Insights by Goldie
Another world is possible

Sound Consumer | October 2003

by Goldie Caughlan
Quality Standards Specialist

Looking back exactly 30 years ago this autumn, nearly half my lifetime ago, I remember finding my way to PCC's only store then, on N.E. 65th just north of the University District. I sensed I was stepping into another world-view and it wasn't just the old-time, general store ambience common to food co-ops of the period. I felt the spark of intensity and excitement in the attitudes both workers and shoppers had toward food.

Information flowed back and forth, people asking where items were from, whether they were grown with pesticides, and what the conditions were for the workers who produced the food.

I picked up mimeographed articles about many of those issues, thumb-tacked to corkboards. I shared the puzzling queries of shoppers, novices like me, wondering, "What's bulgur?" or "What's the best way to cook dry beans?" I was hungry and needed those practical answers too — but I was starving for answers to other questions I'd just begun to know I needed to ask.

Like many in the early seventies, I was questioning and re-examining most of what I thought I had learned in life, and now, that included everything about food and agriculture. I had just read Frances Moore Lappé's paradigm-shaking little book, Diet for a Small Planet, and was confronting my role as an over-consumer of animal protein.

Especially shocking was the quality of animal products I learned were now standard and how the environment was being trashed in the process. I'd somehow carried through life the naïve and bucolic picture of the fresh foods grown by my parents on our little farm in Idaho in the early 1940s, unmindful that things had changed dreadfully when I wasn't watching. I was shaken and angry to learn of the chemical cuisine I'd been purchasing unwittingly in supermarkets. I wondered how many rainforest trees had been destroyed to grow beef for cheap burgers I'd fed the kids at McDonalds once or twice a week for years.

I'm still asking questions and still learning. The co-op experience has continued to ground and mentor and teach me, even as I have morphed into the role of teacher these past three decades.

In May of this year, in Cuba, I learned more lessons, including a powerful phrase that expresses what has driven and sustained me all these years and which I embrace wholly: "Un otro mundo es posible!" Another world is possible! Cubans state this as an affirmation. It expresses current worldwide efforts to actualize fully the paradigm shift that is occurring, moving from chemical to natural agriculture, from dependency on unsustainable and dangerous practices to practicing interdependence and respect for human values over profit, and moving from despair to hope.

Seventeen of us from Washington state joined 40 others from across the nation, Australia, Canada, Haiti and Guatemala and spent a week visiting Cuba's rural farms, urban gardens, talking to workers, people on the streets, scientists and farmers, and observing research at many fascinating projects around the country. Several from our group and I also participated in a five-day organic conference attended by 28 countries exchanging scientific research and inspiring stories of an organic and sustainable world in the making.

Since 1959, Cuba has withstood all the United States' efforts to break her spirit and starve her people out. Life is still very hard and there are many problems. But since the "special period" (as Cubans refer to the decade of the nineties when the heavy subsidies disappeared suddenly after the fall of the Soviet Union), Cubans have taken charge of their own destiny.

Against all odds, they have bootstrapped and re-positioned their economy, which is not yet stable and has many problems. But they have clear objectives of fostering independence and inter-dependence, not ever again allowing themselves to be wholly food dependent. Food security is paramount, as is the building of an environmentally just and healthier way of life.

During the Soviet Period, Cuba's agricultural systems were chemically dependent, inefficient, and most food basics had to be imported. Food sufficiency has not yet been realized in Cuba, and on so small a landmass, may never be possible. The United States sells large quantities of food to Cuba at top dollar and Cuba — which cannot reciprocate with sales to the United States since the trade barrier is a one-way, locked door — struggles to keep her balance. But Cuba has taken a scientific approach to restructuring its agriculture as sustainable and non-chemical based, organic being the goal, with synthetic chemical inputs less than half of what they were a decade ago and still dropping.

Cuba has been greening its cities and countryside with natural and organic agriculture. In the capital city of Havana, with a population of more than two million, virtually all fruits and vegetables consumed by the residents are produced organically within the boundaries of the municipality on some 60 "organop—nicos" — Havana's version of large, efficient P-patches. These are basically huge, cement-based container gardens, brimming with healthy soil built of compost, aged manure and earthworm castings.

The organop—nicos are as beautiful to behold as they are productive, and the gardeners take great pride in their accomplishments. The salaries of the gardeners and all agricultural sectors in Cuba rank among the highest incomes in Cuba. As one farm manager told our tour group, "Of course our workers are paid better than other jobs! Why wouldn't we pay more money to those who work so hard to grow our food? And especially when it is such pure, organic food for all!"

Official agricultural policies focus on sustainable and organic agriculture and upon environmental restoration and conservation in Cuba. All agricultural schools are doing organic research, especially in the area of natural pest controls and use of friendly microbes; products have been developed and patented and are being employed, especially in tropical agriculture.

Some organic products are certified, such as coffee and cocoa and Neem tree products, for export to trading partners for much-needed cash. But Cuba's main agricultural focus is to build its domestic organic and sustainable food production first and foremost; export takes a back seat in priorities.

The tour to Cuba was headed by Dr. Peter Rosset, co-director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, better known as Food First. This remarkable non-governmental organization for nearly 30 years has worked to assist the peoples of Nicaragua, the Philippines, Cuba, Guatemala and Haiti, and recently has worked with the Landless Movement in Brazil. Food First was founded with money contributed by Frances Moore Lappé, from the sale of her first book, Diet for a Small Planet ... the very same book, which started me on my agricultural and food journey nearly 30 years ago.

Another world IS possible. It absolutely is. It has to be, as current patterns are not sustainable.

For further reading on Cuba, see these Web sites:

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