“Cuba has always held a special place, special attention, almost a special love,” according to Dr. Theodor Friedrich, describing the country’s relationship with the FAO. Photo: Alberto Borrego

Beginning in Hot Springs, Arkansas in the U.S. (1943) and Quebec (Canada, 1945), the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), has been working on the Zero Hunger project, to eliminate poverty from the face of the earth, for decades.

It was in Canada, where the institution officially held its first sessions in 1945, and has since faced innumerable challenges, and launched important initiatives. Theodor Friedrich, FAO representative in Cuba, commented that, since the very outset, the country has not only been “an active collaborator, and a receptive party, but also a founding member and one of the organization’s best students.”

Dr. Friedrich is someone whose great desire - to come to Cuba - has been fulfilled, and his work here has marked his life, he reports. Very open to the press, the UN official put no limits on this dialogue with Granma International, in an attempt to review FAO’S essence on the eve of the organization’s 70th anniversary, October 16, also the 26th celebration of World Food Day.

“FAO is a collaborative, technical assistance organization, and since its beginning has been focused on different areas of work, setting standards and establishing directives to address the issues of sustainability and agricultural development,” he said.

“In other countries, at times, a project is developed and then the government changes and attention changes, too, or the project dies, no one does any follow-up. Here in Cuba, this has been different. Worthy of recognition are the urban and suburban agriculture programs, fully implemented, and I hope that the same occurs with sustainable intensive agricultural production in rural areas, which is our current concern in Cuba,” Friedrich continued.

Despite being an eminently agricultural country, only a modest 5% of the population is directly linked to this work…

The FAO is a collaborative, technical assistance organization… focused on different areas of work, setting standards and establishing directives to address the issues of sustainability and agricultural development,” Friedrich said. Photo: Cubadebate

The tendency we have noted here is worldwide. People are fleeing the countryside, fleeing agriculture, and becoming concentrated in cities. This is a difficult phenomenon to control, but it also has its origins in the acceptance of agriculture and the way in which it has been neglected in some countries, where being a farmer means hard work and low income. So we can reverse this a little with investment in the sector, and more attention to the rural population.

Another aspect is sustainable intensification (of production). Changing the way we do agriculture, introducing less demanding methods which are more advantageous and sustainable. Given the small agricultural population, we must also focus on mechanization, from the agricultural conservationist perspective, on attention to technology to facilitate agricultural and livestock work, and to diversify production, since deserts of mono-crops are not an attractive way of farming for people, nor for sustainable production of food. I believe that is why we need to see a change of philosophy…

We have addressed practically the entire sector within FAO’s mission: fishing, management of ocean resources, forestry, agricultural and livestock production, pest control, nutrition, value chains…

We are currently focused on the country program, with the priorities of increasing food production and seeds in a sustainable fashion; guaranteeing food security in a healthy way throughout the chain of production; and addressing climate change.

Directed toward these ends, we now have two large projects: one on intensive, sustainable production of grains, and the other, within the milk and meat chain, two sectors which are very pressing in Cuba.

If you were doing a medical check-up, as an expert and friend of the country, how would you describe the relationship between Cuba and the FAO in the Zero Hunger project, and also in efforts to develop agriculture in harmony with nature, as essential to broader development.

I believe the relationship is very good, from the medical point of view. For FAO, Cuba has always held a special place, special attention, almost a special love. My decision to come here as the representative was a clear choice, and a desire.

I wanted to come to serve this country. Even the director general looks upon Cuba with affection. I feel that this is reciprocal, on the Cuban side. This closeness is directed toward Cuba becoming an example of sustainable agriculture in the long run, and of food sovereignty.

This year’s World Food Day has a special connotation since it coincides with the UN’s new Sustainable Development Agenda. What are your expectations?

The changeover from the Millennium Agenda to the current one, of Sustainable Development, appears to be drastic and significant. It is a more comprehensive agenda, addressing all the aspects of human life on the planet. And it says that there will be no development, if it does not occur within three fundamental areas, the social, the economic and the environmental. These cannot be separated. Fourteen of the Sustainable Development Agenda’s 17 objectives are addressed in FAO’s mission, showing just how much they are interrelated. It is a paradigm change as well.

Cuba’s public policy position, regarding social security and agriculture, is clear. Within a few months of the triumph of the Revolution, the first land reform was approved. Do you consider Cuba a strategic ally in the region? Moreover, it is the only Latin American country to meet the zero hunger and economic equality Millennium Objectives.

Yes, it is a great ally, Cuba has always been very active, and has implemented mechanisms like the distribution of price controlled products, school lunch programs, school gardens to link education and productions, community elder centers, and attention for more vulnerable sectors. Despite being a country with limited resources, there is great political will. In this sense, it is a very valuable ally. It has also met the most important goals on hunger.

Given the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States and the maintenance of the blockade, how might the end of this hostile policy positively impact Cuban agriculture?

This blockade is an obsolete policy, and President Obama himself has said so. Not even they themselves consider it an effective mechanism. We hope it is lifted since, in fact, it has repercussions on agriculture and the people’s food security. Cuba does not produce the majority of its food for a series of reasons; among them is access to technical information, to technologies and means of communication. The blockade creates obstacles to trade and additionally increases the cost of many foods, such as rice.

Free trade between the U.S. agricultural sector and Cuba’s would not only make importing food possible, but would also help agricultural production here, with the arrival of supplies, machinery, fertilizer and chemical products. This opening would have a significant impact, and would facilitate Cuban producers’ ability to compete with imports.”

What have been some critical moments, over these years of joint work between the FAO and Cuba? Any anecdotes? How has Cuba impacted Theodor Friedrich?

Definitely the most notable anecdote in my personal memory is Fidel’s speech at the 1996 Summit. I was fortunate to have been able to attend the event in person. I was a few meters from the Comandante en Jefe, before his speech and later during the press conference. I remember his presence, his personality, his conduct there. All of the FAO headquarters staff members were very excited. There were many Presidents and the Pope of that time was there, but I don’t believe any one had the impact Fidel had, with his sincerity, his frankness, and his clear, useful words, setting the course for the future. This was something historical.