Will That Trip to Havana You’re Planning Ruin Cuba’s Organic Farming System?

Food companies are praising our changing relationship with the Communist island, but some fear it could threaten its sustainable agriculture.

Walkway in downtown Sancti Spiritus, Cuba. (Photo: Danita Delimont/Getty Images)

Jan 19, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

Strolling through Old Havana; touching the desk where Ernest Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls; snacking on ensalada de tomate made with organic tomatoes picked that morning from the local organopónico, one of the high-yielding urban gardens that provide much of the island's vegetables and other nonstaple crops—with President Obama's historic move to restablish ties with the Castro regime, specifically with Friday's easing of travel restrictions, it is now easier for Americans to experience these and other Cuban experiences than it has been in the last five decades.

But what if your dream of hopping a flight to Havana means the end of a farming system considered one of the world's prime examples of sustainable food sovereignty?
Changes in the travel rules will be globetrotters' primary take-away from President Obama’s move to normalize relations with Cuba, but trade restrictions are shifting too. While that means Americans can bring home $100 worth of Cuban cigars, it also opens up a new American export market, potentially allowing U.S. companies to sell Cubans food and other ag products, like chemical fertilizers. It was the lack of such products that forced Cuba to get innovative—and go organic—with their domestic food production.

Amid tense relations with Russia and its allies, the United States' embargo on all trade with its Communist neighbor started in 1960, with nearly all exports to the nation restricted by 1962. When the Iron Curtain fell, Cuba found itself without its main trading partner, Russia, cutting off its supply of both food and ag chemical imports. By the mid-1990s, the government had set out to become agriculturally self-sufficient and therefore combated rapid urbanization by studying and applying cutting-edge, high-yield organic agriculture principles. Today, the system—including the organopónicos—is studied and revered by sustainable food practitioners and proponents. The rationing of staple crops, much of which are imported, is still a stark reality on the island, but when it comes to fresh vegetables, local and organic is the status quo.

The president's actions on Cuba, however, are receiving enthusiastic support from agribusiness, which has heavily lobbied Congress and the White House to end the embargo. Big food and agriculture interests look at a postembargo Cuba and see dollar signs. Ideally, they'll have 11 million Cubans eating American Frosted Flakes and peanut butter—not to mention supplying thousands of farmers who may need tractors, seeds, and pesticides. Ag industry heavyweights had a meeting with Obama administration officials roughly a week after President Obama's Dec. 17 announcement. Paul Johnson, vice chair of the United States Agriculture Coalition for Cuba—which represents more than 30 agriculture companies and advocacy groups—attended the White House meeting, along with Cargill executive Devry Boughner Vorwerk.

"We congratulated [the president]. It was a great step forward, a bold step forward, the right step forward," he recalls. "We wanted to express to them what the agriculture community's needs are. Ending the embargo isn't enough; we've got to be competitive. Our message to them was that going forward, we support the 'whole enchilada,' if you will."

By the whole enchilada, Johnson means “globalizing trade relations with Cuba,” allowing more U.S. farmers and food companies to expand into the Cuban market. (Under the Cuba Food and Medicine Access Act of 2001, some food is sent to Cuba, though exports have steadily declined since 2008.) With the new trade policies that took effect Friday, nonfood companies will also be able to sell their wares in Cuba, a step Johnson supports but says is not enough.

Yet open trade with U.S. food companies could be "potentially, but not necessarily, disastrous" for the Cuban food system, says Tanya Kerssen, research coordinator and Latin American trade expert with Food First, which promotes food sovereignty. She points most recently to the impact the North American Free Trade Agreement had on the food system in Mexico.

"You have a flood of cheap, industrialized food—corn, for example—undermining the livelihoods of Mexican corn farmers, pushing them off the land and forcing them into cities to sustain themselves, or in the worst cases, forcing them to migrate across the border," she says.

Such a flood of American food to Cuba could trigger a health crisis among Cubans, who currently are healthier and live longer than many of their counterparts in the developed world, Kerssen says. In Mexico, a 12-percent spike in obesity coincided with the implementation of the NAFTA, which allowed American companies like Walmart to set up shop and sell cheaper, processed food.

The same could happen in Cuba if U.S. agribusinesses and their lobbyists have their way. The USACC, for its part, will continue to lobby the White House and Congress for a law that completely lifts the embargo.

USACC will take advantage of easier travel to the island too, making its pitch for American-style farming on Cuban soil. In early March, Johnson will join farmers, representatives from state and national ag organizations, and fellow food and agriculture company employees on a four-day "learning journey" to visit several Cuban farms, processing facilities, ports, and government offices. The trip's goal, he says, is to allow his group's members to "get some mud on their boots" and "meet the Cubans, meet the small farmers, and understand their needs." He's adamant that Cubans should be given better choices in what they eat and how quickly to import American capitalism.

Kerssen disagrees, saying there's no reason the country can't be both completely self-sufficient and promote dietary diversity, adding, "It may never get a chance."

"Cuba's been such a shining light to many in the food sovereignty, good-food movement," she says, "and that might be steamrolled."