Posted by: beyonddinner | February 1, 2009

One way to handle a food crisis

Pat and I recently watched a great documentary, “The Power of Community:  How Cuba Survived Peak Oil.”  It’s the story of how Cuba suffered a series of  crises beginning in 1990 with the collapse of the Soviet Union.  With the collapse of the Soviet Union they lost about 80% of their imports and exports.  Of major importance was the loss of fuel and the ability to repair machinery.  At the time Cuba used more petroleum based pesticides than the U.S.    Everything in their country was dependent on that oil, so you can imagine the effects of losing access that quickly (and at the same time the U.S. increased the strength of its embargo on Cuba).

I read in an article once that when the crisis hit that Cuba went from having about 3,000 calories per day per person, down to around 1,900 (my numbers may be off, but you get the idea).  The movie said that the average Cuban lost 2o  pounds during that time.

What’s inspiring about the film is that they turned the system around and are now thriving.  Now about 80% of their agriculture is organic.  In Havana, where they started farming in every empty lot, they now supply 50% of their food needs from within the city.  Where in the past the farmers weren’t paid well, now farming is now a sought-after, well-compensated job.

They also started to address their energy situation.  They put solar panels on rural schools, which turned out to be a more cost effective way to power them than putting them on the national grid.  They now use sugar cane as a biofuel which provides about 30% of their energy.  They sent healthcare expertise, in the form of doctors (they have an abundance of trained healthcare workers) to Venezuela in trade for oil.

It’s interesting that these changes came about through individual action (such as the start of farming in the city) and governmental action – not just one or the other.  The agriculture system is now a combination of state owned and run, and entrepreneurial effort.

No matter what you think about their form of government I think it’s amazing what they’ve accomplished in a relatively short amount of time.  Their life expectancy is greater than ours and their literacy rate is higher.  Their standard of living is below ours – but I’m not sure that translates to people who are less happy.

It’s an interesting thought exercise to wonder how our country would respond to a crisis of a similar nature.  The point of the documentary was that Cuba could provide a good model as a country that has reached peak oil.  There are a whole lot of differences between Cuba and here – I wonder how relevant their experience is to what ours could be.  The main point I take from it is that people are resourceful and can respond productively.  I find that inspirational.



  1. Great post, Tracy. I thought it was also interesting how farmers went from one of the poorest paid professions in Cuba, to one of the best. And that they found that small, entrepreneurial farms performed better than government run collective farms (and the government accepted this fact and supported the small farmers).

    The film also talked a little bit about the strengthening of community ties that came about from less use of cars and a greater connection between people and the suppliers of their food.

    I think we all have a lot to learn from what happened there. I just wish (hope) that it won’t take a crisis to make changes actually happen.

  2. It’s really interesting how Cuba’s agricultural regeneration is direct evidence against the USDA’s old claim that private gardens would stifle agribusiness. You see, just after the end of WWII they began discouraging victory gardens for that very reason. The USDA believed that it big agribusinesses should be helped to thrive despite the fact that victory gardens had been growing 40% of the nation’s produce.

    Cuba demonstrates that small plots of farm can create competition in a way that promotes a dynamic system of well-paid farmers growing local and organic produce. Imagine that–Cuba showing the US how to create competition and (agri)business growth.

  3. […] BeyondDinner […]

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