After the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, Cuba successfully carried out the largest switch from conventional to sustainable agriculture the world has ever seen
Ever since moving to San Francisco, I’ve fantasized about the potential for urban agriculture here. Despite being surrounded by greenery on all sides, my only regular food purchasing options are very expensive organic markets in one direction or low-quality chain stories in the other. In response, I decided to see if I could turn my shared backyard into a productive greenspace and oasis. Searching the internet for resources on urban agriculture, I stumbled on something unexpected: dozens of books and websites profiling Cuban agriculture.
As I soon learned, Cuba is at the forefront of the urban agriculture revolution. With the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in 1989 and, as a consequence, their food system, Cuban citizens took the reigns and turned Havana green. It’s a little-known and remarkable story with a lot of lessons for countries pursuing sustainability across the globe.
The Cuba Story
When the Soviet Bloc collapsed in 1989, Cuba’s entire food supply and distribution system collapsed along with it. Almost overnight, the island lost not only the food imports it was highly dependent on, but the refrigeration, storage, and transportation methods that sustained the food system as well- all of which had been dependent on oil. Over the next three years, Cubans lost 1/3 of their daily calories and the 2.2 million inhabitants of Havana were left to fend for themselves without proper education or resources for food production. While experts predicted mass starvation, what happened instead is a very unlikely success story.
In the wake of total collapse, the Cuban government was forced to allow self-provisioning methods for the first time since the Cuban revolution. Immediately, government officials announced that urban lots would be available for agricultural use, launching the beginning of urban agriculture in Havana. As Carey Clouse puts it in her book Farming Cuba, “ Habaneros now had an invitation — if not a responsibility — to participate openly in their own hyper-local food production.”
As a result of resource shortages, the growing urban agriculture movement was revolutionary in another way: it was necessarily organic and sustainable. As farmers in the countryside replaced tractors with oxen and urban dwellers turned vacant lots into gardens, Cuba began “the largest conversion from conventional agriculture to organic or semi-organic farming that the world has ever known (Clouse).” The urban agriculture movement was revolutionary in promoting both sustainable growing practices and innovative design techniques. Sustainability was a consequence of resource shortages, which meant that all Cubans employed low-input sustainable agriculture (LISA) approaches to their de-industrialized food systems. The decentralized nature of urban agriculture also meant that each plot or land or open space became a site of experimentation for new growing and design techniques.
Over time, the Cuban government continued to make political changes to support the urban agriculture movement. “In 1993 Fidel Castro responded with the Third Agrarian Reform Law, which allowed for the transfer of 70 percent of Cuba’s agricultural land — through usufruct rights — to individuals and to peasant associations and cooperatives for farming (Clouse).” As it handed land back to the Cuban people, the government also encouraged formation of education and dissemination centers, markets, and farms of all types through Havana. Abroad, the United States tightened trade embargos with Cuba, squeezing the country financially but strengthening a culture of self-sufficiency.
A decade later in 2002, 86,450 acres of urban Cuba was dedicated to intensive farming, including 12% of the city of Havana. By this time, “officials estimated that more than 50 percent of the perishable produce consumed in Havana was produced within the city limits (Clouse).” By 2006, the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) celebrated Cuba as the only country in the world with sustainable development.
Cuban citizens have much to celebrate. Although the country is often judged poor by Western metrics, the island touts high quality-of-life indicators. In addition to successful healthcare and education systems, much of this is attributable to the Cuban model of urban agriculture, which has brought back a sustainable food culture. Rather than focusing on growing sugarcane or non-native crops for export, Cubans have re-introduced crops such as viandas, which are nutrient dense and grow easily in the climate. The rise in farming has also brought locals together physically- in vacant lots and food markets- and psychologically, through a feeling of solidarity. Though difficulties such as contaminated urban soils and environmental pollution remain, Cuba has established a culture of experimentation and resilience that give it the foundation to handle what comes next.
Lessons for the rest of the world
In the United States and most industrialized nations, the urban farming movement has existed like a scrappy underdog for a long time. Every so often, it achieves success in a city like Detroit or a rooptop garden in Brooklyn. But despite some interesting success stories- such as the famous apiary atop the Waldorf Astoria or the rise of SPIN farming- urban agriculture is the exception rather than the norm. The vast majority of America’s food supply is propped up on industrial agriculture and the existing barriers to entry are high. Permitting requirements, fees, and land acquisition make farming largely into a corporate endeavor. Even within places where urban agriculture flourishes, social and economic divides are often evident. As one Detroit local notes, “Some black people feel that urban farming is being pushed on them by whites in from outside.” In these cases, white millenials that rush in to try their hands at farming often leave within a few years to take lucrative jobs or start families, and the original gaps re-open.
In a certain sense, Cuba was lucky to be able to transform its food system in the wake of a total economic and political collapse. Not only did the political barriers to entry dissolve, but Cubans experienced a common struggle and solidarity in learning to feed themselves. Even with the loosening of US trade blocks and embargos, the Cuban model continues to flourish.
There are many lessons for the rest of the world from Cuba’s now almost 30-year urban agriculture experiment. Thousands of Cuban farmers have attempted new growing techniques and designs that amount to a large-scale permaculture experiment. Public health records likely contain a wealth of data to reflect the results of a population eating locally grown and distributed produce. Finally, and probably most importantly, Cuba demonstrates that large-scale transformation to sustainability is possible- but it requires a total buy-in and a shared commitment between government and citizens to imagine something better than what currently exists.
Clouse, Carey. Farming Cuba: Urban Agriculture From the Ground Up . Princeton Architectural Press.
Stone, Curtis. The Urban Farmer. New Society Publishers.
Waldmeir, Patti. “The Urban Farmers Trying to Put down Roots in Detroit.” Financial Times, 12 Sept. 2018, www.ft.com/content/0e6b8412-89e5-11e8-affd-da9960227309.