By James Steinbauer, Editorial Editor

President Obama and Cuba’s Raul Castro pledged to turn the page on 50 years of hostile relationship at their historic meeting on Saturday in Panama City.

As the end of his presidency draws near, Obama seems eager to make a name for himself as the president who, through peaceful negotiations, brought both Cuba and Iran back into the fold — two of the largest wins for democracy since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Although breaking the crippling trade and travel embargoes against the largest Antillean country, as well as removing Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism is long overdue, Obama should exercise caution during the transition, not for the U.S.’s own sake, but for Cuba’s.

A report by the Oakland, California-based Institute for Food and Development Policy and Food First, an organization promoting sustainable agriculture, found that most of the food Cubans eat every day is grown without synthetic fertilizers and toxic pesticides. Organic farming — considered just a fragment of the food supply in the U.S. — is feeding close to the entire population of the island nation.

Cuba’s organic food system developed in response to a disaster. Before 1990, 50 percent of Cuba’s food was imported — a direct result of centuries of colonial food production where Caribbean island countries produced luxury export crops such as sugar, coffee and tobacco and imported food for their own people.

After 1989, the collapse of the U.S.S.R. and the withdrawal of Soviet aid, 1,327,000 tons of chemical fertilizers and pesticides were no longer imported, crippling Cuba’s already marginal imports and its ability to grow crops in the conventional, industrial ways brought about by the green revolution.

Cuba’s response was unprecedented. The government eliminated 80 percent of the state-run farms and turned them into worker-owned cooperatives. Cuban’s were allowed to farm the land rent-free as long as they met production quotas and crops produced in surplus could be sold at farmers markets, providing an incentive for farmers to use innovative organic technologies such as biofertilizers and compost. 

Another response to the food crisis was the development of “urban agriculture” or organopónicos: organic, high-yielding community gardens made from short concrete enclosures filled with soil and compost.

The response succeeded better than anyone could have hoped. There are currently more than 87 thousand acres of land being used for urban agriculture in Havana alone with businesses and schools in the city producing food from their own organopónicos. Today, sustainable food practitioners revere Cuba’s system as a model of self-sufficiency.

However, Cuba has recently been garnering attention from more than just sustainable food proponents. Big Ag, which forcefully lobbied Congress and the White House to end the embargo, is applauding the president’s actions on Cuba. Their plan: to supply thousands of farmers with modern tractors, roundup-ready seeds and the synthetic fertilizers and pesticides the island has been without for nearly 30 years and have 11 million Cuban’s eating American Corn Flakes for breakfast within the next decade

Trade with U.S. agribusinesses could be potentially devastating for Cubans — who are healthier and live longer than many of their Caribbean counterparts. In Mexico, a 12 percent increase in obesity corresponded with the implementation of NAFTA, which allowed American companies like Walmart to enter the country and sell inexpensive, processed food. 

President Obama should exercise caution in altering travel rules and trade restrictions on Cuba and leave Big Ag out of the conversation to prevent the island’s food system, a model system and beacon of hope for sustainable agriculture proponents throughout the world, from being destroyed.

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