Alice Claydon is one of three Student Travel Award 2014 recipients. She recently visited Cuba to investigate urban agriculture – this is the first of two blogs about what she learnt and experienced.

    They say that the first step on the road to recovery is admitting that you have a problem. So here goes….we have a problem with food.

    Except that in the case of the 21st century industrial agricultural system, the term ‘problem’ doesn’t really come close. As Professor Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University London, has been warning for the last 35 years, we are currently facing a global ‘food crisis’ which is already having a catastrophic effect on people’s health, livelihoods, and the natural environment.

    On a global scale, food production is the single biggest cause of climate change – greater than any other human activity on the planet. It is estimated that the industrial food system emits more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation network, or even all energy generation on Earth. It is a sad irony then that climate change is one of the greatest threats to the future security of food.

    We already use 60% of the Earth’s land for food production, and the other 40% cannot viably sustain efficient agricultural production. In order to ensure global food security we need to address the way that global food is produced, distributed and consumed. Currently one billion people in the world are obese, and yet another one billion are starving.

    Diet-related health problems are placing huge strains on health care systems all over the world. By 2035, it is predicted that diabetes alone will cost the NHS £16.8bn. To put this into perspective, over £162bn was spent on diabetes last year in the USA. Producing more food will not compensate for unbalanced global consumption; it is estimated that 30-50% of all food produced never even reaches a human stomach anyway. With poor practices in harvesting, storage and transportation, as well as market and consumer wastage, we are actually already producing enough food to comfortably feed 7 billion of us now.

    The distribution of people across the planet is rapidly changing. One of the direct effects of the widespread conglomeration of agricultural land is the displacement of people from rural to urban contexts. Since 2012 we have for the first time in human history become a predominantly urban species, and feeding cities has become one of the greatest challenges of our lifetime.

    Not that most of us in Britain would be remotely aware of this challenge and the monumental environmental costs of putting daily food onto our plates. Supermarkets create the illusion of a permanent global summertime by offering a constant and vast array of food, over 40% of which is imported. The majority of us never have to worry about where we will get our food from – so surely that means the system must be working?

    Well Lord Cameron, head of the Countryside Agency, realised after the fuel protests in 2000 that any disruption to the supermarkets’ just-in-time delivery supply chain would mean that only three days of food per person would be left on the supermarket shelves. We are living in a country where, every day, we are potentially ‘nine meals from anarchy’. More recently, Oxfam’s Good Enough to Eat Index compared the availability of food, its price, quality and nutritional value in 125 countries worldwide. Britain came out as the worst country in Europe.

    As we move into a less stable economic, political and environmental future, the likelihood of mass disruptions to the global energy and food supply chain grows ever more real. What would it be like if suddenly for some reason we had no industrial food to rely on? There is one place in the world we can look to for an example of the industrial model falling apart practically overnight, and that is Cuba.

    In 1989 the Soviet Union collapsed, taking with it Cuba’s main source of GDP and nearly all of its imports of fossil fuels, fertilisers, pesticides and agricultural machinery. Tractors and harvesters stopped dead in the fields, trucks could not transport food around the country and hundreds of thousands of cattle starved to death without the grain to feed them. The government declared a state of emergency know as the ‘Special Period in a Time of Peace’, made worse by the continuing US trade embargo. A radical new model of food production was rapidly needed to prevent mass starvation.

    During the Special Period the average Cuban lost between 5-25% of their bodyweight. Although there was widespread famine, mass starvation was prevented as the government implemented a system of ‘usufruct’ (essentially a long term lease with little or no cost) for anyone to grow food on vacant land in the cities and the countryside. New techniques for growing high yield, pest resistant, organic produce were developed by Cuban scientists, and networks to disseminate and share knowledge and skills spread across the nation. Urban agriculture not only became a viable means of feeding the predominantly urban population, but it also emerged as a key driver on the country’s road to recovery.

    At least one analyst has suggested that the Cuban model ‘may hold many of the keys to the future survival of civilisation’. In my next post I will share some of the secrets to the success of Cuba’s low carbon, organic, urban agricultural movement and I will also suggest what we as landscape architects can learn from the Cuban experiment.

    –          About the author: Alice Claydon is currently completing a postgraduate diploma in Landscape Architecture at Birmingham City University. Alice studied urban agriculture in Cuba, where local organic urban farms and gardens are ecologically friendly, and produce 90% of Havana’s fresh produce.

    To read more about the Student Travel Awards 2014 and to read about other recipient blogs, see the Student page.

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