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Dr. Pedro Sanchez and the Importance of Understanding the Cuban Food System

Cuban Market
Cuban Market. | Image: Courtesy of Ben Kucinski/Flickr/Creative Commons License
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The UC Food Observer had the privilege of speaking with Dr. Sanchez recently about what normalizing relations with Cuba might mean for the food system in that nation and in the United States.

 

The U.S. is beginning the process of normalizing relations with Cuba. What is critical for Americans to understand about the Cuban food system?

Cuba is currently importing about 80% of its food at a cost of about $2B annually. This represents about 3% of the nation’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product). That’s a very high percentage. At the same time, Cuba has anywhere from 500,000 to one million hectares of prime quality land idled. These lands have excellent soils and are surrounded by good infrastructure, a fantastic opportunity. Cuba now has a program to transition those idle lands in the form of long-term leases to private farmers and farmer cooperatives. That’s in progress.

As I understand it, a top priority of the Cuban government is now food security. Certainly importing so much food is not secure and food scarcities are common.

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What do you think America can learn from Cuba in terms of agriculture and food systems?

There is a great deal to learn from Cuba. 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 that was 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.

Cuban Farmer
Cuban Farmer. | Image: Courtesy of Ben Kucinski/Flickr/Creative Commons License

We’ve heard quite a bit about urban agriculture in Cuba. What have you seen?

When Cuba went organic, it encouraged production in and around cities. This last June (2015) I traveled to Cuba and saw two urban agricultural operations within the city limits of Havana. I was very impressed. Cuba has many high-fertility soils and producers have added tremendous amounts of organic materials to it. They are producing large amounts of vegetables and some fruits for markets in Havana. What I saw was beautiful and scientifically very exciting. Cuban producers are using new techniques that should be studied and quantified. I’m looking forward to seeing some whole life-cycle analysis on these farms. This is in contrast to Africa where most soils are depleted of their nutrients and it makes no sense to go organic on such soils.

The organic production of vegetables and fruit is without a doubt an enormous success that we can learn from. The way Cubans have organized labor, etc., is wonderful and I’m very impressed. But producing vegetables and fruits does not solve the larger issue of producing carbohydrates and protein. Cuba is now trying to extrapolate these lessons to these critical crop and livestock production areas (including rice and black beans, the staple food). I think there are some trials in progress and I’d like to see them.

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What sorts of change might we see in Cuba’s food production model?

Now Cuba is looking at a more business-oriented type of agriculture. The government has given long-term leases to farmers and farmer cooperatives to grow crops as they see fit…that’s going on right now. The information they have provided me is that these private farms occupy about 30% of the current agricultural area and produce approximately 70% of the food. The state farms occupy about 70% of the agricultural area and produce about 30% of the food. I believe we will see more movement from the state farm model into more private enterprise models.

One of the challenges is going to be demographics. Early in the revolution people from the countryside were moved into towns and cities. There are not many people who know agriculture, except the older farmers, many of whom are in their 70s (like me). So Cuba will need to get young college students to enter careers in agriculture and make agriculture sexy as a business.

The University of Havana is a prestigious educational institution, the second oldest in the Western Hemisphere (Harvard is the oldest). It’s a fine institution. It excels in a number of areas, particularly medicine. But a few years ago, the faculty of agricultura was separated from the University to form the Agrarian University of Havana. It’s not doing well. It has few students, few professors and needs help.

The goal of reaching food security in Cuba has many dimensions. There’s the technical aspect in terms of soils, agronomy, water, integrated pest management and agricultural economics to focus on the kinds of crops, pastures, forests and fisheries that can increase yield in ways that protect and enhance the natural resources. There is also a need to get a lot of people into agriculture and agribusiness to train and encourage young people to be successful in these careers.

Cuba is in worse shape than America in terms of aging farmers.

Cuba Urban Agriculture
Image: Courtesy of SuSanA Secretariat

There are needs and there are opportunities. What are the opportunities?

Especially now – until the U.S. presidential elections in November of 2016 – is the time window with the best political climate in the relationship between Cuba and the United States. So many of Cubans as well as Cuban-Americans have high expectations…there is a hope that this will really transform Cuba.

Who knows who the next president will be and what the policies will be? President Obama’s policies are clear. I recently attended a meeting at the White House, where Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to President Obama, spoke with us. She indicated that President Obama wants to help the Cuban people. The President also wants to encourage Cuban-American entrepreneurs and scientists who are interested and trusted in Cuba to establish collaborative programs from the American side. But the embargo has to be eliminated by congressional action.

It’s not a one-way situation. America has so much to learn from Cuba. Some of the agricultural techniques used in Cuba may benefit our food system. Most of the agricultural research in Cuba has not been published in peer-reviewed international publications. Cuba has excellent and objective agricultural scientists.

There is tremendous interest in a range of collaborative activities. This includes technical training, which could include visiting professors to the Agrarian University of Havana. There could be help in providing training in Extension models. There are opportunities to share how all these things are done. In addition, there is great potential for collaboration in research and the exchange of germplasm and in coping with climate change research, including sea level rise. The opportunities range along the entire value chain of agriculture, including the possibility of exporting agricultural machinery to Cuba and importing high-value crops produced in Cuba.

Pomological Watercolor
Image: Courtesy of Ellen Isham Schutt (1873-1955)

On my last visit, I went back to my father's highly productive 100-acre farm where I learned agriculture. It’s now a part of large citrus state farm of enormous proportions. But much of the land is idle. I found remnants of some of the trees that produced the Super Hayden [also called “Haden”] mangos we ate when I was young. They are large, delicious mangos and one can feed an entire family.

I left Cuba at the age of 18, when I finished high school. My father was in the fertilizer business and was also a grower. He used to export avocados to the United States every month. He cultivated a combination of varieties to make this possible. The avocados that I saw in Cuba on my recent visit are large and delicious. Very flavorful. They might be among the things that could be exported from Cuba to the United States. The marketing possibilities are good; Cuba produces many things besides rum and cigars that American consumers would like to buy.

There are other areas of need. Assistance in improving agricultural processing is very much needed. There is also a great need to know about business operations, exports, banking etc., as Cuban producers move into a more market oriented society.

Cuba has a population of about 11 million, about one-third of Canada’s population. Cuba has excellent education and medical systems, so it’s an educated population. Cuba is not that small geographically. It’s an island, but it’s about the same land area as the state of Virginia and a length equal to that between Miami to Atlanta…750 miles. So Cuba could be a very a good market for the United States. Cuba has a unique history and tremendous natural resources in terms of soils and climates. There is enormous potential.

 

What should Americans be paying attention to right now vis-à-vis Cuba?

I’d like to see more political pressure on Congress to outlaw the embargo. I think there’s tremendous interest in getting rid of the embargo by businesses and many Cuban-Americans. It’s been in place for 54 years and hasn’t worked. From an agricultural point-of-view, getting rid of the embargo would be helpful. I think not all Americans realize that the embargo is a law, which was passed by Congress. So it must be repealed by Congress. In my opinion, we have to get rid of it…it’s totally obsolete and against the interests of the United States.

Organoponico garden in Viñales, Cuba
Organoponico garden in Viñales, Cuba. | Image: Courtesy of mreichwage/Flickr/Creative Commons License

How else can Americans become engaged?

Let’s make sure that American students and professors know Spanish. While many in Cuba speak English, Spanish is the primary language.

 

What are you most excited about?

The whole possibility of transformation. I’m excited that Cuba will be able to join the rest of the world instead of being some sort of pariah…and that will be very good for the world. It will add a great deal of energy.

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