Implications of the Cuban experience for global agriculture and food security

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Global consensus exists over the need for widespread change in order to deal with peak oil as well as with climate change. It also exists over the need for widespread change in the food system in order to achieve food security, and in the farming system to become more sustainable. Yet although these issues have been on the public radar for at least 40 years, the desired goals and pathways to reach them are unclear, and relatively little has actually been achieved. Cuba is quite unique in its mode of centralized governance, and some might argue that because of this it is difficult to extrapolate from these experiences. Yet in almost every other part of the world, decisions over resources connected to agriculture and the food supply chain are highly centralized amongst a few corporations. The extent of real, conscious choice available to both consumers and producers may be very similar. These apparently different ideologies could in fact be stemming from the same paradigm, and Finn (1998) suggests that centralization is a practice promoted by old socialism as well as by competitive market-driven advocates, albeit that one is state-owned and the other private.

One feature of industrial farming and food systems is the increasing levels of mechanization and homogenization. These systems, with their long food-supply chains, play a large role in current patterns of fossil fuel consumption. By contrast, Cuba has to some extent been moving in the opposite direction, towards more decentralized, human-scale and bioregional production and consumption systems, with greater levels of autonomy, diversity and complexity. As and when the predicted global fuel supply crisis fully materializes, Cuba's example provides lessons as to how it might be addressed. As Snyder, a US citizen reporting back from Cuba, stated, 'Few if any advocates for sustainable agriculture in our own country would wish to swap our government or economic circumstances with those found in Cuba. But it sure doesn't hurt to see an example of how we might utilize the principles of sustainability in the United States to avoid our own Special Period in the future' (Snyder, 2003).

Cuba's achievement in moving from a highly vulnerable situation to one heading towards stability also stands in comparison with the experiences of many low- and middle-income countries struggling with long-term food insecurity. In particular, Cuba's example indicates that the Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of food-insecure people by 2015 is not an overly ambitious target, but is one that can be achieved by a firm political commitment to prioritize basic food rights and a semi-regulatory market approach. Non-socialist countries may not be immediately sympathetic with the measures that Cuba had taken to ensure equity, such as the use of rations or of prioritizing domestic markets, yet Cuba's experience has shown these measures to be viable and an arguably necessary means of assuring access to food for all during periods of vulnerability. This, in the face of fossil fuel deficits, is perhaps the biggest lesson that Cuba's experience of the 1990s has for the rest of the world.

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