Organic Farming and Urban Garden Revolution in Cuba

Castro Topples Pesticide in Cuba
Renee Kjartan, Washington Free Press
August 7, 2000

Organic farming -- often considered an insignificant part of the food supply --
can feed an entire country concludes a report by the Oakland, CA-based
Institute for Food and Development Policy/Food First, a group advocating
sustainable farming.

In Cuba, many of the foods people eat every day are grown without synthetic
fertilizers and toxic pesticides, the report, Cultivating Havana: Urban Agriculture
and Food Security in the Years of Crisis, found.

Cuba's organic food movement developed in response to a crisis. Before the
revolution that threw out dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, and to some extent
during the years of Soviet support for Cuba, the island followed a typical pattern
of colonial food production: It produced luxury export crops while importing
food for its own people. In 1990 over 50% of Cuba's food came from imports.
"In the Caribbean, food insecurity is a direct result of centuries of colonialism that
prioritized the production of sugar and other cash crops for export, neglecting
food crops for domestic consumption," the report says. In spite of efforts by the
revolutionary government to correct this situation, Cuba continued in this mold
until the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1989.

The withdrawal of Soviet aid meant that 1,300,000 tons of chemical fertilizers,
17,000 tons of herbicides, and 10,000 tons of pesticides, could no longer be
imported, according to the report.

One of Cuba's responses to the shock was to develop "urban agriculture,"
intensifying the previously established National Food Program, which aimed
at taking thousands of poorly utilized areas, mainly around Havana, and turning
them into intensive vegetable gardens. Planting in the city instead of only in the
countryside reduced the need for transportation, refrigeration, and other scarce

The plan succeeded beyond anyone's dreams. By 1998 there were over 8000
urban farms and community gardens run by over 30,000 people in and around

Urban agriculture is now a "major element of the Havana cityscape," the Food
First report says, and the model is now being copied throughout the country,
with production growing at 250-350% per year. Today, food from the urban
farms is grown almost entirely with active organic methods, the report says.
Havana has outlawed the use of chemical pesticides in agriculture within city

Martin Bourque, Food First's program director for sustainable agriculture, said
the goal of the National Urban Agriculture program is to produce enough fresh
fruits and vegetables for everyone, and that some cities have surpassed this. He
added that farmers are some of the best-paid people in Cuba, and "organic foods
are for all Cubans, not just for the rich."

Autoconsumos, or self-provisioning gardens, are found at schools and work-
places, with 376 in Havana today. The produce usually goes to the lunchroom
of the host institution, and the rest goes to the workers at low prices.

There are 451 organoponicos, raised container beds with a high ratio of compost
to soil and intensive planting, in Havana, growing and selling vegetables, herbs,
and spices directly to the public.

The rest of the farming is done in huertos intensivos, or intensive gardens, city
plots planted for maximum yield per area and incorporating organic matter
directly into the soil. There is almost no pest problem because of the "incredible
biodiversity" of the gardens. "We are reaching biological equilibrium. The pest
populations are now kept under control by the constant presence of predators
in the ecosystem. I have little need for application of any control substance," the
president of one huerto intensivo said.

There are other programs aimed at increasing small-scale urban and suburban
production of everything from eggs to rabbits to flowers to medicinal plants to
honey, Bourque said. Many rural homes now raise their own staples, such as
beans and viandas (traditional root and tuber crops), and small-animal raising
has also spread dramatically, especially in the suburban and rural areas.

At first, Bourque said, sustainable agriculture was seen as a way to "suffer
through" the shock of the Soviet withdrawal. "When they began this effort,
most policy-makers could not imagine any significant amount of rice being
grown in Cuba without the full green-revolution technical package (e.g. high
off-farm inputs). But by 1997 small-scale rice production had reached 140,000
tons, 65% of national production. Today everyone agrees that sustainable
agriculture has played a major role in feeding the country and is saving Cuba
millions of dollars," that would otherwise go "to the international pesticide cartel,"
Bourque said.

According to official figures, in 1999 organic urban agriculture produced 65%
of Cuba's rice, 46% of the fresh vegetables, 38% of the non-citrus fruits, 13%
of the roots, tubers, and plantains, and 6% of the eggs, Bourque said.

He noted that food is "still very expensive in spite of rationing programs designed
to make sure everyone has access to the basics, but Cuba has clearly grown itself
out of the food crisis of the mid-1990s." In the last year Food First has taken
dozens of farmers, researchers, academics, and activists from around the world
to learn from Cuba's organic agricultural experience.

Contact Food First at 398 60th St., Oakland, CA 94618; (510) 654-4400

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