Four Important Lessons From Cuba’s Urban Food Survival Strategy

havana urban farm photo
Photo by runneralan2004 cc

Cuba has come a long way since the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the loss of imports crucial for the island nation’s industrial agriculture system—such as chemical pesticides and fertilizers—left Cuba with a severe food crisis in the 1990s. Today, Cuba has become a regional leader in sustainable agricultural research. Within its practices and institutions lies a model for localized and small-scale urban agriculture.

With the loss of the Soviet market, which had imported sugar at subsidized prices, and the fall of global sugar prices in the late 1980s, sugar monoculture production in Cuba collapsed. Out of necessity, Cuba underwent a social, scientific, and economic push toward self-sufficiency. This shift required radical change for the authoritarian communist state as desperation and cooperation drove innovation in sustainable agriculture and urban farming. Although Cuba’s successes relied on country-specific policy adoptions and favorable geographic conditions, the country’s scientific frameworks and practices are widely applicable in other regions.

Reforms Propelled by the Government

Cuba’s success hinged on the adoption of Article 27 of the constitution in 1992, which recognized the state’s innate duty to ensure the sustainable use of resources and to protect the nation’s environment and people. The Cuban state and the Ministry of Agriculture instituted austerity measures, re-adjusting priorities and resources into support roles. State companies in many sectors became employee-owned co-ops, and small-farm distribution programs were greatly expanded. Realizing the need to meet the population’s basic food needs with limited resources, funding for agricultural research infrastructure was expanded to optimize low-input, small-scale farming. The government stepped back from direct management and worked with grassroots organizations and co-ops to provide support through extensive research partnerships to optimize and spread beneficial practices.

Grassroots Organizations and Co-ops Were Key

Grassroots organizations—representing small-scale farmers, animal producers, and agricultural and forest technicians—became essential in forming cooperatives and spreading services and education in Cuba. The small farmer organization, ANAP, has been active since the 1980s, working with farmers and the government to teach beneficial practices and create farmer’s cooperatives—groups of farmers who combine their resources and create employee-owned businesses that provide production, credit, and service assistance. Initially slow, the spread of farm co-ops grew once President Fidel Castro recognized their benefits, with official support commencing in 1987, and picked up speed as land-distribution and support programs expanded. Working with agricultural research outposts and universities, ANAP was instrumental in facilitating the extensive spread of research extension programs through its network, as well as propagating resulting improvements. Many peasant farmers were members of ANAP and participated in co-ops, successful to the point of producing 60 percent of produce on 25 percent of worked land in 2003.

Planning Principles of Cuba’s Sustainable Agriculture

A United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reporton Havana details organopónicos, an agricultural method created in Cuba built on improving organic matter. Based on raised beds, it is easily adapted to many settings and soil types that otherwise would be challenging to use. The agro-ecological model used to manage and plan organopónico farm activities follows a basic frameworkaround local conditions and resources availability. (See Figure.)

Cuba agriculture framework

The framework outlined in the Figure shows the planning process, but a few principles are clear. Organopónicos:

  • require a continuous investment of time and effort and a reactive approach to pest and soil management;
  • acknowledge the importance of building healthy soils in having productive, resilient agro-ecological systems; and
  • seek to emulate the strengths and stability of natural systems.

Havana: Cuba’s Epicenter of Agricultural Transition and Innovation

Urban agriculture has been practiced in Havana since the 1800s, making it an ideal petri dish for development and innovation under Cuban programs, although recent shifts in land-use priorities have led to displacement of farms, especially in high-volume tourism areas.

A nationwide campaign, launched in December 1987, strongly encouraged people to use organopónicos to raise food for their own consumption. Campaign offices and support infrastructure in each district helped to provide technical and input support under urban and peri-urban programs, producing compost, improved seeds, and other inputs. Havana alone had 7 provincial offices and 15 municipal support offices, making it an essential research hub that radiated innovative practices to the rest of the country. The support programs and scientific investments have created an extensive network of scientific and research infrastructure.

As of 2013, Havana district had 97 highly productive organopónicosfarms. One high-yielding farm co-op with 188 members produced more than 300 tons of vegetables a year. The program has been applied throughout the country, with varying success. Nationwide,Cuba had 530,000 small farm plots and backyard gardens, 6,400 intensive gardens, and 4,000 high-yielding organopónicos in 2013. In2003, yields on the best organopónicos farms reached 44 pounds per square meter. Cities like Havana were able to meet up to 70 percent of food needs from local urban farms and gardens.


Social Payoffs of Sustainable Systems and Urban Agriculture

Cuba’s agricultural policies and practices also have had economic and social pay-offs, although this has come at the expense of economic growth associated with export-oriented commodity crops.

The organopónico approach is cost effective, with substantially lower environmental and input costs than traditional industrial agriculture. Fuel costs come to just US$0.55 per ton of produce (stemming primarily from the cost of transporting compost needed to build the soils and maintain fertility), whereas standard systems can cost US$400 per ton of produce.

Cuba’s model of agriculture also has societal advantages. Average income and benefits for co-op farmers are greater than those of the general population. Recipients of farmland were largely peasants, and economic reforms expanded their opportunities. Once a small percentage of the harvest was given to the government, farmers could choose whether to sell the rest on the open market or to the state at set prices, opening the potential of social mobility and income. The incentive of a free home and land led to migration from overcrowded urban centers to rural areas, alleviating social pressures in cities. Poverty and malnutrition have been reduced, contributing to Cuba’s ranking of 67th out of 188 countries on the UN’s 2015 Human Development Index. The extent of research and infrastructure investment has resulted in Cuba being home to 11 percent of Latin America’s scientists, despite having only 2 percent of the region’s population.

Transferring the Cuban Agricultural Model

With the global increase in food insecurity issues—ranging from food “deserts” to extreme food shortages—many university programs and organizations have emerged to teach, research, or promote low-cost, sustainable urban production methods using principles similar to Cuba’s small-scale farming systems. Venezuela,in particular, is facing a severe food crisis and has created a state-sponsored urban agriculture program that could draw lessons from Cuba’s experience.

Cuba’s agricultural transition and methods provide four key lessons that are applicable to other regions:   

  1. Integrate grassroots organizations and co-ops. Cooperation and grassroots organizations are essential to the growth of localized agriculture beyond government promotion. Co-ops, as community-based organizations owned by employees, help to distribute economic benefits and opportunities evenly within communities and among their members. Pooled resources and community organizations facilitate involvement, coordination, and transfer of knowledge among groups.
  1. Promote diversity, for increased resilience and self-regulation. Diverse agro-ecological systems have proved more resilient to adverse conditions. Research done after Hurricane Ike in 2008found a 50 percent recovery rate for diverse cropping systems (polyculture), whereas as much as 90–100 percent of single-crop systems (monoculture) were lost. High diversity allows for self-regulation within the agricultural system and compensates for losses of one or more species or ecosystem functions (such as retaining water in the ground or increasing nitrogen content). Diverse plantings develop fertility and can attract predators of agricultural pests to provide redundancy and resilience within the systems and reduce the need for intervention by detecting potential problems early.
  1. Close the nutrient cycle through the use of compost and organic inputs. Returning organic material to the soil and building soil organic matter improves fertility, water retention, and soil structure, while reducing erosion. Materials collected and composted in Cuba include food waste, crop residues, and animal waste. Within the organopónico system, inputs from off the farm are minimized and sourced locally, which maintains low production and transport costs. Maximizing the use of locally sourced organic waste also benefits the global climate by reducing the volume of organic material that is decomposing and emitting methane emissions in dumps.
  1. Use Integrated Pest Management (IPM). Many pest control chemicals can be expensive and have adverse effects on people and other non-target species (the well-recorded impact ofneonicotinoids on bee populations is just one example). IPM is a set of principles and practices based on ecological and local conditions. These practices include using anti-pest spray soaps, introducing predatory insects to combat specific pests, and using pest-resistant seed strains, among many approaches. IPM requires careful planning and monitoring for potential problems and pests.

Agricultural System Under Threat in Cuba

Lessons learned from Cuba’s agriculture system must be gleaned now, as global environmental and economic tides are affecting the Cuban system. According to the World Food Programme (WFP), productivity in Cuba has been strained by adverse weather conditions and climate patterns. Hurricanes and drought have caused crop losses and lower yields. Food assistance programs, reliant on local production, were reduced in 2011 and are increasingly supplemented by expensive imports. As a result, imports have soared to 70–80 percent of food use, straining food programs as state finances struggle to cope with import costs.

Top-producing organopónicos can compete with the productivity of industrial farms, but they are intensive operations requiring inputs of compost and access to support, credit, and technology. The WFPattributes heavy post-harvest losses to obsolete technology, and low yields to localized shortages of inputs and credit.

Moving Forward

Worldwide, the importance and benefits of urban farms—ranging from vertical farms in warehouses to rooftop farming and the remediation of empty lots into community farms—has become evident. Although efforts and research are moving in the right direction, there is much left to do. Substantial gaps have yet to be filled, and practical knowledge still needs to be spread. Ultimately, wide-scale adoption of urban and community agriculture could bring us one step toward building brighter futures, sustainable cities, and improved communities. Cuba’s model, born out of constraint, may provide good lessons on how to change today’s failing agricultural structures.

Aurel Keller is a Communications Intern at the Worldwatch Institute.

First published in Worldwatch Institute

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