Could We Have Cheap Organic Foods in Cuba?

By Yasser Farres Delgado

Street Vendor. Photo: Belquis Leal

HAVANA TIMES — I often ask myself how far the stupidity of Cuban leaders can go, but I can never quite predict those limits – they always end up surprising me. One case in point is the recent measures taken against street vendors to try and control the price of farm products. As is customary, their solution was to restrict and limit…rather than socialize. To contrast this decision, today I will narrate an experience that could offer a valid response to Cuba’s crisis.

We know that, everywhere in the world, product prices tend to rise dramatically due to intermediaries, who often secure more benefits than producers themselves. As more intermediaries are added to the chain, the product becomes more and more expensive for consumers. Eliminating such intermediaries by decree without previously offering an alternative for the consumer, however, is the most absurd measure that can be taken, because it leads to immediate shortages.

For the capitalist mindset, there are two basic measures to be taken in light of rising prices: to encourage production and foster competition. In truth, these are hypocritical measures, because they aren’t actually interested in making products cheaper (there are plenty of examples of agreements and other ways in which prices can be controlled) or increasing competition (in Europe, for instance, the rising number of supermarkets stems from a monopolization process that is making smaller businesses disappear).

In the case of farm products, the first measure is based on the industrialization of the countryside (on a greater dependence on oil and greater variability in production costs), and the modification of crops through genetic and other techniques, processes that, in practice, have served to consolidate a world production and consumption system that is not only economically and socially unjust but also anti-ecological. This model works against traditional local economies.

Are there alternatives to this model? The answer is yes. There are alternatives to this capitalist, industrial and monopolistic model that would allow people to eat cheaply and in environmentally-friendly ways. This model is gaining more and more ground but people are still unaware of it (in fact, we often think that “cheap” and “green” are incompatible conditions: “Only fancy-pants eat organic,” someone commented in the Facebook wall of one of my contacts recently).

To eat cheap, organic and environmentally-friendly products and to contribute to a socially fairer economy while doing so is possible, but we have to break out of the conventional, consumerist mindset. We have to come to understand such concepts as social economy, fair trade, zero-kilometer production, short trade channels, food sovereignty and many others that have long been implemented in essentially anti-capitalist experiments (some have been anti-authoritarian, anti-patriarchal, anti-racist, etc.).

It is a question of developing new social models for production and consumption. Unfortunately, such projects have no chance of developing in Cuba because the allegedly socialist government isn’t interested in promoting them. These experiences, based primarily on freedom of association, freedom of choice and freedom in general, cannot take place under a totalitarian regime that wants to control everything.

A typical Ecovalle food box. September 2015.

In Spain – Granada, to be more specific – I had the opportunity to be part of one such project, based on the creation of production and consumption networks: Ecovalle, The Association of Green Producers of Valle de Lecrin defines itself as a “group of producers, partners of Ecovalle, who have organized to jointly sell our organic products and to jointly plan and rotate our harvests.” These producers, in turn, have links to other associations in Granada, such as El Vergel de La Vega, an “association of consumers and producers of green and craft products.”

In the case of some networks, these become cooperatives where some people have the task of producing and others of consuming the products, and all take part in the planning and account for the financial state of the cooperative and other tasks. One example is the Hortigas Agro-Ecological Cooperative.

In the case of Ecovalle, producers – located in agricultural areas that are relatively close to one another and devoted to environmentally-friendly production – were in direct contact with city dwellers who bought their products. Through an email, we would receive the list of products offered that week (which was also published on their webpage and Facebook page) and would make our orders by replying to the message: a basket that included the season’s fruits and greens. One could also include craft products. The food baskets were offered in different sizes (big, medium and small) to suit the interests of buyers.

Deliveries were made at a previously agreed-to place and time. In some cases, deliveries were made in a public space (park or square), while, in others, at a community center or the venue of a given association (generally committed to social change, other lifestyles, the promotion of healthy lifestyles, etc.). These producers also offered the option of a home delivery for a slightly higher price.

The quality of the product delivered was achieved in many different ways. On the one hand, the harvest and collection of these crops is adjusted to real demand, such that consumers get a fresh product (“from the garden to the table” was one of the principles I heard mention many a time). If the demand was higher than the productive capacity, producers simply tried to broaden the production network, avoiding the over-exploitation of the land and encouraging the redistribution of capital (I should point out that, in the Granada area, there are many producers and a significant number of mini-farms, which is not generally the case in Andalusia, where the land is controlled by a handful of families).

It is a question of developing new social models for production and consumption. Unfortunately, such projects have no chance of developing in Cuba because the allegedly socialist government isn’t interested in promoting them. These experiences, based primarily on freedom of association, freedom of choice and freedom in general, cannot take place under a totalitarian regime that wants to control everything.

On the other hand, to guarantee that all products are environmentally-friendly, in some cases a Participative Quality Control System (SPG) is in place, offering consumers the right to visit the productive areas regularly. No official certifications are required, though some production collectives do ask for these. This is coupled with the trustworthiness and credibility of those who produce, two values that have been lost with global industrialized production.

As for prices, they were ultimately lower than those of similar green products that one can buy at supermarkets. In fact, their prices weren’t too different from those of conventional products. The difference was small and the quality and taste justified the extra price. There’s also the fact the money remains within the local economy.

These production and consumption nodes in Granada have spread and achieved a new level of social impact. Different social actors have contributed to this. For instance, an interdisciplinary research team from the University of Granada I had the opportunity to be part of, through a research project and by applying participative research and action methodologies, contributed to the creation of Granada’s Organic and Environmentally-Friendly Market, or Ecomercado.

An interesting aspect of those who are part of these networks is that they are not all exclusively farmers but people from other sectors: craftspeople, researchers, cultural organizers, environmental educators, men and women who diversify their activities through different projects, who come together occasionally.

What is needed in Cuba to make such projects possible? Not much more than freedom for personal initiative and political will.

5 thoughts on “Could We Have Cheap Organic Foods in Cuba?

  • Edith, your answer is very helpful. …if this were any other country but Cuba. Everything that you suggest is currently illegal or prohibited in Cuba.

  • I wonder if you could start very small and prove the model to get more traction. So called “CSAs” (community supported agriculture) in the United States are very common. Below is a link to a formal definition. You might find a partner CSA in the US to guide you on how to start a small operation in Havana to test what works there. Our CSAs look just like the model you describe from Granada. Maybe start with the “farm to table” idea with just a few Havana paladars, with farms bringing weekly deliveries to those specific places, eliminating the middle men. If that works, start offering the deliveries to families.

  • The concepts are there but the government controls everything and until they get there act together there is not much hope for progress. Just got back from Cuba on a People to People trip. Great potential but the “wall” is great also.

  • Well written piece. There is a need for a massive change with regards to agriculture so good luck getting this to the masses. It could indeed work and certainly better than what Cuba has today.

  • Great concept, give people more control.

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