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Greg Watson traveled to Cuba in 2014 to tour the country’s agricultural system and was impressed by what he saw: abundant produce grown in urban, suburban, and rural communities without the use of pesticides. In other words, Cuba was feeding itself entirely with sustainable agriculture.

In this interview, Greg talks about his findings in Cuba and how we can apply them to improve our own agricultural practices in the United States and beyond.

Can you tell us about the context of your visit to Cuba? When was it? What was the purpose of the visit?

Back in October of 2014 I was serving as commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) and on the board of the Schumacher Center for a New Economics. During a Schumacher board meeting I mentioned that MDAR was ramping up its urban agriculture program.  When asked where is the best example of urban agriculture, the discussion turned to Cuba.  Within months, Schumacher executive director Susan Witt had secured funding to send a delegation to Cuba to learn about its Sustainable Food System focusing on its agroecology and urban agriculture programs.

What surprised you most about your findings there?

I was surprised most by how open and candid Cubans with whom we spoke were in offering their thoughts about the shortcomings of the socialist economic system.  While they were extremely proud of the country’s gains and continued commitment to the social agenda centering around education and healthcare, they admitted that a new economics – something along the spectrum between socialism and capitalism – is needed.  That has led to the social solidarity movement that places emphasis on cooperative business development.

What makes Cuba’s agricultural system so different from the one we have in the US?

Small organic farmers growing food for the people of Cuba are the backbone of Cuba’s agricultural system, unlike the U.S. where large, energy-intensive industrial farms dominate. Cuba’s agroecology system did not stem from ideology or in protest against an existing system. It emerged out of necessity and played the major role in helping the people of Cuba avoid starvation.  That’s not to say that it’s perfect, but farmers are committed to making it as perfect as it can be.

Why do you think Cuba’s agriculture has been so successful?

Cuba’s agroecology system was born of necessity following the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in 1991.  Farmers organized in response to the crisis and developed a strong support network.  More than 100,000 families support one another through their participation in this national farmer-to-farmer network. Experience has taught them that organic farming works and what originally emerged out of necessity has now been embraced and promoted by the farmers. Moreover, Cuba’s agrarian reform movement has made land available to anyone willing to produce food as part of Cuba’s food sovereignty movement.

What are the most important lessons we can learn here in the US from Cuba’s success?

I think Cuba’s agroecology movement is a living example of the power of grassroots organizing. It was instrumental in transforming their agriculture and avoiding mass starvation.  Now they are attempting to transform their economic system as well – one that can improve people’s economic condition without compromising the social and environmental achievements of the revolution.
Cuba’s agroecology movement succeeded in large part because of its farmer-to-farmer education and technology exchange network.  This Internet-less social network is evolved into a powerful way for farmers to share what they’ve learned with one another.  It has proven to be more responsive to farmer’s immediate needs than the agricultural extension program. At the last meeting of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) that I attended as commissioner, representatives from all fifty states acknowledged that the U.S. Cooperative Extension System is in crisis.  That’s because much of the research being conducted at our land grant institutions is funded by large agribusiness interests and consequently is designed to address their challenges.

You’ve commented that the US opening relations to Cuba is a double-edged sword: what do you think would be the best possible outcome of renewed US-Cuba relations?

The best outcome would be the U.S. lifting its embargo against Cuba.

Did you observe any social trends related to the way Cuba grows food? In other words, does urban farming affect urban culture?

Without question.  One striking example is the Alamar Cooperative located just outside of Havana. It has earned accolades around the world as a model agricultural cooperative.  It is a source of pride and inspiration as well as a source of food.  It has helped elevate the status of farming in the eyes of Havana’s citizens – both young and old. Of course, urban agriculture is also influencing urban culture here in Massachusetts and throughout the U.S.  The Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resource’s urban farming program that was one of the catalysts for my 2014 visit to Cuba has really gotten traction under the guidance of Rose Arruda.
Returning to Cuba, it’s no secret that Havana’s infrastructure is crumbling. It will be interesting to see how Cuba’s urban agriculture system will be integrated into redevelopment plans for Havana when investments begin to flow in that direction.  For example, will agriculture be seen as a viable economic driver in Havana’s plans for the future?  We’re seeing a number of U.S. cities focusing on this question, including Boston and Detroit.

GROW Education is a program that implements community gardening in public schools. What role can programs like GROW play in shifting food culture in the US?

I think that programs like GROW are among the most effective tools we have for shifting the food culture of the U.S.  I say this because children can be our most important ambassadors and change agents when a topic resonates with them.  Today so many of our youth are desperately seeking to make sense of a world that seems to be hopelessly spinning out of control. Community gardens are incredibly empowering in this regard. They offer a very tangible way for children, their families, and their neighbors to assume some measure of control over meeting a fundamental basic need.  It is something that they can enjoy together.  I’m convinced that there’s nothing more important to be teaching our children.  Our children, in turn, teach others, be it their peers or parents. Gardening is powerful community-builder and generation “connector”.

See Greg Watson in a panel discussion with Zoe Hansen-DiBello and Adam Davenport of GROW Education on April 14th at 7pm in New Bedford. Register online >

Photos courtesy of Greg Watson.

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