Archive for October, 2009

The Cuban Garden Revolution

Posted in Environmental Concerns, Glad to be Food, World Food on October 27, 2009 by alejandracuellar


The campaigns in Cuba to promote urban and organic agriculture was a novel idea in the highly urbanized country. When Cuba faced food shortage in the 1990’s, the government was forced to create new pathways for the distribution of food. Interestingly enough, part of the problem in Cuba was due to a shortage in fossil-fuels which impacted the production through fertilizers, and the distribution through vehicles. Sounds terribly similar to the threats that face us today..

By proposing and creating incentives, the Cubans began to plant gardens in their homes that grew fruits and vegetables, a departure from the traditional Cuban diet which was ‘redundant in carbohydrates’ as white rice, sugar and sugarated drinks. It was easier to grow vegetables and fruit in the urban setting, as grains and meat require a higher input of energy and are better to grow in rural areas. Before the special period obesity, rates in Cuba were 30% and then fell to 16% due to food depravation. It should be noted that nutritional programs were implemented in order to educate people on the value of a balanced diet composed of fruits and vegetables, and debunking the myth that greens are food for rabbits.

The creation of these gardens was interesting because of the attempt to make them sustainable. Compost for example, can be a misplaced resource. The Cuban ‘Green Revolution’ (not to be confused with the Green Revolution in India) was attempting to reduce waste and use every output and so compost was used as a fertilizer. By being organic and diversified, they eliminated the need for pesticides. Then packaging, refrigeration and transportation were eliminated from the equation, taking away the dependence on fossil fuels. The output of these farms tripled during the 90’s city farms now grow enough food to meet the minimal nutrition needs of the population.

Another interesting element that arose from this system was the creation of an exchange market. When people had a surplus of a vegetable or fruit, they would exchange it for other goods instead of selling them. That way less food goes to waste. Sometimes people would give away their produce, because the focus of this program was to feed its people–not to depend on a market that can thrive in throwing away food in order to maintain a desired market price, while people die from hunger.

What can be taken from this story? That people. in the face of urgency are forced to come up with creative solutions. That people survive and adapt, and that it is possible to bring about positive change through difficult times.


Learning from History: Cuba’s Campaign Against Hunger

Posted in Glad to be Food, World Food on October 26, 2009 by alejandracuellar

“Famines are not caused by lack of food, but lack of rights”

“Hunger is a many headed monster; people suffering from hunger likely suffer from a disempowering combination of racism, sexism, prolonged poverty, illiteracy, lack of health care, water, jobs, and above all, money with which to buy food.”

-Amartya Sen


It is a combination of ills that create famine today, and always has. When looking at the hunger problem as a multi-layered, full of smaller problems, problem, the curtains begin to shed light into the reality of our world. Jaques Diouf of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization says the food problem is not caused by a shortage of food, but the lack of political will to mobilize resources to the benefit of the hungry. In Cuba during what is called the special period, when Cuba’s ally, the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba faced big problems with food shortages. Food intake was lowered by about a third, going from an average of 2,900 calories per person a day during the 1,980s to 1,863 in 1994. During this time Cuba also experienced a time of ‘the NGO explosion,’ where 3,000 young activists began foundations to help raise money from other international donors. This was a time of creative outlook when the government had to act in ways that would circumvent the number of difficulties Cuba faced in this period.

What is very interesting about the Cuban case is the fact that it so happens to coincide with drastic declines in the availability of fossil fuel energy for the machinery that helped in the mobilization and the production of food. Sound like something out of a work of fiction? Close enough to the issues that are happening today that it’s worth looking at Cuba’s solution for the problems we are facing around the world today. The following posts will look at the Cuba Garden Revolution in greater detail and the Brazilian Zero Fome, Zero Hunger campaign, to provide more examples of pioneering countries in the issue of famine.

Sweetness Beyond Measure: Red Saccharine Orbs

Posted in Glad to be Food, World Food on October 22, 2009 by alejandracuellar
In the Garden of Eden

American settlers viewed the insertion of apples to the United States from the old world (originally the mountains in Kazakhstan) as a re-building of the garden of Eden on earth.

In the sweet story of the apple, malus domestica lays the truth about human nature. You question this, you might think it a ludicrous idea. In part you are right, and your doubts might spring from the question: was there ever such a thing as human nature? If we take the history of the apple and call it ‘a natural history’, and we take the history of humans and argue we are agents of nature too, then Henry David Thoreau comes out of the closet and screams out: “It is remarkable how closely the history of the apple tree is connected with that of man!” Did you know that apples as we know them are a result of many years of human intervention with the sexual cycle of the trees? If you plant an apple seed, you are going to get a completely new variety of apple. That’s how apples ensure a wide genetic variation and defense against possible pests and intruders. Now that we have made sure to repress the sexual desire of apples to reproduce in their natural way, we have been able to selectively choose and arrive at the sweetest, the prettiest and the most generic types of apples. That’s right, as Michael Pollan put it, it is the blemish-free-plastic red saccharine orb that we have come to adore and then treat as irrelevant to society. What do I think is important about this story? It reminds about how the ingenuity of human beings can be found in so many places. We tend to think of ‘nature’ as untamed, untouched: an apple tree in the middle of a field charged with beautiful red fruit, a symbol of natural beauty. However, give that apple tree another look and you will discover it is a symbol of human’s pursuit of a deep seethed desire for SWEETNESS beyond measure, and how sweet can the apple get? How pretty, how red, how green can we make it now? As super-sweet as your wildest dreams go. It would be a folly to forget that messing with nature’s way has repercussions: if a resistant breed of pest hits the super model apples, they could all be gone without a word, as is the case with many other varieties of grain, fruits and vegetables treated in the same way. Humans have created the beautiful red, unable to fend for herself, at our expense and hers.  sweetness beyond dimension

The World Food Climate: Rising Demand, Quitting Aid

Posted in Environmental Concerns, Freaky Food, World Food on October 13, 2009 by alejandracuellar

To put it simply, something big is going on in the world of food. There are a number of key factors playing a role in the food system:

Food prices rose at the beginning of the year sparking riots in Haiti, the Philippines, Egypt and other countries. Although prices have declined, there are still countries where prices remain high and are getting higher. Last month the UN said that the number of hungry people in the world had increased by more than 150 million in a single year to more than one billion.


Why did it happen?

There are a few reasons behind it: there are more people to feed, the rising middle class in China and India is eating more meat and dairy, global warming is causing desertification is many agricultural settings, and oil prices where higher at the beginning of the year making transportation more expensive.

Right now prices have become more affordable (but nor entirely and not everywhere by any means) because oil prices have fallen and harvests are expected to have better yields this year.

Now, to add on to the list, tens of millions of the world’s poor will have their food rations cut or cancelled in the next few weeks because wealthy nations have cut aid funding. After giving a record of 5 billion dollars las year to avert the food crisis, this year countries are offering 2.7 billion in the first 10 months of this year, making it the lowest food aid offered in 20 years.

“There is a silent tsunami [of hunger] gathering. You cannot see or hear it, but it’s in all these villages, killing people just as hard. This is the worst food crisis since the 1970s. We will lose a generation. Children will never recover,” said Sheeran, head of the United Nations’ World Food Program.

I will venture to say  food aid given to underdeveloped nationsby wealthy nations is a metaphor for drug gifting. If nations have become dependent on aid and have lost their capacity to be producers, it is only because of forced underdevelopment. When you remove the aid, a tremendous withdrawal follows as it is happening today, and avoiding the responsibility from this dynamic is blatant injustice.

Food Not Bombs: Taking Control of Our Rights

Posted in Glad to be Food, World Food on October 12, 2009 by alejandracuellar


Food Not Bombs is a movement dedicated to promoting peace and community building through the sharing of our most basic good: food. The group was started in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1980 by anti-nuclear activists. It has now spread to more than a hundred independent charters based in the Americas, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Australia. If you want to know more about the history of the group click here.

The Food Not Bombs effort in the Pioneer Valley has been happening in Amherst and Northampton for some time. From the various occasions I have eaten with the group I have noticed trends that are both amusing and telling of a culture unaccustomed to friendly invitations from strangers. “Free food!” Someone will say to the passer-by who looks up briefly in a state of shock that very quickly turns into indifference. Sometimes people will offer a bemused smile and comment on the curious things on the table. “What is that? Stew?” As if it were a rarity. A thing  tainted by being on the street, a thing offered for free (disgusting) by both young and old people who just want whoever is hungry to sit and have a meal.

I should mention that all the ingredients used come from vendors who give away perfectly good food that fails to meet a protocol. What protocol are we talking about really? I would deem it the protocol of planned obsolescence, a term coined in the post World War II reconstruction era. It is “instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary”. In terms of produce, it is the art of pushing expiration dates a little sooner than necessary, in order for vendors to have to keep buying in higher quantities and forcing them to throw out much of the food they buy.

The people who do sit, like I have in several occasions, get to enjoy delicious home vegetarian cooked meals and get the chance to share conversation with a diverse group of people. It never fails to be uplifting and better yet, it is a reminder of what basic community forming is in the simplest way.

Modern Horrors: The Dangers of the Industrial Food System

Posted in Freaky Food on October 12, 2009 by alejandracuellar

Ground Beef

Stephanie Smith was forcefully put into a coma after she reacted violently with convulsions to a hamburger she ate at her mother’s house. The culprit: the dubious origin of the ground beef. The hamburger meat came from food producer Cargill. An estimated 940 people were sickened with E. Coli from the same meat that caused Smith’s eventual paralysis. Although this case is a rare occurrence among people who get E. Coli from eating meat, it raises the question about the safety of eating meat in the modern industrial setting.

It might be a surprise for some to realize ground beef is not the simple patty it seems. It is usually made up of different parts of the cow and comes from different slaughterhouses, some at an international level. Stemming from this globalized method of producing food greatly reduces the possibility of enforcing sanitary and health measures. The New York Times tracked down the anatomy of Smith’s hamburger in a multimedia graphic.

China’s Hands on African Agriculture

Posted in Environmental Concerns, World Food on October 3, 2009 by alejandracuellar

As Chinese growth stretches ever more outside of its boundaries, the emerging super power seeks to feed its growing population. With 1.3 billion people to feed and only 7% of arable land in the world, China is opening its agricultural eye to the African continent.

rice in africa

Some critics deem the Sino-African relationship unfair stating Africa is at a clear disadvantage to Chinese investment and trade strategy. Chinese loans often make it a condition that contracts must be granted to Chinese firms and employ Chinese labor. Critics argue that the prominence of Chinese cheap labor and cheap goods has already caused unemployment in parts of the continent and has been detrimental to the economy. The directory of the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, Jacques Diouf has described this kind of economic investment as “neo-colonialism”.

In addition to the fear that Chinese influence is harmful to African development and employment, there is a concern over rice farming in Africa. China’s substantial  investment in rice growing in Mozambique is concerning because rice is not a staple of most African countries’ diets. The question can then be raised, is China’s dealings in Africa purely based on self interest?

The Chinese reject this notion and instead argue that investment has also been directed towards the problem of undernourishment in Africa. Chinese supporters of activities in Africa believe rice growing is highly misunderstood and say the project is actually being designed as a possible solution to the huger problem. The Chinese Academy of Agriculture (CCA) started a project funded by the Gates Foundation called “Green Super Rice for the Resource Poor of Asia and Africa”. The project intents to have high-yield rice varieties  in seven African countries manufactured to withstand harsh conditions. The CCA calculated the project wi

ll increase rice production by 20% and assist in the feeding of 20 million poverty-stricken farmers in the countries involved.


Oh, and it might be worth mentioning that Chinese companies have invested a total of $175 million on oil exploration projects and infrastructure related to oil activities. Coincidentally Africa now supplies a third of China’s oil.