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What Cuba can teach America about organic farming

June 19, 2015 at 7:13 PM EDT
Many people in America are proponents of the organic food movement, and worried about the potentially harmful effects of pesticides on their health or the environment. In Cuba, farmers have gone organic for a very different reason – they had to. In this final instalment of our series “The Cuban Evoltion” Jeffrey Brown looks at food and farming.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now the conclusion to our series on Cuba.

All week long, we have showed you ways in which that country is dealing with significant shifts in business, arts, culture, and society.

Tonight, Jeffrey Brown reports about an industry where Cuba has been a leader, organic farming. Its growth was born out of necessity. But now its approach is attracting attention in the U.S. and other places. It’s part of our stories on The Cuban Evolution.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Cuba, and now beyond, Miguel Salcines is recognized as a pioneer of organic farming.

He’s a founder of Vivero Alamar Farm, 27 acres on Havana’s outskirts, a small parcel of land, but one that produces food for 80,000 residents in the surrounding community. When Salcines talks of a revolution, it’s not the one Fidel Castro led in the 1950s.

MIGUEL SALCINES, Founder, Vivero Alamar Farm (through translator): The country has had a green revolution in farming since the use of chemical fertilizers and chemical pesticides. At Alamar, our food production is without chemicals entirely.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, this is one of some 10,000 urban organic farms in Cuba. It’s part of a well-organized system here that’s gained attention as a model for other parts of the world and daily attracts experts and foodies, like this group of Americans on a recent tour.

MIGUEL SALCINES (through translator): This is like a school, because people from other countries that come to Cuba, they want to learn about Cuban agriculture. They already had like students from 15 different countries.

JEFFREY BROWN: But Cuba’s role as a leader in organic farming didn’t come from a concern over its carbon footprint, or a desire to rid chemicals from everyday food. Cuba stopped using chemicals because the chemicals disappeared.

NARRATOR: The people in Cuba are living in a crisis.

JEFFREY BROWN: It began in 1991, what the government euphemistically called a special period, when the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba lost its major supplier of fuel, fertilizer and food.

MAN: People are just fed up with period special.

JEFFREY BROWN: This 1993 documentary captured the pain and chaos of those years, when it’s estimated individual Cubans lost an average of 10 to 15 pounds.

NARRATOR: People queue in line for hours at a time for a few basic essentials. These people were waiting for pieces of bread. Others would stand in long lines for two heads of cabbage.

MIGUEL SALCINES (through translator): It was a matter of urgency. It was a huge challenge, since we were importing more than 80 percent of the food consumed by Cubans. We needed to produce our own food.

JEFFREY BROWN: Farmers were without fertilizers, pesticides, or fuel for tractors. In an effort to stave off hunger, the Cuban government gave state-owned farmland to anyone who promised to grow food.

Vivero Alamar was created by people who lived in the surrounding community. Many well remember the special period.

FELIX CUVILLAS DULCAN, Cuba (through translator): I am 56 years old. We had a rough period here in the ’90s. We had needs. We were hungry, but not dying of hunger.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jason Reis, who has an organic farm in Brooklyn, New York, helped lead the tour we joined.

JASON REIS, Farmer: The older people taught the younger people in that time period in the ’90s how to use the traditional techniques of growing food, when there was no access to chemicals.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you see when you look at this place?

JASON REIS: I see a great example of permaculture and organic farming practices. They’re using a lot of interplanting, and a lot of natural insecticides. They’re using marigolds to attract the pollinators. And it’s not a monoculture. It’s not a field full of corn or soy like we see in the U.S.

JEFFREY BROWN: Beds of worms are bred to break down manure into nutrient-rich compost. Juan Andres Rodriguez has worked here for nine years.

JUAN ANDRES RODRIGUEZ (through translator): It’s very hard work. It takes a lot of love.

JEFFREY BROWN: The vegetables and fruits are sold on the premises to people in the neighborhood.

Is it possible to feed the whole city, to feed Havana?

MIGUEL SALCINES (through translator): It would be a dream to say you can do that, because it requires a lot of resources that are not available right now.

But what we can say is that we have improved the diet of Cubans, and the healthy diet of Cubans. There’s a lot of fiber, and a lot of good nutrients that we didn’t have before.

JAMIE DEROSA, Chef: I need green coconuts for the dinner tonight.

JEFFREY BROWN: Indeed, one member of the tour of American foodies Jamie DeRosa, a well-known Miami chef.

JAMIE DEROSA: We took the lobster. We cleaned it. We poached it slowly just for a few minutes with rum, and fresh coconut, and lime.

JEFFREY BROWN: And he told me later he was impressed by what he’d seen.

JAMIE DEROSA: It’s interesting to see a country with less resources than we have doing the very same farming we are just now becoming great at. The lettuces were great. The herbs were great. To see a greenhouse growing heirloom tomatoes, it is fantastic. I mean, it really was.

JEFFREY BROWN: But questions loom, as diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba improve, and American agriculture and food companies look for commercial opportunities on the island.

JASON REIS: I was just talking to our guide at the farm here, and she says that genetically modified organisms are outlawed in Cuba. They’re not allowed. However, chemicals may be allowed.

And I don’t know what will happen if the American agriculture companies get in here, and are able to sell their products, if it’s going to continue like this organic model, or if it’s going to look a lot more like what we see in the U.S. I really — I really don’t know what’s going to happen.

JEFFREY BROWN: Miguel Salcines says farming here will change, but he hopes the focus on organic methods continues.

MIGUEL SALCINES (through translator): The use of chemicals is inevitable. The chemists are going to return. What we have to know is to what extent, and use them as little as possible, and try to continue to emphasize organic agriculture.

JEFFREY BROWN: From Alamar, Cuba, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the “PBS NewsHour.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: Chef Jamie DeRosa shared one of the recipes he prepared that evening at the foodie event, lobster seviche with guava. And you can find that on our home page. Also there, catch up on all of our Cuba reports from this week, including photo galleries and a travel guide. That’s at PBS.org/NewsHour.

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