With the collapse of the USSR at end of 80s, the shift to urban agricultural was a matter of life or death. Cuba lost it's major trading partner, resulting in a major food shortage and limited access to oil and it's by-products – artificial fertilizer and pesticides. As a result state-run farms came to a standstill and the country faced a severe food crisis. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (UNFAO) estimated the average calorie intake per person dropped from 2,600 in the late 1980's to 1,000 by 1993. This period of economic crisis in Cuba is referred to as the Special Period.
With a food shortage, Cubans started growing their own
In the past Cuban farms had been dedicated to commodity crops for export (primarily sugarcane) and relied heavily on imports for food. However with the shortage of food, Cubans started growing their own. There was a communal effort to turn areas of derelict urban land into highly productive areas for food. And lacking artificial fertilizers and pesticides, they were forced to use organic alternatives. This includes Integrated pest management, permaculture principles, crop rotation, composting and soil conservation.
At first, yields were low because of the lack of farming experience and inputs. But with strong government support, urban agriculture was rapidly transformed to a national priority.
Best organic food growing system in the world
The result is pretty amazing. Cuba has developed the most sophisticated and sustainable means of organic food growing in the world. It's the largest program of sustainable agriculture ever undertaken, with more than 383,000 urban farms, covering over 50,000 hectares of land. Urban farms produce more than 1.5 million tons of vegetables, supplying 70 percent or more of all the fresh vegetables consumed in cities.
Production has increased dramatically, despite a massive reduction in chemical use
The best urban farms have a yield of 20 kg/m2 per year of edible food. And best of all, this is achieved without chemicals. Organic produce is actually sold at a cheaper price than produce farmed using chemicals. For example an organic lettuce is less than half the cost of a lettuce farmed using chemicals. No other country in the world has achieved this level of success with sustainable agriculture.
As the graph below shows, production in Cuba has increased dramatically, despite a massive reduction in agrochemical use.
The Cubans called their solution organoponics because it uses an organic substrate, obtained from crop residues, household wastes and animal manure.
Some of the benefits
- They produce healthy organic food for the community
- Looks beautiful and improves appearance of decaying urban areas.
- Gets people from the community caring about it and working together which is key.
- Reduced food imports and improved food security
- Jobs and income
This graph shows the huge drop in food imports - from 60% in 1990 to below 45% in 1997.
A closer look at Cuba's imports shows the reduction of imports has come largely from vegetables, fruits, eggs. However meat, cooking oil, pulses and cereals continue to be imported.
What can we learn from Cuba
All people interested in developing food systems that are socially just, environmentally sustainable, and economically viable, should pay close attention to the current policy in CUBA. - Peter Rosset
It's amazing to see what can be achieved through urban farming and to have an example that demonstrates it's scalable.
If we could bring Cuba's attitude to urban farming, to the millions of backyards in western countries, just imagine the impact. It would change the whole food industry and our whole approach to food. Through PatchtoTable.com I hope to play a part in making that happen.