Cuba is in a period of profound change, which is impacting all aspects of life — including the food system. UC Food Observer learned about some of these changes, when editor Rose Hayden-Smith spoke to Dr. Pedro Sanchez.

A world renowned soil scientist, Dr. Sanchez left his native Cuba at 18 years old. He currently serves as director of the Agriculture and Food Security Center at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

Dr. Sanchez told us there is a lot the United States can learn from Cuba in terms of agriculture and food systems:

Cuba has gone through a unique series of up and downs. Before the revolution in 1959, there was a big landowner system with many poor people in the countryside. After the revolution, all lands were confiscated and put into large state farms, which was characteristic of the communist model in place at that time. Cuba was strongly supported by the Soviet Union and enjoyed very favorable terms of trade as a result. For example, the price of sugar at the time was probably along the lines of 4 cents (per pound), yet the Soviet Union was buying it at 40 cents.

On my first return visit – which was in 1975 – I saw enormous state farms and enormous machinery… like something out of a Terminator movie. There were excessive amounts of irrigation and fertilizers being used. This was essentially subsidized by the Soviet bloc. In 1989-90, the collapse of the Soviet Union halted these subsidies.

This caused Cuba to be on its own, isolated from most of the rest of the world. The GDP contracted by 15%…the economy experienced negative growth. Cuba was not able to import fertilizers or other inputs…and certainly not much food. It was a very bad situation. Cuba’s response was to turn to organic production and hunker down. And this is where there can be tremendous lessons for the United States and the world. Cuba is now moving towards a market-oriented agriculture.

For most Cubans farmers, organic farming was and is not an ideological issue. The nation simply didn’t have access to fertilizers. Cuba has done a tremendous amount of unique research in developing organic fertilizers, composts and so on, including how to make mycorrhizas more effective, with good effects at the farm level. One of the challenges for Cuban scientists is that they have been limited in the publications in which they can publish their work. So much excellent work has been done, but there is little in the peer-reviewed literature. There has been much long-term worthwhile research that has not yet been published.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Government recently paved the way for additional food imports. “All federally inspected meat, poultry and egg plants in the United States are now eligible to export to Cuba under export requirements” that were published in early July 2016, reports Food Safety News.

Around the same time, Castro admitted Cubans face hard times as the economy slows sharply. Here’s more from Voice of America.

The country’s first bulk goods store recently opened, but wholesale remains elusive, reports Associated Press. The new store is located in the upscale western suburb of Miramar.

Photo: Alexander Schimmeck
Cuban taxi photo: Alexander Schimmeck

To get a first-hand look at Cuba’s recent developments, UC Food Observer editor Rose Hayden-Smith is spending the next week and a half traveling in Cuba. Look for her posts later this summer detailing her takeaways.

As time and connectivity permit, we’ll be sharing images and thoughts in the next couple of weeks.