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During my freshman year of college, I was interested in two things, and they weren't girls and beer. I really wanted to study math and U.S. politics. I figured that I was either destined to be a general manager of a baseball team or that I would end up writing policy. So I took classes on those topics and listened politely while my friends talked to me about their classes in subjects that weren't up my alley. If I had listened more intently, I could have learned a lot. A good friend was taking a class on food politics that focused on Cuba as a case study. Now, six years later, let me tell you what he (probably) told me.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 left Cuba in a pretty horrible situation. In one swoop, they had lost their major trading partner and the U.S., emboldened by their victory, had no interest in loosening their embargo on the country. So, the small island country was left isolated without good access to, among other things, petroleum, nitrogen-based fertilizer and new farm equipment. To feed its 12 million residents, the Cuban government unleashed a moon-mission style program to develop organic-method farms throughout the country. And it worked. The program created 350,000 jobs, close to 10% of the nation's workforce, and Cubans now live almost exclusively off of locally grown organic produce.
The most instructive aspect of Cuba's experiment is the urban agriculture taking place in its capital, Havana. Residents in Havana now get 90% of their fresh produce from urban farms in the city. Each year, the city produces in the neighborhood of 300,000 tons (or 600 million pounds) of food!
The numbers below show that Havana's population density is nearly equal to that of Los Angeles. Havana does have a couple advantages: greater rainfall and slightly warmer temperatures. Nevertheless, it serves as a worthwhile comparison. If Los Angeles is serious about creating jobs, especially green jobs, a substantial investment in urban agriculture seems prudent. If we are concerned about the potential impact on our local economy of another oil price shock (and we should be) then urban agriculture seems like an even better investment. It took nearly two decades for the Cubans to develop a thriving system of organic urban agriculture. We better get started.
Los Angeles: 3,833,995 People, 498.3 Miles2, 8,205 Population Density
Havana: 2,400,300 People, 278.4 Miles2, 7909 Population Density
How's the Food in Cuba, You Ask (Part 3), La Vida Locavore, 6/1/2010
Image from Hoyasmeg, "Community grown vegetables_Cuba 218," June 2, 2010 via Flickr, Creative Commons.