Monday, September 28, 2009

Sustainable Food Gardening - Surviving and Thriving

There's an ever-increasing realisation that growing our own food in the places where we live, using natural systems farming is a core strategy to survive, and possibly, thrive in the face of challenges such as peak oil and climate change.

The effectiveness of community-based and small-scale sustainable food gardening is probably best demonstrated by Cuba who inadvertently provided the world with a valuable model in the aftermath of its economic collapse in the early 90's. This has been well-documented in the film, "The Power of Community - How Cuba survived Peak Oil".

When the Soviet Union fell apart, proud and resilient Cuba was almost brought to its knees. The economy collapsed - GDP crashed, oil imports halved and 80% of Cuban import and export markets were lost. Across the country, citizens experienced frequent and enduring black-outs; cars, transportation and farm machinery ground to a halt; factories and industrialised farms shut down; basic services, work, school and universities were constantly disrupted. The greatest threat was looming famine. The people of Cuba were experiencing a politically-induced "Peak Oil Crisis" and the country's response is something we can all learn from.

In the face of chronic food shortages, the Cuban government rapidly implemented a supply programme based on providing the minimum daily calories set by the United Nations. It kept widespread famine at bay for a time, but the programme, under increasing strain due to intensified USA sanctions, was not sufficient or sustainable. Cuba's exemplarly record of child care was now blighted by incidents of malnutrition in children under 5 years old and the births of underweight babies. Cut off from global institutions under USA-influence, there was no one "out there" to turn to for help, drastic action needed to be taken by the Cubans themselves.

One might ask, why a country with such a strong agricultural sector faced such a deep food crisis?
The answer is, that Cuba had long embraced large-scale, mechanised agriculture - it practiced the most industrialised farming in all of Latin America and used more chemical fertilisers than the USA. Industrialised agriculture is the major consumer of the world's fossil fuels. Cuba was highly dependent on chemical fertilisers derived from natural gas, oil-based pesticides and diesel fuel to power farm machinery. Without these costly, and now rare inputs, industrial farming faltered, leaving ghosts in the machines and dead soil.

Another contributing factor is that Cuban industrialised farms focused on growing monocultures of tobacco, sugar cane and citrus, mainly for export. Cuba had never met its own food production needs. More than half of staple foods, such as rice and vegetable oils for cooking had always had to be imported.

Cubans had no option but to look to the antithesis of industrial farming - sustainable, natural-systems, organic methods of food production. In high-density Havana, there was an ad hoc citizen response inspired by desperation. Lawyers and doctors, engineers and artists, students and the elderly were suddenly food gardening by trial and error. Neighbours got together to clean up disused lots, to plant and tend vegetables. Families planted pot, patio and roof food gardens. Kiosks selling fresh produce started to spring up on the city streets. People who produced food had more disposable income. Soon, all this effort was a recognisable urban food gardening movement.

Permaculture experts arrived in Cuba and began to train-the-trainer. Similar to its roll-out of a successful literacy programme right after the 1950's revolution, Cuban trainers spread out through urban and rural communities teaching Permaculture principles and skills. Cuban scientists turned their attention to bio-pesticides and bio-fertilisers.

While it did take 3 to 5 years to rebuild soil fertility in many places, the food gardening programme was a stunning success, and still quick enough to avert famine.

The results in Havana alone are impressive - by 2006:

  • 50% of the city's fresh produce was grown right in the city at the cost of zero food miles
  • 140 000 people were making their living from food production - food gardening became a growing sector of the economy
  • fresh, organically-grown "neighbourhood food" was available in 169 municipalities

In smaller Cuban towns, community food gardening was supplying 80 to 90% of food needs.

The next step was to reclaim land from the industrial farms and transform it into the small-scale, labour-intensive, community-based concerns that are conducive to sustainability. By 2006, 80% of Cuba's agricultural land was farmed organically using soil fertility, crop rotation, green fertilisers, inter-cropping, inter-planting and natural pest control techniques.

Cuba had successfully transformed its agriculture from a dependent, unsustainable, industrialised model to a gloriously independent, sustainable, life-promoting alternative.

Out of hardship and adversity, came important lessons, that:

  • People who grow food are very important in the community and to their country - they deserve to earn a good living and to enjoy dignity
  • At any time, but most especially when the going is tough - co-operation is far more advantageous than competition
  • Growing food in harmony with Nature works
  • Soil is a living system
  • Being active in your community can be the difference between abundance and poverty, between life and death
  • Everyone can make a difference

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