Videos: Cuba's green revolution

A clip from the BBC's Around the World in 80 Gardens (2008) introduces the urban organic food gardening revolution in Havana, Cuba. Click HERE for a three-part talk by Cuban permaculturist Roberto Perez that delves deeper into Cuba's green revolution, and an interview with the makers of The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil, the film in which Perez featured.

So there’s nothing to stop us from emulating the Cuban farming revolution.

Roberto Perez on Cuba's power of community

 Part two and three

The making of The Power of Community

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Cuba's Urban Agrarians Flourish
HAVANA, June 4, 2008
(CBS) This story was written by CBS News producer Portia Siegelbaum in Havana.

"Buy local. Eat seasonal. Eat organic." All now commonplace admonitions in the United States.

But while none of these slogans are household words in Cuba, 70 percent of the vegetables and herbs grown on the island today are organic and the urban gardens where they are raised are usually within walking distance of those who will consume them. So in one blow Cuba reduced the use of fossil fuels in the production and transportation of food. And they began doing this nearly 20 years ago.

The island nation’s move to organic and sustainable farming did not arise from its environmental consciousness, although there was an element of that also. The main reason was the beginning of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, Cuba’s only source of petroleum and main trading partner at that time.

Overnight long lines formed at gas stations that all too often ran out before all their customers could fill up. Traffic was virtually non-existent. Chinese “Flying Pigeon” bicycles replaced both private and public transportation.

“Puestos” as Cubans call the produce section of their rationed grocery stores displayed only empty bins as agriculture ground to a halt. Chemical pesticides and fertilizers vanished. Tractors became relics of a former time. Oxen pulled the plows that furrowed the fields.

Finding food for the dinner table became a day-long drudge. Cubans visibly lost weight. The communist youth daily, Juventud Rebelde, ran articles on edible weeds. Daily caloric intake dropped to about 1600 calories.

Organic agriculture "made its appearance at that moment as a necessity and that necessity helped us to advance, to consolidate and expand more or less uniformly in all 169 municipalities," says Adolfo Rodriguez. At 62, he is Cuba’s top urban agrarian, with 43 years experience in agriculture.

He says there are now 300,000 people employed directly in urban agriculture without counting those who are raising organic produce in their backyards as part of a State-encouraged grassroots movement. In all, Rodriguez claims nearly a million people are getting their hands dirty organically.

With 76 percent of Cuba’s population of just under 11 million living in cities, the importance of this form of farming cannot be over emphasized, says Rodriguez.

The urban gardens have been dubbed "organoponicos." Those located in never-developed empty lots primarily consist of raised beds. More complicated are those created in the space left by a collapsed building, not uncommon in cities like Havana where much of the housing is in a very deteriorated state and where all it takes is a heavy tropical rainfall followed by relentless sunshine to bring down a structure.

"We have to truck in the soil," before anything can be planted, explains Rodriguez. "The basic issue is restoring fertility, the importance of producing compost, organic fertilizers, humus created by worms," he says.

In a majority of cases the fruits and vegetables are freshly picked every morning and go on sale just with a few feet of where they grew. Only in exceptional cases, such as the densely population municipality of Old Havana (as the colonial section of the capital is named) do the organic fruits and vegetables travel a kilometer or so by a tricycle or horse drawn cart to reach consumers.

Lucky are the Havana residents who live near the organoponico at 44th Street and Fifth Avenue. Occupying nearly an entire city block, it grows a wide variety of vegetables, fruits and herbs, as well as ornamental plants. It will even sell fresh basil shoots for customers to plant in their own herb garden. On a recent day, customers were offered the following fresh produce at reasonable prices: mangos, plantains, basil, parsley, lettuce, garlic, celery, scallions, collard greens, black beans, watermelon, tomatoes, malanga, spinach and sweet potatoes.

Luckily for Cubans in general, organic here is not equivalent to expensive. Overhead costs are low. The produce is sold from simple aluminum kiosks, signs listing the day’s offer and prices are handmade, electricity is used only for irrigation, and no transportation other than walking from the raised beds to the kiosks is involved. The result? Everything is fresh, local and available.

Convincing Cubans to buy this produce, especially the less familiar vegetables, so as to prepare earth friendly meals, presented a hurdle. The ideal meal on the island includes roast pork, rice and beans and yucca. A lettuce and tomato salad was popular. But the idea of vegetable side dishes or an all vegetarian meal was inconceivable to most.

"We’re cultivating some 40-plus species but you have to know who your customers are," says Rodriguez. "We can’t plant a lot of broccoli right now because its not going to sell but we’re making progress." For example, he notes, in the beginning practically no one bought spinach. Now, all the spinach planted is sold. Persuading people to eat carrots, according to Rodriguez, was an uphill battle. "We had to begin supplying them to the daycare centers,” so as to develop a taste for this most common of root vegetables.

The "queen" of the winter crop is lettuce. The spring/summer "queen" is the Chinese string bean. Cuba’s blazing summer sun doesn’t allow for growing produce out of its season, even under cover, except in rare circumstances.

The saving of heritage fruits, vegetables and even animals has also gotten a boost from the urban agrarian movement. The chayote, a fleshy, pear-shaped single-seeded fruit, had virtually disappeared from the market. Now, Rodriguez says, 130 of Cuba’s 169 municipalities are growing the fruit that many remember from their grandmother’s kitchen repertoire in which it was treated as a vegetable, often stuffed and baked.

"We are working to rescue fruit orchards that are in danger of extinction," stresses Rodriguez. "We’ve planted fields with fruit species that many of today’s children have never even seen, such as the sapote. To save these species we’ve created specialized provincial botanical gardens," he explains.

Similarly, the urban agrarian movement is rescuing native animal species such as the Creole goat and the cubalaya chicken, the only native Cuban poultry species.

Currently spiraling global food prices are hitting the island hard. Cuba has been importing just over 80 percent of the food consumed domestically. The government is making more land and supplies available to farmers and this may well include chemical fertilizers and pesticides in an attempt to greatly reduce this foreign dependency.

Rodriguez does not believe this push to quickly increase agricultural output will negatively impact on the urban organic movement. Even during the 1990s, known in Cuba as the "Special Period,” he says, the potato crop continued to receive chemical pesticides and fertilizers. And even today, the 30 percent of the non-organic produce includes, for example, large-scale plantings of tomatoes for industrial processing.

"I think that Cuba’s urban agriculture has come to stay," concludes Rodriguez. "That there is a little increase in the application of fertilizers and pesticides for specific crops is normal but that’s not to say that the country is going to shift away from organic farming, to turn our organic gardens into non-organic ones."

By Portia Siegelbaum

© MMVIII, CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.


The Right to Food In Cuba, 1959-1983

Nelson P Valdés

The document that you will find below was printed in 1983. it was written by

Nelson P Valdés for the Organization of American States. We have decided to

reproduce it as a Cuba-L Analysis essay because it provides a historical

context that often is forgotten or not known by those who write about Cuba

and food intake. The absence of historical awareness often leads people top

assume that the the revolutionary regime never managed to feed its

population. Moreover, it is seldom mentioned that access to food was

provided through different mechanisms. The difficulties that Cuba confronted

with food availability after 1991 was not a problem confronted in earlier

years. Moreover, any discussion of future policies should take into account

the policies and practices that were in place after 1959.



Doc. 29 rev. 1

4 October 1983

Original: Spanish






1. With reference to the right to preservation of health

and wellbeing, Article XI of the American Declaration specifically mentions

food as one of the fundamental means of achieving effective observance of

that right. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

establishes that "every person has a right to an adequate standard of living

that ensures him and his family of health and wellbeing." The provision

explicitly stipulates that this right includes food. The International

Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights establishes in Article 11,

paragraph 1 that every person has the right to "an adequate standard of

living for himself and his family, including adequate food." Paragraph 2 of

the same article states that it is the "fundamental right of everyone to be

free from hunger."

2. The consumption of food to provide adequate nutrition

is a basic and clearly defined human need, without which human beings cannot

grow and develop physically, emotionally and intellectually. Adequate

nutrition is essential to infantile psychomotor development and it is also

necessary to promote and improve physical and mental functions from birth

until death. Malnutrition, on the other hand, increases susceptibility to

infectious diseases, diminishes the productivity of labor in any kind of

activity and generally limits development of man's potential.

3. The Constitution of Cuba refers only tangentially to

this right, where it establishes in Article 8 that the state guarantees

"that no child be left without food".


4. Cuba formally recognized the right to food and

adequate nutrition before 1959; however, the State did not assume direct

responsibility for ensuring practical observance of that right.

5. A study has presented a general view of the prevailing

situation prior to the Cuban Revolution. The following quote from that

report is pertinent:

"In 1956 there were 350,000 agricultural workers with 2,100,000 dependents,

constituting approximately 40% of the nation's population. Their total

annual income, 190,000,000, pesos, or 7.60 pesos per capita per month. Over

half of the families had annual incomes under 500 pesos, and only 7.2%

received more than 1,000 pesos annually.

Over two-thirds of wages ere spent on food¼ In 1956, a family of 6 persons

could spend only 17 cents per person on food. It is not surprising that

malnutrition was widespread (91% in rural areas) and that the average weight

of the agricultural worker was 16 lbs. Below the theoretical average and

that his height was less than the Cuban average.

Rice was the principal source of energy, constituting 24% of total diet,

followed by beans (23%) and root tubers (22%). Of every 100 families, only

11 drank milk regularly, while corn was available to only 7, meat to 4,

bread to less than 4, eggs for 2, and none consumed vegetables. The diet of

most Cubans consisted of a great deal of starch, little protein, minerals or

vitamins and many carbohydrates. Over one-third of the Cuban population

suffered from malnutrition, including six of every ten rural inhabitants.

This deficiency of nutrition was reflected in general physical weakness,

small bone structure, low resistance to disease and a high incidence of


A survey on the status of nutrition among Cuban children was carried out in

1956. The sample included children in sixth grade with an average age of

11-13 years. In terms of economic status, they represented the middle

class, since the survey excluded both the more wealthy and poorer student

sectors. The data revealed that rice was the greatest source of calories,

followed by fats and oils; that meat provided slightly more than 10% of

calories; and that flour and beans represented over 5% each. Children in

private schools ere taller and weighed more than those attending public

schools; however 10.4% of the latter were under normal weight. This leads

to the conclusion that malnutrition was quite widespread among the poor

sectors. The observed incidence of underweight children, who had suffered

serious deficiencies in calcium, vitamin A, thiamin, and riboflavin, was

higher among children in rural areas than among those from urban areas,

while the opposite was true with respect to the overweight rate. Skeletal

deformities attributable to low consumption of calcium were observed in one

out of nine children.[1]

6. It has been recorded that in the 1950s, in a public

children's hospital in Havana, 92% of the patients had deficient diets.[2]

Although there are no national studies of food consumption for the period

under consideration, it may be assumed that Cuba, like most of Latin

America, faced a serious problem of malnutrition.

7. Before 1959, significant nutritional differences could

be observed on the basis of place of residence (urban areas enjoyed better

nutrition than rural ones), social class (higher income groups received a

better diet than that of low-income groups), race (nonwhites had poorer

nutrition than whites), and education (the better educated tended to have

better nutrition).[3] Furthermore, the State did not regard the provision

of food to the population as its responsibility. As a result, measures were

not adopted to diagnose the problem, evaluate its scope and implement

programs to remedy it.

8. The World Health Organization has pointed out that

nutrition can only be improved when coordinated measures are adopted in the

context of an integral approach, which should include, among other aspects,

better health services, greater educational opportunities, reduction of

unemployment, greater distribution of income, and food subsidies. In

addition, one of "the principal factors that determine the quality of

nutrition is the nature and quantity of food supply. If supply is

inadequate, malnutrition is to be expected as a result.[4]

9. The first ten years of the current political process

in Cuba has been described as "critical", at least with respect to the food

situtaion.[5] FAO food production indices for the 1959-1970 period revealed

rather poor output, but exact figures are not available on real food

consumption for this period. It would be a serious error, however, to

equate food production with real food consumption. It has been stated that

"caution must be taken in assuming a direct correspondence between

agricultural production figures and food consumption levels in any country,

and, in particular, in Cuba. In the first place, since 1963, Cuban

statistics do not reflect total Cuban national production, but rather simply

that portion of total production that is gathered by the state collection

agency".[6] Furthermore, imports, exports and production for personal or

family consumption must be taken into account. Clearly it is impossible to

reconstruct a complete picture of the total availability of food if these

factors must be taken into account, as there is no available data on them.

For that reason, it is necessary to work on the basis of available

statistics and to try to obtain an approximate assessment of the situation.

1. Rationing

10. A general description of food consumption patterns in

Cuba should begin with an analysis of the rationing system. Rationing of

food products was begun in March, 1962. In principle, the system ensured

equality of consumption to the population, since every Cuban was legally

permitted to buy the same amount of basic food products at the same prices.

Prices were frozen in 1962 and were maintained until 1982 without change.

Ration cards set limits on the quantities that one person could purchase,

although it should be pointed out that rationing does not guarantee that

those products will be available for purchase each month.

11. The data indicates that national food consumption

deteriorated considerably in the 1960s, and began to improve in the 1970s.

However, there are regional differences. It has been noted that despite a

more equitable distribution of consumption goods among the provinces, "the

residents of the Province of Havana continue to enjoy in 1970 a considerably

higher level of consumption".[7] Apparently, the situation has slowly

changed in the course of the 1970s.

2. Other Food Sources

12. The rationing book ensures each person "the minimum

available diet".[8] This is not the only food source in the country,

however, since there are special cafeterias for workers that offer

breakfast, lunch and dinner at subsidized prices. In 1965, approximately

135,000 workers, who as a rule did not pay for these meals, subsisted in

this way. Six years later, that number had increased to 810,000,[9] or 39%

of the labor force.

13. In 1981, the cafeterias for workers began to charge

their users, with the exception of those with very low wages. A meal in a

cafeteria costs approximately US$0.60. Schools, child-care centers and

hospitals proved food free. In 1965, 626,000 people received breakfast,

lunch or dinner free each day.[10] In 1970, this number had had reached 2.2

million, and ten years later it reached 3.1 million Cubans.[11] In other

words, 32% of the total population of the country received food free or at

below cost. It has been stated that a "typical lunch consists of rice,

beans a small amount of canned meat, and dessert".[12] However, people who

in 1980 and 1981 ate in some of these cafeterias for workers have indicated

that flour, cheese and other dairy products predominated in the typical

meal. In 1975, there were 1,400 cafeterias for workers; 4 years later, the

number reached 14,792. [13] At that time, the State managed 26,671 units

which distributed food free or at very low prices.

14. School breakfasts and lunches were supplied to 88,500

children in child care centers, to 569,600 students on scholarship, (who

also received dinners), and 268,100 secondary students in the "school in the

country" program during 1978-1979.[14] It has been stated that "school

nutrition programs are obviously a very important source of nutrition for

secondary school students attending boarding schools. In 1978, there were

350 boarding schools in the rural area of Cuba and several more under

construction each year. It is forecast that by the middle of the eighties a

majority of secondary school students will be boarding students. Their

nutritional needs during the school year will be fully met by the State with

no cost whatsoever borne by their parents"[15]

15. The State also provided free meals to 1.2 million

patients in hospitals in 1978 and to 8,607 people who were of advanced age,

mentally or physically handicapped, or who required special assistance at

the time. In addition, 1,046 women in maternity homes that year also

received free meals.[16]

16. Finally, peasants in the private sector, the members

of agricultural cooperatives, and parceleros (agricultural workers employed

by State agricultural collectives) also raise subsistence crops. There are

no figures for this sector; nevertheless, it seems that many peasants have a

more varied, larger and perhaps even better diet than that of the urban


3. Nurtirion Levels

17. Estimates of the average daily per capita consumption

of calories reveals a progressive decline from 2,730 calories at the

beginning of the Revolution to 2,320 calories in 1962-1963, which was its

lowest point. This decline represented a fall of 15% in the national

average, but since the daily calorie quantity for Cuba (according to FAO)

was from 2,400 to 2,460 calories per capita daily, it meant that consumption

had declined by 4-6%. This situation has been recognized by members of the

Government. Miguel Dotres, of the Directorio de la Junta Central de

Planificación (Office of the Director of the Central Planning Board), has

recognized that "we are not ashamed to say it: but here there were years,

not just one or two or three, in which we could only eat the strict ration

given in our homes, but when absolutely nothing was to be had in either

restaurants or cafeterias¼ there were years of real hunger, because the

problem was not to feed a small number of people, but rather millions".[18]

Dotres said this happened as a result of the fundamental shift in the

external economic relations of Cuba, lack of replacement parts and the

economic isolation of the island due to the economic blockade begun by the

United States in 1962.

18. The Organization for Food and Agriculture of the

United Nations (FAO) stated in a report that the "drastic change" in the

distribution of income in Cuba led to a considerable increase, approximately

13-14% in the demand for food, which represented an improvement in the

general diet.[19] In fact, despite the fall in food production, the country

attained a progressive increase in per capita calorie consumption which has

been maintained above the minimum daily requirement. In 1975, real calorie

consumption had regained the mathematical average of the 1950s. The FAO

stated in a report that "in countries with dietary energy supplies above

requirements, there have been few changes in 1975 with the single exception

of Cuba, where the situation improved further".[20] For 1981, daily per

capita consumption of calories had reached nearly 2,900.[21] In all of

Latin America, only Argentina surpasses Cuba in this respect.

4. Malnutrition

19. Systematic national studies of malnutrition in Cuba

have yet to be done. There are however, a few local studies that may be

useful. In 1967, the rural community of San Andrés de Caiguanabo was

thoroughly researched, and it was discovered that 6% of pre-school children

suffered from second degree malnutrition. Their diets were deficient in

vitamins A and B as well as in protein. The following year, the sugar

region of Alquizaar was studied, and it was found that the situation there

was worse: 25% of pre-school children suffered from first degree

malnutrition and another 5% suffered from second-degree malnutrition. In

addition, they all suffered from deficiencies of calcium and vitamin A.

20. In rural areas, malnutrition is primarily defined as

low nutrition, and in urban areas there is malnutrition from excess. In

1973, in the district of Marianao of the Province of Havana, it was

discovered that 20.2% of children in child-care centers were overweight.[22]

Cuban authorities revealed at the beginning of the 1970s that 60% of child

malnutrition cases occurred in rural areas, that 90-92% were related to

infectious diseases and that the mothers were functionally illiterate or had

very little schooling. The recovery level has been approximately 60%;[23]

in 1979, few malnutrition cases were reported. [24]

21. Foreign observers agree on the progress made in

lowering the incidence of malnutrition in Cuba. It has been stated that

"given the equity imposed by wage policy and the rationing of food, there is

no rason to dubt the affirmation of the government that malnutrition in Cuba

has fallen from a pre-revolutionary level of 40% to a current level of less

than 5%.[25] A US Government analyst who closely follows Cuban matters has

stated that "a highly egalitarian redistribution of income¼has almost

eliminated malnutrition, particularly among children".[26] Another study,

also done by the Government of the United States, indicates that "the Cuban

system of strict rationing has brought hunger and malnutrition under


22. In view of the above, it may be stated that although

there is no legislation that obligates the State in Cuba to provide an

adequate level of nutrition to the population, widespread changes have taken

place that have led to a very marked improvement for most of the population

in terms of nutrition. The country's food policy has ensured every citizen

a minimal quantity of food at subsidized prices, despite a secular global

trend toward price increases.

23. Food consumption in the 1960s was beset by a number

or problems, in particular shortages, which resulted in widespread suffering

for the population. Nevertheless, the situation improved in the 1970s. A

considerable part of the populace has received food free or at very low

prices; this policy is now changing , since most workers must now pay for

their meals. However, this is not the case in educational or medical


24. Food rationing and the egalitarian income

distribution policy has ensured a basic diet to all Cubans. The rationing

system has begun to change in the 1980s in that more articles are passed on

to "the free market", while new wage scales apparently have brought about an

increase in income differences among the population.

25. Differences between urban and rural areas have

fallen to the point that inhabitants of rural areas may be receiving better

food than city populations, which would represent a significant reversal of

the situation in the past. Food consumption is affected to a certain degree

by age, occupation or status of individuals. Young children and the elderly

receive special rations, as do those who work in mines or in dangerous

occupations (as well as athletes). Pregnant women and those suffering from

certain specific illnesses also receive special diets and food.


[1] Valdés, Nelson P., "Health and Revolution in Cuba", Science and Society,

Vol. 35, No. 3, Fall, 1971, pp. 313-314.

[2] Domínguez, Jorge, Cuba Order and Revolution, Cambridge: Harvard

University Press, 1978, p. 224.

[3] Aballi, Arturo J., "Distrofias infantiles en nuestro medio", Revista

Cubana de Piediatría, Vol. 30, No. 9, September 1958.

[4] World Health Organization, The Role of the Health Sector in Food and

Nutrition, Report of a WHO Expert Committee, Technical Report Series 666,

Geneva, 1981, p.7.

[5] Brundenius, Claes, "Growth with Equity: The Cuban Experience

(1959-1980)", World Development, Vol. 9, Nos. 11/12, 1981, p. 1,087.

[6] Handelman, H., "Cuban Food Policy and Popular Nurtirional Levels", Cuban

Studies, July 1981, p. 129.

[7] Roca, Sergio, "Methodological Approaches and Evaluation of Two Decades

of Redistribution in Cuba", Department of Sociology, Adelphi University,

December 1979, p. 19.

[8] Handelman, H., op. Cit., p. 137.

[9] Ministry of Public Health, Cuba: La salud en la revolución, Havana,

1975, pp. 144-145.

[10] Valdés, N.P., "Health..." op. Cit., p. 316.

[11] Presentation made by Eugenio Balari, Director of the Institute of

Internal Demand, June 2, 1980 to the UNM-Cuba Study Group. Havana, Cuba.

[12] Handelman, HJ., "Cuban..." op. Cit., p. 138.

[13] Comité Estatal de Estadísticas, Cuba en Cifras, 1979, Havana, 1980, p.


[14] Cuba en Cifras, op. Cit., p. 68

[15] Handelman, H., "Cuban..." op. Cit. P. 139.

[16] Anuario Estadística de Cuba, 1978, p. 247.

[17] Granma resumen Semanal, May 1982, pp. 2-5.

[18] Presentation by Miguel Dotres to the UNM - Cuba Study Group on June 4,

1980, Havana, Cuba.

[19] United Nations, FAO, The Impact on Demand of Changes in Income

Distribution, CCP 72, WP.2, Rome, 1971.

[20] The FAO has changed the level of the daily calorie requirement for Cuba

from 2,460 to 2,310. See: United Nations, FAO, Monthly Bulletin of

Agricultural Economic and Statistics, Vol. 25, No. 5, May 1976, p. 6 and

Vol. 26, April 1977, p. 10.

[21] Different sources provide different figures for 1981. See: United

States, Central Intelligence Agency. The Cuban Economy: A Statistical

Review, ER 81-10052/PA, March 1981, p. 45.

[22] Ministry of Public Health, Cuba op. Cit., p. 142.

[23] M. P. Hermelo, M. Amador and J. Vacallao, "Nutritional Assessment of

Infants and Pre-School Children Using Two Different Anthropometric Criteria

of Classification", Academia Scientiarum Hungariacae, Vol. 20. No. 1,

1979, pp. 35-42.

[24] F. Hernández and M. Castellanos, "Recuperación nutricional infantil

mediante internamiento", Boletin de Higiene y Epidemiología, Vol. 11, No. 1,

1973, pp. 3-16.

[25] Handelman, H., "Cuban ." op. cit., p. 142.

[26] Theriot, Lawrence, Cuba Faces the Economic Realities of the 1980s, a

study prepared for the use of the Joint Economic Committee, Congress of the

United States, March 22, 1982, US: Government Printing Office, Washington,

1982, p. 5.

[27] International terroism, Hearing, Committee on Foreign Relations, U.S.

Senate. Ninety-seventh Congress, 1st Session, Washington, D.C.: Government

Printint Office, 1981. For a comprehensive study of the impact that diet

has had on biological growth, see: J. Jordan, et al, "The 1972 Cuban

national Child Growth Study as an Example of Population Health Monitoring.

Design and Methods", Annals of Human Biology, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1975, pp.

153-171; J. Jordan, et al, Desarrollo humano en Cuba, Havana: Editorial

Científico Técnica, 1979.


December 16, 2008

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba planted thousands of urban cooperative gardens to offset reduced rations of imported food.

Now, in the wake of three hurricanes that wiped out 30 per cent of Cuba's farm crops, the communist country is again turning to its urban gardens to keep its people properly fed.

"Our capacity for response is immediate because this is a cooperative," said Miguel Salcines, walking among rows of lettuce in the garden he heads in the Alamar suburb on the outskirts of Havana.

Mr Salcines says he is hardly sleeping as his 160-member cooperative rushes to plant and harvest a variety of beets that takes just 25 days to grow, among other crops.

As he talks, dirt-stained men and women kneel along the furrows, planting and watering on land next to a complex of Soviet-style buildings.

Machete-wielding men chop weeds and clear brush along the periphery of the field.

Around 15 per cent of the world's food is grown in urban areas, according to the US Department of Agriculture, a figure experts expect to increase as food prices rise, urban populations grow and environmental concerns mount.

Since they sell directly to their communities, city farms do not depend on transportation and are relatively immune to the volatility of fuel prices, advantages that are only now gaining traction as "eat local" movements in rich countries.

In Cuba, urban gardens have bloomed in vacant lots, alongside parking lots, in the suburbs and even on city rooftops.

They sprang from a military plan for Cuba to be self-sufficient in case of war.

They were broadened to the general public in response to a food crisis that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba's biggest benefactor at the time.

They have proven extremely popular, occupying 35,000 hectares of land across the Caribbean island.

Even before the hurricanes, they produced half of the leaf vegetables eaten in Cuba, which imports about 60 per cent of its food.

"I don't say they have the capacity to produce enough food for the whole island, but for social and also agricultural reasons they are the most adequate response to a crisis," said Catherine Murphy, a US sociologist who has studied Cuba's urban gardens.

Green capitalism

In Alamar, the members get a salary and share the garden's profits, so the more they grow, the more they earn.

They make an average of about 950 pesos, or $42.75, per month, more than double the national average, Salcines said.

The co-op, which began in 1997, now produces more than 240 tons of vegetables annually on its 11 hectares of land, which is about the size of 13 soccer fields.

The gardens sell their produce directly to the community and, out of necessity, grow their crops organically.

"Urban agriculture is going to play a key role in guaranteeing the feeding of the people much more quickly than the traditional farms," said Richard Haep, Cuba coordinator for German aid group Welthungerhilfe, which has supported these kinds of projects since 1994.

When the Soviet Union fell apart, Cuba's supply of oil slowed to a trickle, hurting big state agricultural operations. Chemical fertilisers were replaced with mountains of manure, and beneficial insects were used instead of pesticides.

Unlike in developed countries, where organic products are more expensive, in Cuba they are affordable.

"We have taken organic agriculture to a social level," said Salcines.

Some experts fear that rising international food prices along with the destruction of the hurricanes will return Cuba to the path of agrochemicals.

The Government is planning to construct a fertiliser plant with its oil-rich ally Venezuela.

But Raul Castro, who replaced ailing brother Fidel Castro as President in February, has also borrowed ideas from the urban gardens as he implements reforms to cut the island's $2.5 billion in annual food imports, much of it from the United States.

Mr Castro has decentralised farm decision-making and raised the prices that the state pays for agricultural products, which has increased milk production, for example, by almost 20 per cent.

And, in September, the Government began renting out unused state-owned lands to farmers and cooperatives, measures that met with approval of international aid groups.

"Decentralisation and economic incentives. If those elements are expanded to the rest of the agricultural sector, the response will be the same," said Mr Haep.

- Reuters


Havana relies on 200 urban farms known as organoponicos

By Sarah Murch
BBC Two's Future of Food

Climate change, drought, population growth - they could all threaten future food supplies. But global agriculture, with its dependence on fuel and fertilisers is also highly vulnerable to an oil shortage, as Cuba found out 20 years ago.

Around Cuba's capital Havana, it is quite remarkable how often you see a neatly tended plot of land right in the heart of the city.

Sometimes smack bang between tower block estates or next door to the crumbling colonial houses, fresh fruit and vegetables are growing in abundance.

Some of the plots are small - just a few rows of lettuces and radishes being grown in an old parking space.

Other plots are much larger - the size of several football pitches. Usually they have a stall next to them to sell the produce at relatively low prices to local people.

Twenty years ago, Cuban agriculture looked very different. Between 1960 and 1989, a national policy of intensive specialised agriculture radically transformed Cuban farming into high-input mono-culture in which tobacco, sugar, and other cash crops were grown on large state farms.

Cuba exchanged its abundant produce for cheap, imported subsidised oil from the old Eastern Bloc. In fact, oil was so cheap, Cuba pursued a highly industrialised fuel-thirsty form of agriculture - not so different from the kind of farming we see in much of the West today.

But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the oil supply rapidly dried up, and, almost overnight, Cuba faced a major food crisis. Already affected by a US trade embargo, Cuba by necessity had to go back to basics to survive - rediscovering low-input self-reliant farming.

City allotments

Oxen replaced tractors when Cuba became a low-fuel economy

With no petrol for tractors, oxen had to plough the land. With no oil-based fertilisers or pesticides, farmers had to turn to natural and organic replacements.

Today, about 300,000 oxen work on farms across the country and there are now more than 200 biological control centres which produce a whole host of biological agents in fungi, bacteria and beneficial insects.

Havana has almost 200 urban allotments - known as organiponicos - providing four million tonnes of vegetables every year - helping the country to become 90% self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables.

Alamo Organiponico is one of the larger co-operatives, employing 170 people, built on a former rubbish tip that produces 240 tonnes of vegetables a year.

There is a wide range of crops planted side by side and brightly coloured marigolds at the edges.

vegetable plot in Havana
Car parks and rubbish tips have become vegetable plots

"We produce all different kinds of vegetables," says farmer Emilio Andres, who is proud of the fact that his allotment feeds the local community.

"We sell to the people, the school, the hospital, also to the restaurant and the hotel.

"It's important because it's grown in the city, it's fresh food for the people, it's healthy food, and it provides jobs for the people here too.

"We don't spray any chemicals. We only spray biological means like bastilos - a bacteria and fungus to kill the pests. And we use repellent plants like marigolds to keep away the pests.

"When I see all of these healthy crops, without too many pests, grown without any chemicals, it's amazing for me - I am making a contribution for the people that get healthy crops, healthy products."

Healthy diet

The organiponico uses raised beds filled with about 50% high-quality organic material (such as manure), 25% composted waste such as rice husks and coffee bean shells, and 25% soil.

A Western diet includes about three times as much food energy from animal products like meat and dairy

As well as marigolds, basil and neem trees are planted around the containers to keep the aphids and beetles at bay. Sunflowers and corn are also planted around the beds to attract beneficial insects such as ladybirds and lace wings. Sticky paper or plastic funnel-shaped bottles are positioned throughout the beds to trap harmful pests that do get into the garden.

And the methods work. Lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, squash, sweet potatoes, spinach, herbs and many other crops are grown in huge quantities and sold cheaply. Mangoes are 2 pence (3 US cents) a pound. Black beans 15p (25 cents) and plantain, just 12p (20 cents).

At the time of the oil shock, average calorie consumption in Cuba dropped by a third to dangerously low levels. Since then they have bounced back and Cubans eat just a little less than people in the UK.

The biggest difference is that a Western diet includes about three times as much food energy from animal products like meat and dairy.

The Cuban diet is much less fatty and requires less fuel to produce. A far less varied diet than in the West, it is also much healthier. The standard lunch for the farm workers is black beans, potatoes and rice.

Cuban agricultural researcher, Fernando Funes reckons the rest of the world has something to learn from the Cuban agricultural story.

"Well, do you have oil forever? And there also other considerations like global warming, nature conservation... the conventional way of farming generates a lot of damage to the environment and to human health.

"Developed countries as well as developing countries should pay a lot of attention to this kind of agriculture which takes care of land, people, environment and is also efficient and productive. You can combine both."


Good video, it is great to hear how they are increasing organic gardening. Great to see how wasteland is being turned into places to grow food.This should make us all sit up and take notice.

Dan the Gardener