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. Mae-Wan Ho
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.
Before 1989, 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 Consequently, when support from the Soviet bloc was withdrawn, factories closed, food scarcity was widespread and an already inadequate technology base began eroding.
The collapse 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.
Policies to 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.
Cuba 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 day .
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 production.
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 professionals.
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.
The introduction 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.
Anecdotal information 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 agriculture.
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.
The agroecological 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 practices.
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 cooperatives.
Small farmers working on privately owned farms and in cooperatives have made major contributions to the successful implementation of agroecology in the countryside.
Agricultural Production 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 cooperatives.
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.
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.
Most organoponicos 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.
Jason Marks 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.”
Gardeners come 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.
Joe Kovach, 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.
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 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.
Article first published 21/01/08
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