Feeding the revolution

Spring 2007

Cuba’s organic farming sets an example to the world

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba, left without her main trading partner, faced a food crisis. Today, its network of small urban famers, and sustainable food production is thriving, bringing benefits for its people and the environment. Wendy Emmett and Natasha Hickman report for CubaSi.

Throughout the latter part of the last century and into this one, many countries entered into food crises for reasons of war, drought and flooding. Such crises have often led to famine and dependency on international food aid. Cuba’s experience in the 1990s stands in sharp contrast to this.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, Cuba was plunged into an economic crisis, losing 70 per cent of foreign trade overnight. Until then, Cuban agriculture had developed along similar lines to that in most Western countries. Characterised by monocropping, dependence on chemical fertilisers, animal feed concentrates and reliance on machinery such as tractors and harvesters, large state farms, in particular, employed intensive farming methods, with monocultural export crops, and large quantities of chemical inputs.

This proved to be a major weakness when the Soviet Union collapsed, depriving Cuba of her main trading partner and access to fuel and chemical fertilisers. Within a year, food shortages returned on a huge scale. UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (UNFAO) figures suggest that the daily calorie intake of the average Cuban fell from about 2,600 calories in the late 1980s to between 1,000 and 1,500 by 1993. Nearly 70 per cent of the population lived in urban areas, and Cuba did not have the fuel to transport goods from rural to urban areas.

Forced to take radical steps to feed its people, the Cuban government began an ambitious programme unprecedented in the developed and undeveloped world - establishing a self-sustaining system of organic agriculture.

Laura Enriquez, an expert on Latin American agriculture from the University of California Berkeley, said: “What happened in Cuba was remarkable. It was remarkable that they decided to prioritise food production. Other countries in the region took the neo-liberal option and exported ‘what they were good at’ and imported food. The Cubans went for food security and part of that was prioritising small farmers.”

Switching from cash crops to food crops, Cuban government incentives encouraged unemployed people in large urban centres to move back to work on the land, turning many of the state farms into Basic Units of Cooperative Production (UBPCs), a form of worker-owned co-operative.

Visitors to Cuba cannot fail to see the impact of these changes in the cities. Havana became a priority in the National Food Programme, and in 1991, the government began establishing research gardens, and huertos (similar to allotments). By 1995, there were approximately 26,600 huertos in Havana alone, and a vast network of small gardens, roof top gardens, patios and market gardens, throughout urban Cuba providing low-cost food to the local community. Any spare urban land was put to productive use, and to encourage small-scale food production, the government distributed hundreds of vacant plots free to anyone who wanted to cultivate it.

The Ministry of Agriculture set up an urban agriculture department with outreach workers, to give support to the new gardeners. ‘Seed shops’ supplied seeds, tools and bio-formulations, and a new urban gardening culture was created.

All over Cuba, in cities and in the countryside, production was converted from high input agriculture to low input, self-reliant farming practices, using a mixture of old farming techniques and organic or semi-organic methods.

By necessity, this meant a back-to-basics approach; with no oil for tractors or fertiliser it turned to oxen, natural compost and the production of natural pesticides and beneficial insects.

Professor Jules Pretty, of the University of Essex’s department of biological sciences, recently wrote: “Cut banana stems baited with honey to attract ants are placed in sweet potato fields and have led to control of sweet potato weevil...Crop rotations, green maturing, intercropping and soil conservation have all been incorporated into polyculture farming.”

By mid-1995 the food shortage had largely been overcome, and in 1996-97 Cuba recorded its highest-ever production levels for ten of the thirteen basic food items in the Cuban diet. Ten years later, gardens occupy approximately 3.4 per cent of urban land (8 per cent in Havana) and are tended by 18,000 individuals. In 2002, Cuba produced 3.2 million tonnes of food in urban farms and gardens providing fresh, organic produce to the population and providing a critical role in improving the diet of Cubans.

Annual calorie intake now stands at about 2,600 a day, while UNFAO estimates that the percentage of the population considered undernourished fell from 8 per cent in 1990-2 to about 3 per cent in 2000-2.

Gardens attached to schools and factories have become more common, and most rural homes produce their own staple foods including beans and traditional root and tuber crops. The benefits of the food programme are enormous. The organic and traditional agriculture methods greatly reduce soil, air and water contamination from synthetic pesticides and fertiliser, the diversity of crops has led to a more varied diet, food transportation costs are reduced, waste is recycled, food security is high, green spaces in cities are increased and jobs are created.

Whilst far from perfect, the relative success of the Cuban agricultural reform stands in direct contrast with agricultural liberalisation policies currently being implemented in many other developing countries. In October 2006, a World Widelife Fund report cited Cuba as the only country in the world with “sustainable development” (see CubaSi Winter2006/07). World Bank development indicators put Cuba well ahead of many developing countries, and in some cases exceed the level of industrialised Western countries. Cuban policies go against all World Bank and IMF advice to Southern governments. Yet it appears to be working, and offers valuable lessons to others around the world committed to sustainable agriculture.

With thanks to the organisations and individuals who sent reports of Humberto’s visit to Wendy to for this article.

Further reading and resources:

‘Sustainable Agriculture and Resistance - Transforming Food Production in Cuba’ by F. Funes, L. Garcia, M. Bourque, N. Perez and P. Rosset. Food First Books Oakland California.

Cuba Organic Support Group www.cosg.org.u

Farmers and Scientists working together

Despite having just 2 per cent of Latin America’s population, Cuba has 11 per cent of the scientists, and the challenge to produce sufficient food was answered by Cuban farmers and scientists working together.

One of these scientists, Dr. Humberto Rios Labrada, heads the Cuban Local Innovation Programme in Agriculture, which explores environmentally sustainable models of agriculture. Humberto visited the UK earlier this year and spoke to CubaSi about how the collaboration between scientists and farmers has led to increased crop yields and diversity and raised the confidence, skills and status of farmers.

“The key is to use the knowledge of farmers in selecting seeds for their own land.”

“There are no more ‘mono crops’ such as you see in conventional farming here, but many varieties of crops are grown together. To start with large farms became impossible to manage without oil for transport of labour and to operate machinery, but then it was discovered that smaller farm units were more efficient as crop diversity increased yields.

“We can increase yields by greater mechanisation and by more intensive use of fertiliser but the equation needs to take into account the real level of energy inputs and their environmental costs and the real level of carbon dioxide emissions.”

The programme sets as its objectives capacity-building in the countryside aiming to stimulate local innovation and initiative alongside modifying the farming system to limit climate change factors.

This demands a new way of thinking. “It needs a paradigm shift at every level of our agriculture” he says. “We cannot endlessly extend inputs.”

“Our agriculture must be a primary centre of biological diversity. Even a simple farm has an enormous capacity to innovate.”

One enormous resource is the great variety of seeds. Many are specific to a particular area and farmers have strongly ingrained preferences that are not at all arbitrary he says.

Even in Cuba, many farmers have under developed literacy skills and this is even more marked in other Latin American countries.

“But our farmers still hold this knowledge - which seeds are best in which fields - in their heads. Part of our job is to get them to share this knowledge so we sponsor grower groups and use songs to popularise good ideas.”

Thanks to Nick Wright and Wendy Emmet for interviewing Humberto during his visit for CubaSi.

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