February 14, 2011

Coping With a Food Crisis - Cuban Style


Recently, the mainstream media has been telling us that the whole world is facing a food shortage this year, that could reach crisis point in many countries and force up food prices in most others.
In 1989 the collapse of the Soviet Union left Cuba in it's own food crisis as expected oil and commodity imports were reduced dramatically. In 1988, 12-13,000,000 tons of Soviet oil were imported by Cuba. By 1991, that promised 13,000,000 tons was reduced to 6,000,000 tons and oil shortages started to severely impact the Cuban economy.In early 1990 100,000 tons of wheat normally obtained through barter arrangements failed to arrive and the government had to use scarce hard currency to import grain from Canada. The price of food went up and bread had to be rationed. Overall, food consumption was said to decrease by 20% in calories and 27% in protein between 1989 and 1992. The collapse of the rural economies in Cuba due to the reduction in farm activity caused an increase in migration to urban areas and in particular Havana. Population density in the capital reached 3,000 inhabitants/square kilometre. Cuba was faced with a dual challenge of doubling food production with half the previous inputs, with some 74% of its population living in cities. Yet by 1997, Cubans were eating almost as well as they did before 1989, with little food and agrochemicals imported.

The Cuban response was to go organic, a much cheaper alternative to conventional chemical farming that doesn't rely on imports. This started as a grass roots change but very quickly the state's priorities shifted to organic food production, the scientific community began focusing on organic practices and city dwellers were mobilized as urban farming became a vital source of food. The State made unused land available to fledgling urban farmers and thousands of empty lots have been turned into organic oases.

In Havana alone there are over 8,000 organic gardens producing more than a million tons of food annually. The gardens range in size from a few meters to several hectares. The urban farmers primarily grow lettuce, bok choy, onions, chard, radishes, tomato, cabbage and broccoli. Gardens can employ anywhere from one to 70 people depending on the size of the garden. And people from all walks of life are participating. The method of choice is very similar to the no-dig method,
which is highly suited to urban agriculture as plants are grown in raised beds, even in car parks.

In Havana, the Urban Agriculture Department was formed to educate and assist the new city gardeners in implementing these new techniques. Small state run stores were established to sell seeds, hand tools, pots and some biological controls and serve as educational sites, offering workshops and advising the urban farmers and gardeners. Community co-operatives or organiponicos were formed and many started selling their produce at the farm gate. All workers are also share holders, so after expenses are met the profits are shared among them all. The farm shops not only sell food but also now sell compost, seed and patio plants to people who wish to grow some food at home.

By 1998, an estimated 541,000 tons of food were produced in Havana for local consumption. Food quality has also improved as people had access to a greater variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. Urban gardens continued to grow and some neighbourhoods were producing as much as 30% of their own food.


The introduction of a diversified market-based system for food distribution has spurred increased agricultural productivity. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation estimated that between 1994 and 1998, Cuba tripled the production of tubers and plantains, and doubled the production of vegetables, which doubled again in 1999. Potatoes increased from 188,000 tons in 1994 to 330,000 tons in 1998, while beans increased by 60% and citrus by 110% from 1994 to 1999.


One example, Vivero Alamar (Alamar Gardens) is an oasis amid the rectangular apartment blocks of Soviet-style housing in the Alamar district of eastern Havana. It is a 27-acre organic farm set in the middle of a city of two million people.Founded in 1994 on a small 9-acre parcel of land, it has become a 140-person business producing a steady harvest of a wide range of fruits and vegetables: lettuces, carrots, tomatoes, avocadoes, culinary and medicinal herbs, chard and cucumbers.After harvest the crops are sold directly to neighbours at a colourful farm stand. In 2005, this neighbourhood-managed worker-owned cooperative earned approximately US $180,000. After capital improvements and operating expenses, it pays each worker about US $500 a year; compared to the Cuban minimum wage of US $10 a month. Vivero Alamar is just one example, from Santiago de Cuba in the east to Pinar del Rio in the west, thousands of urban gardens are blossoming. Some 300,000 Cubans are busy growing their own fruits and vegetables and selling the surplus to their neighbours.


Although urban agriculture is totally organic, the country as a whole is not but the amount of chemical inputs has been drastically reduced. Before 1989, Cuba used more than 1,000,000 tons of synthetic fertilisers a year. Today, it uses about 90,000 tons. During the same period, Cuba applied up to 35,000 tons of herbicides and pesticides a year. Today, it is about 1,000 tons. Cuba remains reliant on export agriculture to earn hard currency. It is a robust exporter of tobacco, sugar, coffee, and citrus fruits, and is selling a significant amount of the last three as certified organic. Foreign investment in such ventures is on the rise.

Urban agriculture nationwide reduces the dependence of urban populations on rural produce. Apart from organoponicos, there are over 104,000 small plots, patios and popular gardens, very small parcels of land covering an area of over 3,600 acres, producing more than the organoponicos and intensive gardens combined.There are also self-provisioning farms around factories, offices and business, more than 300 in Havana alone. Large quantities of vegetables, root crops, grains, and fruits are produced, as well as milk, meat, fish eggs and herbs. In addition, suburban farms are intensively cultivated with emphasis on efficient water use and maximum reduction of agrotoxins; these are very important in Havana, Santa Clara, Sancti Spiritus, Camaguey, and Santiago de Cuba. Shaded cultivation and apartment-style production allow year-round cultivation when the sun is at its most intense. Cultivation is also done with diverse soil substrate and nutrient solutions, mini-planting beds, small containers, balconies, roofs, etc with minimal use of soil. Production levels of vegetables have doubled or tipled every year since 1994, and urban gardens now produce about 60% of all vegetables consumed in Cuba, but only 50% of all vegetables consumed in Havana.


This organic revolution has brought many changes in Cuba, mostly for the benefit of the people. “Not only has the community learned about permaculture,” according to Carmen López, director of the Urban Permaculture Center, “we have also learned about the community, helping people wherever there is need.” One permaculture student, Nelson Aguila, an engineer-turned-farmer, raises food for the neighborhood on his integrated rooftop farm. On just a few hundred square feet he has rabbits and hens and many large pots of plants. Running free on the floor are gerbils, which eat the waste from the rabbits, and become an important protein source themselves. “Things are changing,” Sanchez said. “It’s a local economy. In other places people don’t know their neighbors. They don’t know their names. People don’t say ‘hello’ to each other. Not here.” With meat scarce and fresh local vegetables in abundance since 1995, Cubans now eat a healthy, low-fat, nearly vegetarian, diet. They also have a healthier outdoor lifestyle and walking and bicycling have become much more common. "Before, Cubans didn't eat that many vegetables. Rice and beans and pork meat was the basic diet." Sanchez said. "At some point necessity taught them, and now they demand vegetables."

We live in a world of increasing population and decreasing resources. The gap between the haves and the have-nots is greater than it has been in many years. People will need to eat, no matter what the future brings. The benefits of a system of urban agriculture like this are manyfold.

Clip from the BBC television show Around The World in 80 Gardens (2008)

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  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. thank you Ian for sharing this, I loved it.

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