused state lands to begin producing their own food. Cuba’s government actually encouraged this with a revision of property rights, allowing citizens the right to use the soil to grow their products without actually owning the land. The lack of oil meant that people switched to oxen to till the land, and food was grown locally to avoid having to transport it. No more pesticides and fertilizers being imported meant that farmers began using agro-ecological methods instead for pest control. Cuba was inadvertently creating a sustainable food system out of pure necessity.
Cuba now has a booming urban agriculture system that has the support of the government. Any vacant lots or empty backyards have been turned into fully functioning small farms which sell their produce at private stands throughout the cities. These small farms rely mainly on organic techniques and have contributed greatly to Cuba’s food security and resilience. Cuba’s agriculture is far more localized than most countries which means less energy used to transport the food (lower food miles). Though it took a crisis to dramatically change Cuba’s system, it has made them more sustainable, more self-sufficient and more resilient.
The US is the great antithesis to Cuba in terms of agriculture. There is no regard for the sustainability or the social impact of the industrialized food system and productivity remains the only goal. Katarzyna Dembska, a researcher at the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition Foundation, says that, “a major issue in the U.S. is the low proportion of land set aside for organic farming as opposed to the large amount used for biofuel and animal feed”. The US agriculture system usually does not utilize organic methods, crop rotation, agro-ecology, or any other sustainable practice. The lack of diversity in crops grown has led to greater vulnerability to climatic and pest related events. Industrial farms dominate in the US agriculture system, and they are held up by federal subsidies, making it hard for smaller farms to compete. The US may be producing food at hyper-efficient rates, but the negative externalities ignored in the process will begin to catch up.
What would the US even look like if it had a system more similar to Cuba’s? It's hard to even imagine, given the strong hold that the industrialized system has today. The US has taken agricultural efficiency to an extreme, and environmental and social concerns have been left in the dust. Cuba stands as an example of adapting for the better, creating a system that benefits the people and the land. There is no doubt that the current system in the US is not sustainable in the long run, and it will require sweeping systematic change in order to achieve a better one. The question that remains is will this change occur due to crisis as in Cuba’s case, or will it be a change made by design and intent that aims to prepare the US for the future.