Now, just by looking across the table, I saw that Fernando Funes had since gained the twenty pounds back. In fact, he had a little paunch, as do many Cuban men of a certain age. What happened was simple, if unexpected. Cuba had learned to stop exporting sugar and instead started growing its own food again, growing it on small private farms and thousands of pocket-sized urban market gardens—and, lacking chemicals and fertilizers, much of that food became de facto organic. Somehow, the combination worked. Cubans have as much food as they did before the Soviet Union collapsed. They’re still short of meat, and the milk supply remains a real problem, but their caloric intake has returned to normal—they’ve gotten that meal back.
In so doing they have created what may be the world’s largest working model of a semi-sustainable agriculture, one that doesn’t rely nearly as heavily as the rest of the world does on oil, on chemicals, on shipping vast quantities of food back and forth.
I should add, I'm only interested in this at the level of technique. As far as I'm concerned, if that works it stands on its own, independently of Cuba's larger social-political system. If anything, the fact that something like this can be made to work in a state socialist prison like Cuba should, a fortiori, be promising for large grass roots alternative economics movements in comparatively free societies.
It's certainly an example of how quickly a capital- and chemical-intensive agricultural system can be decentralized and shifted to a labor-intensive and largely organic production model in the event of a sudden loss of inputs (can anyone say "Peak Oil"?).
Addenda: Buermann, at Flagrancy to Reason, recently posted on an Oxfam study of Cuba's economic transition after the Soviet aid cutoff, and drew similar general lessons for an energy-scarce economy.
Also on the subject of peak oil and economic decentralization: Bill G (not Gates) informs me that Robert Waldrop of the distributist list, founder of both the Oscar Romero Catholic Worker House in Oklahoma City and the Oklahoma Food Cooperative, will be a presenter at the re-localization and agraria conference at Community Solutions.
Robert will talk about the development of local food systems, which will be critical when the petroleum-dependent global industrial food system collapses. He will share his lessons from organizing the Oklahoma Food Cooperative, explain the role of urban agriculture, and enumerate the personal changes necessary for adapting to a local food system.