Food security through urban agriculture
La Habana, Cuba
Cuban society has successfully made the transition from an oil dependant society to create an organic self sufficient food system.
Cuban society has successfully made, while under considerable pressure and political isolation, resolute efforts to construct its own version of food security for its population, and has perhaps shown the way for other societies.
Background and objectives
Urban agriculture began under hard economic times and isolation from the rest of the world following the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1990. All exports and imports collapsed, this meant no oil, tractors, fertilizers pesticides or any other inputs. Cuba had to fend for itself, and food production had to be done all in house without relying on any imported goods or resources for production. So the Cuban people adopted organic agriculture as a survival mechanism to grow the food they needed to feed their families.
Historically, the sugar industry provided the cornerstone of the Cuban economy. High sugar prices meant prosperity, but when prices were low, the economy suffered. The sugar monoculture caused a severe dependence on imports for basic food commodities that Cuba was capable of producing for itself. In the mid-1980s, Cuba imported more than half of food it consumed. Furthermore, unsustainable methods of sugar cultivation led to widespread deforestation, water pollution, soil degradation, and loss of biodiversity. In some places, resource depletion was so severe that it caused a loss in productivity even before the 1990 crisis. Despite the environmental and economic dangers of sugar monoculture, Cuba had financial incentives: the Soviet Union, China, and some Eastern European countries entered into long-term contracts with Cuba to buy sugar at stable, above world market prices, leading Cuba to promote sugar as its primary source of income. In exchange, the Soviet Union exported oil at below world market prices, effectively subsidizing Cuba’s economy. During this time, Cuba was food insecure because it relied on a single crop for most of its export earnings, depended on a small group of countries for its foreign trade, and required imports to feed its population.
When the Soviet Union collapsed so did Cuba’s market buyers for sugar and their oil imports. The country went deep into economic crisis and was extremely food insecure, lacking inputs such as fertilizer, fuels, chemicals and other industrial inputs for agricultural purposes. The US embargo plunged Cuba further into economic hardship, but this allowed the Cuban government to enact agricultural policies counter to the existing neoliberal model protecting Cuban farmers against competition from the heavily subsidised agricultural industries of the US and EU.
The Havana Government banned the use of chemical pesticides in agriculture within city limits. Policies like this allowed Cuba to shift from export oriented, chemical intensive monoculture to organic food production. Organoponicos are a key feature of Havana’s urban agriculture. The raised bed containers are filled with nutrient rich compost and installed on previously paced or infertile soils in order to obtain intense vegetable production in urban settings of poor soil or asphalt.
Moreover, the government has pursued policies that make dollars, which earlier had been restricted to families receiving remittances from abroad and to workers in tourism who receive tips in dollars, available to more Cubans. As an incentive to some workers in sectors that do not regularly earn dollars directly, the government pays part of their salary directly in dollars. Offices have been established throughout Havana so that pesos can be changed into dollars (and vice versa) at a fairly stable “market” rate, currently twenty-six pesos to the dollar. As a result, the proportion of the population having some access to the dollar, and thus able to buy consumer goods (including food), which are not available in the peso markets, rose from 44 percent in 1996 to 62 percent in 1999.
Finally, access to food has been facilitated by the opportunity for cost-free access to the major means of production for food, namely, land. This principle has enabled work collectives, from state farms and industrial enterprises to schools and hospitals, to put nearby idle land to good use by raising crops and animals for the consumption of the workers in work-place cafeterias. It has also enabled individuals who are not officially integrated into the agricultural workforce on state farms, such as retirees, to ask for small parcels of land to produce their own food.
By 2002 Cuba had met the goal of providing every settlement of over fifteen houses with its own food production capacity, either through organopónicos, community gardens or individual plots.
Results and impacts
As a result of their isolation from the western world, Havana now boasts that it has 26,000 gardens covering 2,439 hectares producing 25,000 tons of food annually. 40% of all households are involved in urban agriculture. Urban agriculture also acted as a supplementing income, diversified diets and achieved independence and self-sufficiency within a city setting.
Urban agriculture played a central role in achieving food security and took many forms depending on local circumstances. By 2003, farmers had converted over 300,000 backyard patios into gardens.
On a larger scale, state farms became cooperative agricultural production units (UBPCs) in 1993 to increase efficiency and provide incentives for productivity. By 1997, UBPCs comprised 42% of the agriculture sector. The break-up of state farms made individuals or small teams responsible for production, rewarding efficiency and tying their incomes to the output.
Additionally, urban agriculture provides employment and income: in 2003, 22% of all new jobs in the Cuban economy were in this sector.
Intercropping improved the soil fertility, resulted in diversified diets and strengthened food security. Between 1994 and 1999, production of vegetables quadrupled, production of root crops and plantains tripled, potato production increased by 75% and cereals by 86%. In the meanwhile sugar dropped from 70% of export revenue in 1992 to 39% in 1998.
A lack of fuel and tractors forced farmers to use oxen labor, resulting in stark reductions in greenhouse gas-producing petroleum products. In 2003 the Ministry of Agriculture used “less than 50% of the diesel fuel it used in 1989, less than 10% of chemical fertilizers and less than 7% of synthetic insecticides.”
Socially, urban gardens boost cooperative involvement and dedication to the community. Gardeners often make food donations to the neighborhood, and especially to schools and daycare centers. In terms of the country’s health, urban agriculture has been tremendously successful. By 2000, food availability in Cuba again reached 2,600 calories daily per capita, proving that a country can achieve food security for its population through organic means, and providing an example for other third world countries.
Barriers and challenges
Of course, major problem areas remain, especially regarding milk, meat, and eggs, which continue to require imported animal feed that Cuba cannot afford. Rice, usually grown on large state farms, has also consistently fallen short of planned levels of production.
Lessons learned and transferability
On March 31, 2003, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, in the presence of the Cuban ambassador and the FAO representative in Venezuela, inaugurated the first Venezuelan organoponico in the center of Caracas.
Other third world countries can learn from the Cuban experience. Most countries can produce sufficient food and ensure an adequate diet for all their people.
- Kisner, C 2008, ‘Urban agricultural case study: Havana, Cuba,’ Climate Institute, date accessed 14/5/15
- Koont, S 2004, ‘Food security in Cuba,’ Monthly Review, date accessed 14/5/15