My interest in sustainable food systems and urban agriculture - producing and distributing food in cities - led me to Cuba in 2007. I signed up for a "food tour" organized by Wendy Holm, a Bowen Island-based PhD agronomist. This was no gastronomic extravaganza by any stretch of the imagination, but we were there to learn how Cuba dealt with and survived a brutal and sustained energy shock that began in the early 1990s.
Without oil to run tractors, agrichemicals to fertilize fields, and fuel to transport food from the country into the cities, Cubans turned to urban organic agriculture to keep its 11 million citizens from mass starvation.
Our group of chefs, food writers and sustainability keeners visited a number of Cuba's ubiquitous organopónicos, smallscale urban organic farms where Cubans buy their fresh vegetables daily from the farmers who collectively own the coop. These astonishingly productive food gardens, often growing in little more than a foot of soil in raised beds over concrete, opened my eyes to just how much food could be produced in a city when people really put their minds to it.
We toured garden after garden bursting with gorgeous organic salad crops, vegetables, culinary herbs, and even "green medicines" like the noni fruit, a pinecone-shaped knobbly tropical fruit high in vitamin C and touted in North American health food stores as the next "superfruit."
Cuba's urban farms were not just in the capital of Havana but in every medium and small town our group visited from one end of the island to another. Farmers at the organopónicos did difficult manual labour under the searing Caribbean sun, but they were rewarded with both a relatively high salary and respect from their customers.
Around the same time, I was also coming to the realization that counting my own food miles was a luxury that others, even in my own city of Edmonton, Alberta, didn't have. And our North American fascination with cheap food came bundled with widespread food contamination tragedies and dietrelated illnesses that could no longer be ignored. Was it any wonder that some of us were trying to find alternatives to the chemical-laden, pesticide-dependent fossil fuel-guzzling industrial food system?
Veggies grown and sold right down the street, urban chickens and urban beehives suddenly started to make a lot more sense, not just in Cuba.
I decided to take a first-hand look at Paris, London, Vancouver, Toronto, Detroit, Milwaukee, Chicago, and back to Havana again to look at everything from rooftop supermarket farms to the world's first operating vertical farm. And if I can venture any predictions at this point, I would wager that the future of food lies in the ingenuity and resilience of local food economies. And that we're just at the beginning of our awakening to the food-producing potential of our cities.
JENNIFER COCKRALL-KING is the author of the recently released Food and the City: Urban Agriculture and the New Food Revolution (Prometheus Books, 2012). She blogs about her own garden and other urban agriculture news at foodgirl.ca.