Followed on from the previous blog, this article looks at alternative food networks, what they are and how they work. I will be going overseas to Cuba, one of the world leaders in sustainable food production, to analyse their alternative methods to see how well they work.
Alternative Food Networks (AFN)
Alternative food networks are structured around processes that are against supermarket food chains that are incorporated in a global network. They involve people who consider the moral and ethical implications of their food, such as where it came from and how it was produced, and want to lessen the impact that they have on the environment, their health, and on working conditions. This can include a variety of methods, including organic produce, fairtrade items, local foods, box schemes (such as Regather and Ocado), and farmers markets. There are many different types of alternative food networks that exist and it can be confusing which one is the best approach, but they each oppose neoliberal practices in different ways.
Brief history of Cuba
In order to understand Cuba’s agriculture today we need to understand their history as Cubans did not always have a sustainable agricultural system and it was not their choice to change to one.
Some of the alternative methods are outlined below:
State run farms were decentralised and turned into co-operatives, so workers were able to manage themselves and make their own decisions. However the state still owned the land, decided how many people work on each farm, controlled what crops could be produced and how they were sold. They restricted the use of chemical pesticides on the land and farmers had to apply for permission to use tractors or to grow on more land. Furthermore, members of the Communist Party were on the co-operative boards so they had influenced what was decided. The state’s heavy involvement in the co-operative farms could have been to ensure enough food was grown, that they had a good diversity of crops and that mono-cropping didn’t occur again. However, it could have been because they weren’t ready to let go of as much power as they had intended and instead said they were empowering the people without practising it in full.
Once the Special Period in Peace Time began Fidel Castro said
Normally growing food in public was derogatory (growing food was kept to the back garden out of sight), but since Castro relaxed the laws people were growing everywhere they could. People could apply for land in usufruct for free as long as it was for cultivation. The law on selling produce was relaxed which ensured income as well as food security, although most donated any extra to those in need, such as to their neighbours and local schools, showing true solidarity in difficult times.
As the land became freely available, different kinds of urban agriculture emerged (see below).
Organiponicos were the most popular method. Soil within the cities was incredibly poor quality, so having raised beds with compost helped to tackle this problem. They were run through a variety of methods, including within the workplace, co-operatives, the state, or privately. Coming together meant that people could grow more and with more grown locally, fresh food was more affordable than at the supermarkets which had longer supply chains. But though this produce was cheaper, it didn’t reach the whole community as not everyone could afford or have access to it (such as those living further away without cars) .
Smaller scale urban growers were popular during the Special Period, however numbers decreased by the early 2000’s and Organiponicos doubled. Organiponicos were larger in size and, while it was partly economic recovery that stopped individual people growing, some were known to make larger commercial investments which were deemed ‘more appropriate for the city’. The state had professionals working for them who ensured the state was shown to be succeeding by underreporting or excluding data from their reports.They would prioritise some areas over others for agricultural development and suggest that the cities were not suitable for growing produce – such as saying there wasn’t enough water while not taking into account alternative methods like rain. Perhaps since the economic situation was improving the state wanted to change back to the previous large scale methods. Maybe they still held onto the stigma against cultivating in public and only chose to relax the laws during such hard times.
While Cuba doesn’t meet AFN definition as they were forced to be sustainable rather than doing it by choice, they do offer alternative methods which ensured healthy food for the people while bringing them together in times of hardship. Small scale production meant that Cuba could be self-reliant however the way people get food relies heavily on their personal circumstances – such as who their neighbours and family are. Depending on their networks and how far away they are from food outlets and their access to transportation, depends greatly what food they get and how they get it.
Cuba have a long way to go before ensuring full empowerment and food security of the people, but it is a complex situation that requires careful thought. With the state’s involvement it ensures environmentally friendly methods are used. Many of the co-operative farmers were originally taught large scale was better and that the sustainable methods were purely temporary, so the states involvement is vital to ensure they didn’t revert back.
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