There are striking parallels between the industrial gigantism of the United States and the Soviet bloc in the 20th century, and their institutional cultures. This is true in particular of agriculture. Both were based on extremely large-scale farms, with high levels of mechanization and heavy use of synthetic fertilizers.
From the Cuban Revolution until the collapse of the USSR, Cuba followed the Soviet model of agricultural development. “As the world’s largest sugar exporter, Cuba relied on pesticides and fertilisers and heavy mechanisation to produce up to 8.4m tonnes of sugar – its peak harvest, in 1990 – nearly all of it exported to the Communist bloc.”(1) Federica Bono, a professor of human geography at Christopher Newport University in Virginia, says “Cuba was a very mechanized agricultural system. It has been compared to the California agricultural systems with that level of mechanization and use of chemicals.”(2)
It also amounted to a neocolonial, export-oriented development model on steroids; instead of import subsitution and diversification, Cuba focused on cash crop production to pay for its imports:
during the Cold War they had stopped producing food of their own and turned over most of their farmland to sugarcane plantations to supply the Soviet Union. In return for these mountains of sugar Moscow provided Cuba with food, chemical fertilizers and fuel oil for its cars and tractors.(3)
This all ended with the collapse of the Soviet bloc and of the Soviet Union itself. It was followed in short order by the loss of 80% of Cuba’s foreign trade and the appearance of severe food shortages — a time Castro referred to as the “special period.”(4)
This was the beginning of Cuba’s food crisis, a period in which residents lost, on average, access to one third of their daily calories, the government instituted a peacetime austerity programme for food rationing, and most Cubans experienced widespread, inescapable hunger.
Along with the evaporation of food imports, Cuba lost access to the animal feed, fertilisers and fuel that had sustained the island’s agricultural efforts. Oil scarcity became so pervasive that it curbed pesticide and fertiliser production, limited the use of tractors and industrial farming equipment, and ultimately seized the transport and refrigeration network that was needed to deliver vegetables, meat and fruit to the tables throughout the region. Without the feed, fertilisers and fuel that had once sustained the nation, Cuba’s Green Revolution system of agriculture effectively unravelled.(5)
The popular response was nothing short of heroic. The early 90s saw a crash program of localizing and expanding food production, and replacing mechanized high-input farming with soil-intensive and organic production methods.
At first, struggling with little know-how and without fertilizers, their yields were low, but by producing compost and other organic growing mediums, plus introducing drip-fed irrigation, they began to see improvements….
Soil quality was improved with a mixture of crop residues, household wastes and animal manure to create more compost and soil conditioners. The extra fresh vegetables and fruit this provided quickly improved urban dwellers’ calorie intake and saved many from malnutrition.
By 2008 food gardens, despite their small scale, made up 8 percent of the land in Havana, and 3.4 percent of all urban land in Cuba, producing 90 percent of all the fruit and vegetables consumed.(6)
The result is an amazing model of food resilience:
Urban agriculture in Havana occurs at a host of different scales, from the balcony garden to the multi-hectare fields that comprise Havana’s greenbelt. Havana’s urban gardens typically produce food for human and animal consumption, although the same formal structure of gardens also supports the production of compost, biofuels and animal husbandry. Many of these gardens have emerged somewhat opportunistically from vacant and blighted properties within the city, exploiting usufruct rights (free land provided by the government) to seize available space.
…On one rooftop in the El Cerro neighbourhood, a single farmer raises 40 guinea pigs, six chickens, two turkeys and more than a hundred rabbits. His 68 square-metre system incorporates closed-loop permaculture principles, where he grows vegetables, recycles organic animal waste, collects water and exploits a number of inter-species synergies. He has built his own machines for drying and preserving feed, which allows him to collect abundant waste compost from nearby markets and stores and put it up for leaner times. His small rooftop enterprise produces meat for area restaurants and markets; he is one of more than a thousand small livestock breeders in Havana.(7)
Such efficiencies are common to urban farming in general. According to Colin Ward, the amount of food produced in home gardens in newly built neighborhoods in Britain exceeded what was produced on the same land when it was farms.
American-style conventional mechanized agriculture — like capitalism as a whole — also developed using a model of growth based on extensive addition of artificially cheap inputs.
Conventional American farmers are land-rich to the point that they typically hold most of their land out of use, actually being paid by the government to do so. For this reason so-called “farms” are as much guaranteed real estate investments as operations for producing food.
In America’s largest agricultural state, California, big agribusiness operations get enormous amounts of subsidized irrigation water from government-managed dams — even when ordinary residents in municipalities are forced to ration water.
The United States is also highly dependent on long-distance transportation to get the food grown on large-scale agribusiness plantations to the people who consume it, hundreds or thousands of miles away.
The so-called “high-yield” seed varieties of the Green Revolution are only more productive or more efficient given the availability of large quantities of inputs like synthetic fertilizers and subsidized irrigation water. For this reason Frances Lappe calls them “high-response varieties.”
American capitalism, agriculture included, is — like Soviet “socialism” — a state-enforced system of power.
The sheer inefficiencies of such a system are bad enough, even if it weren’t so vulnerable. But on top of that, were American agriculture to suffer major systemic disruptions to all the subsidized inputs on which it is so heavily dependent, the United States would likely experience a “special period” of its own. And such disruptions do not seem at all implausible.
Western states are facing severe water constraints, as record drought devastates the rivers on which irrigation water depends. In addition to the medium- to long-term threat of Peak Oil, our recent experience with the COVID pandemic and imports bans on Russian oil shows that long-distance shipping is also vulnerable to short-term supply shocks. And synthetic fertilizers and pesticides have produced horrific feedback effects. Primary reliance on chemical fertilizers not only transforms soil into lifeless hardpan, but results in toxic algae blooms in waterways and oceans. Pesticides kill off insect pests’ natural enemies and stimulate the development of resistance, so that ten or more times as much poison has less effect. Large-scale monoculture farming and bare soil from plowing and herbicide use leads to massive topsoil loss.
Put all these things together, and they amount to an agricultural system that’s extremely fragile — maybe not as much so as Cuba’s in 1990, but getting there.
Expedients for getting through late-stage capitalism’s sustainability crises will likely involve reworking our food system into something intensively relocalized, and based on things like closed-loop nutrient recycling, landscapes designed according to Permaculture for rainwater harvesting and conservation, etc. And as an example, we could do worse than look to the people of Cuba.
- Roger Atwood, “Organic or starve: can Cuba’s new farming model provide food security?” The Guardian, October 28, 2017 <https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/oct/28/organic-or-starve-can-cubas-new-farming-model-provide-food-security>.
- “Cuba’s Farming Cooperatives: An Interview with Federica Bono,” Grassroots Economic Organizing, March 20, 2023 <https://geo.coop/articles/cubas-farming-cooperatives>.
- “Cuba’s Urban Farming Shows Way to Avoid Hunger,” EcoWatch, November 19, 2019 <https://www.ecowatch.com/urban-farming-cuba-2641320251.html>.
- Atwood, op. cit.
- Carey Clouse, “Cuba’s Urban Farming Revolution: How to Create Self-Sufficient Cities,” Architectural Review, March 17, 2014 <https://www.architectural-review.com/essays/cubas-urban-farming-revolution-how-to-create-self-sufficient-cities>.
- “Cuba’s Urban Farming Shows Way to Avoid Hunger,” op. cit.
- Clouse, op. cit.