Cuba’s organic farming model
With thanks to the genius leadership and vision of Fidel Castro, 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 â€œSpecial Periodâ€ a scenario that will hit some countries in the not too distant future unless they prepare for it right now. We can learn a lot from this great leader’s life work.
The collapse of the Soviet bloc and the tightened US trade embargo exposed the vulnerability of Cubaâ€™s Green Revolution model, and it was plunged into the worst food crisis in its history.
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 effort.
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 had 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 Stateâ€™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 Cubaâ€™s agricultural research sector, which had already begun exploring organic alternatives to chemical controls, enabling Cubaâ€™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 â€“ including rural migrants â€“ have found employment in urban agriculture.
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 membersâ€™ earnings are based on their share of the cooperativeâ€™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.
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.
According to Cubaâ€™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: â€œDespite 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 whatâ€™s expected of them. The work occurs fluidly, with a quiet grace.â€
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.
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 citizenâ€™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.