Urban farming and its necessity in Cuba

As more and more people are moving to cities and becoming disconnected from their food sources, growing food in cities – known as urban farming or urban agriculture – is becoming an essential part of models for sustainable city life. Urban farming is efficient because it reduces transportation distances and can utilize unused spaces in the urban setting, such as roof tops.

While urban farming globally is taking baby steps, a country that already shows the world what widespread urban farming can mean is Cuba. In the last twenty years urban farms, known as organoponicos, have become an essential part of food security in Cuba. But in Cuba urban farming did not arise from concerns about the environment or sustainability, instead it was a necessity that arose from the country’s isolation in world trade, particularly oil trade.

Urban farming at Vivero Alamar in Havana
These fields are part of Vivero Alamar, a cooperative urban farm I visited during my stay in Cuba.

Cuban peak oil and food crisis

During the Cold War Cuba’s agriculture and economy relied heavily on trade with the Soviet Union, with Cuba producing sugar for the Soviets. In exchange Cuba received subsidized oil, fertilizers, pesticides, machinery and other products needed to support its large-scale industrial farms. Approximately 50% of food in Cuba was imported at the time.

Banana trees in Havana
Thanks to the tropical climate, a large variety of fruit and vegetables, like these bananas, can be grown in Cuba, but large-scale industrial agriculture during the Cold War focused its efforts on a few crops.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba lost its main trading partner and with it the access to oil, fertilizers and pesticides. This combined with the United States trade embargo meant that Cuba became practically isolated from the rest of the world. This event has even been called the Cuban peak oil, the time when the availability of oil in the country started to decline – a precedent for what can happen globally when oil production starts declining.

Because of its isolation, Cuba struggled to export its sugar, and more importantly it struggled to grow and import enough staple foods to feed its people. As a result Cuba entered a period of acute food scarcities, called the Special Period. Hunger became widespread and Cubans lost approximately one third of the calorie intake from their diet.

The rise of urban farming

The food crisis meant that Cuba had to transform its agricultural system. Since oil was now extremely scarce, farms could no longer run their tractors or transport their produce, and so agriculture had to become more small-scale and local. With no chemical fertilizers or pesticides available, food production became organic by default.

Every available piece of land had to be used, and people began planting food on balconies, backyards, parking lots and empty lots. The government supported this movement by making it legal and free to use unused public land for agriculture. Urban farmer’s cooperatives, organoponicos, started to arise and the scale of urban farms grew. This was a bottom-up movement, but the government supported the urban farmers and sent experts to train them in organic methods like biological pest control and inter-cropping.

Composting beds at Vivero Alamar
These composting beds at Vivero Alamar are a crucial part of urban farming – and food security – in Cuba.

Today the vast majority of Havana’s fresh produce comes from local urban farms and gardens. Cuba still needs to import food, particularly staples, but only approximately 16% of food is imported, which is considerably more self-sufficient than before the Cuban peak oil.

Cooperative urban farming at Vivero Alamar

During my stay in Havana I visited Vivero Alamar, one of Havana’s largest urban farms that produces a large variety of vegetables and fruit, as well as medicinal and ornamental plants. Like most urban farms in Cuba, Vivero Alamar is a cooperative where members divide the profits. This organoponico was founded in 1997 and today has 25 acres and 145 workers. The food produced is sold in the farm’s on-site store that serves the surrounding community with fresh produce every day. This local production and distribution of food reduces the need for transport and hence oil.

Store at Vivero Alamar
This store at Vivero Alamar serves approximately 10000 customers every year. I visited the farm in the afternoon when most of the day’s fresh produce had already been sold.

Like the rest of Cuba’s urban farms, Vivero Alamar is completely organic. Indeed, according to my guide the most important workers on the farm are the worms in the composting beds. Instead of pesticides, the fields are surrounded by marigold, oregano and other plants that confuse insects with the variety of colors and smells. The farm has eight wells that provide water and the crops follow the seasons.

Biological pest control as part of urban farming
These marigolds at the edge of the field act as biopesticides that protect the crops from insects.

Visitors and trainees from all over the world visit Vivero Alamar every year, showing that interest in urban farming is growing world wide. But what will happen in Cuba now that the country is becoming less and less isolated from the rest of the world? Urban farming in Cuba arose out of need so if the need is eliminated, will the urban farms disappear too? Only time will tell, but hopefully Cubans can appreciate the benefits of their local and organic food production system enough to keep the organoponicos alive.

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