By Isabel Morales
Sustainable Agriculture in Cuba: Urban Farming and “Organopónicos”
As the world battles with climate change, one of the biggest dilemmas is ensuring that the needs of current generations are being met, without jeopardizing the well-being of future generations (Feenstra, 2021). Looking after future generations requires protecting the environment, which can be done by encouraging sustainable agricultural practices. Though agricultural mechanisms provide opportunities to conserve biodiversity, they can also negatively impact wildlife and green spaces (WWF, n.d.). As a result, sustainable agricultural practices that support the world’s increasing population and simultaneously protect the environment are urgently needed. An interesting case study that exemplifies a sustainable practice is the urban farming system in Cuba, called organopónicos.
The urban farming system in Cuba did not really develop until after the 1980s, but the process began after the end of the 1959 revolution. In the 1960s, Cuba carried out major agricultural development programs that included the extensive use of agrochemicals and farm machinery. This was to uphold revolutionary ideals seeking to achieve political and economic independence, reduce poverty, and create a more equitable society (Hanon, 2020).
To understand why Cuba introduced these agricultural programs, it is important to know the economic and social context prior to the revolution. Before the 1960s, Cuba’s economy was characterized by sugar-dominated exports that were mostly oriented towards the U.S. market. Sugar accounted for about 81 percent of the country’s exports before the 1960s and was cultivated on about half of Cuba’s irrigated land (Hanon, 2020). Sugar production followed a monoculture farming system, meaning that it was the only crop grown at a time in a specific field (EOS, 2020). Besides having negative environmental effects, monoculture production can lead to dependency and a lack of economic diversification. Economically depending on one commodity, like sugar, is usually associated with increased vulnerability to shocks such as weather-related events or changes in the product’s demand (World Bank Group, 2019). Of the 24.6 percent of sugar being produced on agricultural land and 60 percent on crop cultivated lands, 51.6 percent of these lands were under the control of capital from the United States. Additionally, the U.S. accounted for over two-thirds of Cuba’s international trade and 75 percent of its imports (Hanon, 2020). As a result, Cuba’s economic autonomy was lessened by its high dependence on the U.S.
Another factor that influenced revolutionary sentiments and agricultural reforms was the lack of benefits that people working on sugar fields received. Though the sugar industry led to a rise in employment, many of these workers were unemployed or under-employed for most of the year. This is because farmers could only work during the four-month sugar harvest period, and the rest of the year it was difficult to find alternatives to work on (Hanon, 2020). Additionally, most farmers did not own the land they worked on and in some cases, had to pay the owners a fee. This economic landscape prior to the revolution characterized by foreign dependency, inequalities, and poverty, influenced the changes made after 1959 (Hanon, 2020).
Several agrarian reforms were carried out in the attempt to fix the previous economic landscape. One of the main reforms concentrated on self-sufficiency to decrease dependency on foreign countries. For instance, Cuba adopted import substitution strategies which essentially replaced foreign goods and imports with domestic products (Irwin, 2020). Food self-sufficiency and agriculture diversification policies were also implemented. Though Cuba did become more self-sufficient, economic diversification was not carried through because the country returned to exporting sugar (Hanon, 2020). The return to the production of sugar was influenced by the commercial agreement with the Soviet Union. This agreement allowed the Soviet Union to buy sugar from Cuba, and in return, Cuba received machinery, oil, and merchandise from the eastern country (Hanon, 2020).
By 1980, the Cuban population reached 10 million and the country was able to produce food for 40 million people (FAO, 2014). However, economic development was short-lived with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which led to a crisis known as Período Especial (special period). This period harmed the country’s agriculture and it resulted in rising rates of malnutrition (FAO, 2014). Since the Soviet Union accounted for 70 percent of Cuba’s international trade in 1989, its collapse led to a huge decrease in the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). This situation was aggravated by the United States’ trade embargo on exports which caused fuel and mineral fertilizer shortages that were needed to grow crops (Hanon, 2020).
The Introduction of Alternative Agricultural Techniques & Urban Farming
The economic crisis forced the country to think of alternative ways to provide food for their people. Several of these alternative solutions came from both the government and local communities. One of the main alternatives was the implementation of urban farming and the use of local resources. Though the government performed a radical transformation of the economy by encouraging food self-sufficiency, local communities and organizations started to develop their own self-sufficient techniques (Hanon, 2020). According to Hanon (2021), “the interaction between the national and local levels, and between the government and civil society, was indispensable for the achievement of positive results in food production, for the consolidation of alternatives, and for the building of a cleaner and more sustainable agriculture model.” The collaboration and interaction among the country’s different structural levels is demonstrated with the creation and rise of urban farming in the country.
In response to food shortages, high black-market prices, and the challenges of bringing food from rural areas to cities caused by a lack of fuel for transportation, people living in cities started growing urban gardens. They began this agricultural movement by producing their own food in balconies, gardens, yards, and vacant lots in urban areas (Hanon, 2020). Though the idea of urban farming initially came from the community, its positive results and the fact that more than 70 percent of the country’s population lived in urban areas, caused it to become a government priority. One of the first things the government did was distribute small plots of vacant land of up to 0.5 hectares (around the size of a football field) to people willing to grow vegetables (Hanon, 2020). Then, in 1994, urban farming became a national strategy for food security and the Urban Agriculture Department within the Ministry of Agriculture (MINAG) was created. The department launched an urban farming national program that made land more accessible, offered technical assistance to new gardeners and promoted research and development on organic production techniques (Hanon, 2020). The technical assistance offered to new gardeners was crucial for the success of urban farming strategies. This is because most of them did not have previous knowledge of small-scale food production. They were accustomed to the previous large-scale monoculture production model that required the use of modern chemicals (Hanon, 2020).
Government support was crucial in encouraging urban farming practices throughout Cuban cities, which had a significant impact on the island. Urban farming provided more autonomy for cities from rural areas, created jobs, increased the cities’ green areas, helped build the community, and reduced the environmental and economic costs of food transportation. In the process of developing urban farming, the government encouraged a new system called orgonopónicos or “organoponics” that would help with overall production on the urban farms’ infertile soils (Mcdevitt, 2016). The term was coined in Cuba to distinguish it from other high-yielding production systems, like hydroponics, that use chemical inputs for production. Organopónicos are different because they use organic substances that come from crop residues, household wastes, and animal manure (FAO, 2014). Also, the fruits and vegetables produced by these gardens are free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals (Mcdevitt, 2016). Essentially, organopónicos are high-yielding urban garden systems that produce organic food from organic substances.
Additional successes from urban farming and organopónicos caused a decreased dependency on agricultural imports that fell to 16 percent from 56 percent during the “special period,” and an increased production of daily produce. For instance, Havana can produce about 90 percent of its daily produce consumption through urban gardens (Mcdevitt, 2016). In addition, the diversification of produce with urban farms made Cuban agriculture less vulnerable to extreme weather that usually hits the island (Mcdevitt, 2016). Though the system was a great development, people have questioned the extent to which it has benefited the Cuban people. One of the claims is that Cubans cannot maximize or take advantage of the benefits offered by their agricultural systems due to other obstacles present in the country (Gabbatiss, 2016). Urban farming has made Cuba more self-sufficient, but the island must still import large quantities of produce that do not grow well on the island, such as meat and wheat. Profits are also low, and it only contributes to about 4 percent of the country’s GDP while employing nearly one-fifth of the population (Mcdevitt, 2016).
Despite Cuba’s challenges, the urban farming system in the country is considered an agricultural model of how to sustainably address malnutrition and food scarcity. Cuba’s urban agriculture serves as a great case study for how a country needing to feed its population with few resources and a lack of access to fossil fuels can adapt to its conditions and develop an effective sustainable mechanism (Mcdevitt, 2016). A common argument against sustainable agriculture is that it cannot provide food for everyone (FoodPrint, 2021). However, studies have shown that various sustainable agricultural practices achieve equal or even more yields to traditional agricultural methods. These studies are part of a small amount of research being done surrounding sustainable agriculture techniques, implying that sustainable agricultural practices might even show greater results if enough was invested in its development and research (FoodPrint, 2021). Organopónicos and urban farming ideas in Cuba are some of these sustainable mechanisms worth studying to expand the research on sustainability that can help mitigate the threatening effects of climate change and traditional agriculture.
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