Cuba’s experience has opened our eyes to agriculture without fossil fuels,
a possibility rapidly turning into a necessity for mitigating climate change
as world production of petroleum has also peaked. Dr.
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Cuba is where agriculture
without fossil fuels has been put to its greatest test, and it has passed
with flying colours. The year 1989 ushered in the “Special Period”  a scenario
that will hit some countries in the not too distant future unless they prepare
for it right now.
Cuba was a model Green Revolution farm economy, based on huge production units
of state-owned farms, and dependent on vast quantities of imported oil, chemicals
and machinery to produce export crops. Under agreements with the former
Soviet Union, Cuba had been an oil-driven country, and 98 percent of
all its petroleum had come from the Soviet bloc. In 1988, 12-13 million tons
of Soviet oil were imported and of this, Cubans re-exported two million tons.
In 1989, Cuba was forced to cut the re-export in half and in 1990, oil exports
were cut entirely as only 10 of 13m tons promised by the Soviet had been received.
At the end of 1991, only 6 of the promised 13 m tons was received, and the
short fall in oil began to severely affect the nation’s economy.
While oil was
critical, other losses were also important, as 85 percent of all Cuba’s
trade was with the Soviets. Cuba exported 66 percent of all sugar and 98 percent
of its citrus fruit to the Soviet bloc, and imported from them 66 percent
of its food, 86 percent of all raw materials, and 80 percent of machinery
and spare parts. Consequently, when support from the Soviet bloc was withdrawn,
factories closed, food scarcity was widespread and an already inadequate technology
base began eroding.
of the Soviet bloc and the tightened US trade embargo exposed the vulnerability
of Cuba’s Green Revolution model, and it was plunged into the worst food crisis
in its history .
In early 1990,
a survival economy was put in place as 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 percent in calories and 27 percent in protein between
1989 and 1992.
To make matters worse,
Cuba’s efforts to reverse the trend of rural-urban migration
over the past decades failed to stem the increasing tides of rural migrants
to the cities, especially to Havana. In 1994, 16 541 migrated to Havana from
all over Cuba, more than any year since 1963. By 1996, the figure had reached
28 193, at pre-revolution level. Shortages of food and medicine and gasoline
were driving people to the capital.
stop the inflow were put in place in 1997, but not before the population density
in the capital reached 3 000 inhabitants per square kilometre.
was faced with a dual challenge of doubling food production with half the
previous inputs, with some 74 percent 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. Instead, Cuba concentrated on
creating a more self-reliant agriculture: a combination of higher crop prices
paid to farmers, agroecological technology, smaller production units, and
most importantly, urban agriculture. Urbanisation is a growing trend
worldwide. More people now live in cities than in the countryside. By 2015
about 26 cities in the world are expected to have populations of 10 million
or more. To feed cities of this size require at least 6 000 tons of food a
The Cuban response
The way Cuba responded was an inspiration
to the rest of the world. It began with a nation-wide call to increase food
production by restructuring agriculture. It involved converting from conventional
large-scale, high input monoculture systems to smaller scale, organic and
semi-organic farming systems. The focus was on using low cost and environmentally
safe inputs, and relocating production closer to consumption in order to cut
down on transportation costs, and urban agriculture was a key part of this
A spontaneous, decentralized
movement had arisen in the cities. People responded enthusiastically to government
initiative. By 1994, more than 8 000 city farms were created in Havana
alone. Front lawns of municipal buildings were dug up to grow vegetables.
Offices and schools cultivated their own food. Many of the gardeners were
retired men aged 50s and 60s, and urban women played a much larger role in
agriculture than their rural counterparts.
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 percent of their own food.
The growth of urban
agriculture was largely due to the State’s commitment to make unused urban
and suburban land and resources available to aspiring urban farmers. The issue
of land grants in the city converted hundreds of vacant lots into food producing
plots, and new planning laws placed the highest land use priority on food
Another key to success
was opening farmers markets and legalising direct sales from farmers to consumers.
Deregulation of prices combined with high demand for fresh produce in the
cities allowed urban farmers to make two to three times as much as the rural
The government also
encouraged gardeners through an extensive support system including extension
agents and horticultural groups that offered assistance and advice. Seed houses
throughout the city sold seeds, gardening tools, compost and distribute biofertilizers
and other biological control agents at low costs.
New biological products
and organic gardening techniques were developed and produced by Cuba’s
agricultural research sector, which had already begun exploring organic alternatives
to chemical controls, enabling Cuba’s urban farms to become completely organic.
In fact, a new law prohibited the use of any pesticides for agricultural purposes
anywhere within city limits.
of a diversified market-based system for food distribution has spurred increased
agricultural productivity . The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization
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 tonnes in 1994 to 330 000 tonnes
in 1998, while beans increased by 60 percent and citrus by 110 percent from
1994 to 1999.
suggests that thousands of families have left cities and large towns to make
their livelihood from the land. Other information suggests that thousands
of unemployed – including rural migrants – have found employment in urban
Rural agroecology and land restructuring
Agroecological methods were
introduced into Cuba’s rural communities largely out of the
necessity of coping without artificial fertilizers and pesticides; but this
was also amply supported with substantial government resources, state-funded
research, and fundamental policy shifts at the highest levels of government
. Agroecological farming in the countryside and organic urban agriculture
were the key to stabilizing both urban and rural populations.
methods introduced include locally produced biopesticides and biofertilizers
substituting for the artificial chemical inputs, complex agrosystems designed
to take advantage of ecological interactions and synergisms between biotic
and abiotic factors that enhance soil fertility, biological pest control,
and achieving higher productivity through internal processes. Other practices
involve increased recycling of nutrients and biomass within the system, addition
of organic matter to improve soil quality and activate soil biology, soil
and water conservation, diversification of agrosystems in time and space,
integration of crops and livestock, and integration of farm components to
increase biological efficiencies and preserve productive capacity.
In 1993, the Cuban
government unveiled a major reorganization of agriculture, restructuring state
farms as private cooperatives. The new farms, which now make up the largest
sector in Cuba agriculture) were called UBPCs or Basic Units
of Cooperative Production, based on a growing perception that smaller farms
would be more easily managed and better able to take on the sustainable agriculture
The state retains
ownership of the land, leasing it on a long-term basis, but rent-free. The
cooperative, not the state, owns the production, and the members’ earnings
are based on their share of the cooperative’s income. The UBPC also owns buildings
and farm equipment, purchased from the government at discount prices with
long-term, low interest loans (4 percent). Most UBPCs produce sugar at given
quotas, limiting any other crops that they might produce, so they have little
to sell in agricultural markets, which restricts their options and income.
In addition to the
UBPCs, the break up of large state farms has freed large plots of land for
other use, and land has been turned over to both private farmers and agricultural
Small farmers working
on privately owned farms and in cooperatives have made major contributions
to the successful implementation of agroecology in the countryside.
Cooperatives (CPAs) were first created 20 to 30 years ago by farmers who chose
to pool their land and resources to attain greater production and marketing
and economic efficiency. Although the CPAs were of minimal importance then,
they began to rebound in the early 1990s. The UBPCs were modelled after them,
except that farmers in the CPAs owned their land.
The Credit and Service
Cooperative (CCS) is an association of small landowners joining up with other
small farmers to receive credit and services from state agencies. They may
also share machinery and equipment, and thus are able to take advantage of
economies of scale. CCS members purchase inputs and sell products at fixed
prices through state agencies, based on production plans and contracts established
with the state distribution system. Any production above and beyond the contracted
quantity may be sold in farmers’ markets at free market prices. These small
farmers have been the most productive sector in Cuban agriculture, outperforming
both the CPAs and UBPCs. CCS farmers have higher incomes than members of other
While all farmers
continue to sell a percentage of their produce to the state marketing board,
farmers are now motivated to produce in excess of their agreed quota, which
they can sell to agricultural markets, often at twice the contracted government
price. They can triple or quadruple their income.
The urban agricultural miracle
Today, Vivero Alamar (Alamar
Gardens) is an oasis amid the monotonous array of perfectly 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. Vivero Alamar also sells a range of organic composts
and mulches and a selection of patio plants. In 2005, this neighbourhood-managed
worker-owned cooperative earned approximately $180 000. After capital improvements
and operating expenses, it pays each worker about $500 a year; compared to
the Cuban minimum wage of $10 a month. Vivero Alamar is just one example of
the revolution in food production that has swept Cuba in the early 1990s and
continues today. 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 the crisis hit in 1989, Cuba
used more than 1 million tons of synthetic fertilizers a year. Today, it uses
about 90 000 tons. During the Soviet period, Cuba applied up to 35 000 tons
of herbicides and pesticids a year, today, it is about 1 000 tons
Like many small poor
countries, Cuba remains reliant on export agriculture to earn
hard currency. It is a robust exporter of tobacco, sugar, coffee, and citrues,
and is selling a significant amount of the last three as certified organic
. Foreign investment in such ventures is on the rise. But when it comes
to sustainable agriculure, Cuba’s most impressive innovation is its network
of urban farms and gardens.
According to Cuba’s
Minsitry of Agriculture, some 150 000 acres of land is being cultivated in
urban and suburban settings, in thousands of community farms, ranging from
modest courtyards to production sites that fill entire city blocks. Organoponicos,
as they are called, show how a combination of grassroots effort and official
support can result in sweeping change, and how neighbours can come together
and feed themselves. When the food crisis hit, the organoponicos were an ad
hoc response by local communities to increase the amount of available
food. But as the power of the community farming movement became obvious, the
Cuban government stepped in to provide key infrastructure support and to assist
with information dissemination and skills sharing.
are built on land unsuitable for cultivation; they rely on raised planter
beds. Once the organoponicos are laid out, the work remains labour-intensive.
All planting and weeding is done by hand, as is harvesting. Soil fertility
is maintained by worm composting. Farms feed their excess biomass, along with
manure from nearby rural farms to worms that produce a nutrient-rich fertilizer.
Crews spread about two pound of compost per square yard on the bed tops before
each new planting.
writes : “Despite the tropical heat, it doesn't look like drudgery. Among
organoponico employees, there is a palpable pride in their creation. The atmosphere
is cooperative and congeniaL There is no boss in sight, and each person seems
to understand well their role and what’s expected of them. The work occurs
fluidly, with a quiet grace.”
from all walks of life: artists, doctors, teachers. Fernando Morel, president
of the Cuban Association of Agronomists said: “It’s amazing. When we had more
resources in the 80s, oil and everything, the system was less efficient than
it is today.”
The hybrid public-private
partnership appears to work well. In return for providing the land, the government
receives a portion of the produce, usually about one-fifth of the harvest,
to use at state-run daycare centres, schools and hospitals. The workers get
to keep the rest to sell at produce stands located right at the farm. It is
more than fair trade.
The City of
Havana now produces enough food for each resident to receive
a daily serving of 280 g of fruits and vegetables a day. The UN food programme
recommends 305 g.
an entomologist from Ohio State University who visited Cuba
on a 2006 research delegation sums up the situation: “ In 25 years of working
with farmers, these are the happiest, most optimistic, and best-paid farmers
I have ever met.”
Long queues of shoppers
form at the farm stalls, people are shopping for quality and freshness, the
produce is harvested as they buy, reducing waste to a minimum.
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 ha, 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 double or tipled every year since 1994, and urban gardens
now produce about 60 percent of all vegetables consumed in Cuba, but only
50 percent of all vegetables consumed in Havana.
The success of urban agriculture is put down to the average Cuban citizen’s
commitment to the ideal of local food production . There is so much for the
world to learn from the Cuban experience, not least of which, agriculture without
fossil fuels is not only possible but also highly productive and health promoting
in more ways than one.