Australia and Cuba strengthen relations through urban food security project

November 16 / 188

A family-run organic food kiosk in Havana. Photo: Adrian Hearn
A family-run organic food kiosk in Havana. Photo: Adrian Hearn

A team of University of Melbourne researchers is about to travel to Cuba as part of an urban food security project funded by the Australian government’s Council on Australia-Latin America Relations (COALAR).  

The team members, from a range of disciplines, are hoping to strengthen relations between Cuba and Australia while tackling the emerging problem of food security.

The project is headed by Associate Professor Adrian Hearn from the School of Languages and Linguistics, who says the combination of anthropological expertise and environmental science fits with Cuba’s emerging priorities.  As part of former trade Minister Andrew Robb’s delegation to Havana in February 2016, Hearn developed the project idea with Cuba’s Antonio Núñez Jiménez Foundation – a leader in Cuban sustainability strategies.

Australia began working with Cuba on food security in the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union triggered a 75 per cent reduction in Cuba’s import capacity and a 35 per cent decline in GDP.  That early work, conducted by the Australian Conservation Foundation with funding from AusAID, supported Cuba’s efforts to shore up urban food production through permaculture techniques.  The Cuban government encourages its citizens to sell locally – nearly 70 per cent of its fresh produce is grown within urban areas, reducing diesel fuel and pesticide use.  Between 1997 and 2013 Cuba’s National Program of Urban Agriculture employed 350,000 people and oversaw a five-fold rise in consumption of fresh vegetables.  

However, the country’s recent economic reforms have created new challenges and opportunities for cooperation.  This University of Melbourne project will address some of these emerging pressures, including optimising water use, minimising soil contamination and pollutant risks on urban crops, commercialising organic production, and establishing two-way education and training. Seeking to address these challenges, the University of Melbourne team, which also includes Professor Ruth Beilin and Dr Chris Williams from the School of Ecosystem and Forest Sciences, is partnering with Melbourne’s Centre for Education and Research in Environmental Strategies (CERES).

The academics agree the project has mutual benefits for both Australia and Cuba. 

“There’s a lot we can learn about achieving a more sustainable mix of small-scale local food production and large-scale agribusiness especially in a context of climate change, making sure that our cities’ food supply is secure,” Professor Hearn says. 

“It’s exciting to harness the experience and dedication of the CERES staff, and a great opportunity to undertake collaborative research that has so many potential long and short term outcomes here and in Cuba,” Professor Beilin says. 

Funding of $44,000 for the project has been contributed by the Council on Australia Latin-America Relations. It comes off the back of a similar project led by Hearn and Williams that links the University of Melbourne to the University of São Paulo in Brazil, aimed at comparing and improving food sustainability strategies in Southern Hemisphere cities. 

Story by Claudia Hooper.

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