Organics in Castro’s Cuban Agriculture: Kicking the Face in of the International Pesticide Cartel

Daily, the fabled ‘winter of our discontent’ is enacted through the rigorous forced consumption of food, mostly processed, which is gratuitously deficient in anything resembling natural regenerative content, and becomes grossly ever more our malnurishment. Industrialization of agriculture is supposed to be our saving grace, but becomes increasingly consolidated into the hands of a few select minority, which by design eliminates the majority from the decision making process, that is so critical in determining the future direction and outcome of our food supply. And the intensive chemical treatment it takes to maintain todays modern food supply is proving itself to be a vast resource of disease, illness, and destruction. Is there an alternative available today which can progressively and healthfully feed a nation, a world? Cuba answers!

Organic farming — often considered an insignificant part of the food supply — can feed an entire country concludes a report by the Oakland, CA-based Institute for Food and Development Policy, or more widely known as Food First, a member-supported, nonprofit education-for-action center advocating sustainable farming.

In Cuba, many of the foods people eat every day are grown without synthetic fertilizers and toxic pesticides, the report, Cultivating Havana: Urban Agriculture and Food Security in the Years of Crisis, found.

Cuba’s organic food movement developed in response to a crisis. Before the revolution that threw out dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, and to some extent during the years of Soviet support for Cuba, the island followed a typical pattern of colonial food production: It produced luxury export crops while importing food for its own people. In 1990 over 50% of Cuba’s food came from imports. “In the Caribbean, food insecurity is a direct result of centuries of colonialism that prioritized the production of sugar and other cash crops for export, neglecting food crops for domestic consumption,” the report says. In spite of efforts by the revolutionary government to correct this situation, Cuba continued in this mold until the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1989.

The withdrawal of Soviet aid meant that 1,300,000 tons of chemical fertilizers, 17,000 tons of herbicides, and 10,000 tons of pesticides, could no longer be imported, according to the report.

One of Cuba’s responses to the shock was to develop “urban agriculture,” intensifying the previously established National Food Program, which aimed at taking thousands of poorly utilized areas, mainly around Havana, and turning them into intensive vegetable gardens. Planting in the city instead of only in the countryside reduced the need for transportation, refrigeration, and other scarce resources.

The plan succeeded beyond anyone’s dreams. By 1998 there were over 8000 urban farms and community gardens run by over 30,000 people in and around Havana.

Urban agriculture is now a “major element of the Havana cityscape,” the Food First report says, and the model is now being copied throughout the country, with production growing at 250-350% per year. Today, food from the urban farms is grown almost entirely with active organic methods, the report says. Havana has outlawed the use of chemical pesticides in agriculture within city limits.

Martin Bourque, Food First’s program director for sustainable agriculture, said the goal of the National Urban Agriculture program is to produce enough fresh fruits and vegetables for everyone, and that some cities have surpassed this. He added that farmers are some of the best-paid people in Cuba, and “organic foods are for all Cubans, not just for the rich.”

Autoconsumos, or self-provisioning gardens, are found at schools and workplaces, with 376 in Havana today. The produce usually goes to the lunchroom of the host institution, and the rest goes to the workers at low prices.

There are 451 organoponicos, raised container beds with a high ratio of compost to soil and intensive planting, in Havana, growing and selling vegetables, herbs, and spices directly to the public.

The rest of the farming is done in huertos intensivos, or intensive gardens, city plots planted for maximum yield per area and incorporating organic matter directly into the soil. There is almost no pest problem because of the “incredible biodiversity” of the gardens. “We are reaching biological equilibrium. The pest populations are now kept under control by the constant presence of predators in the ecosystem. I have little need for application of any control substance,” the president of one huerto intensivo said.

There are other programs aimed at increasing small-scale urban and suburban production of everything from eggs to rabbits to flowers to medicinal plants to honey, Bourque said. Many rural homes now raise their own staples, such as beans and viandas (traditional root and tuber crops), and small-animal raising has also spread dramatically, especially in the suburban and rural areas.

At first, Bourque said, sustainable agriculture was seen as a way to “suffer through” the shock of the Soviet withdrawal. “When they began this effort, most policy- makers could not imagine any significant amount of rice being grown in Cuba without the full green-revolution technical package (e.g. high off-farm inputs). But by 1997 small-scale rice production had reached 140,000 tons, 65% of national production. Today everyone agrees that sustainable agriculture has played a major role in feeding the country and is saving Cuba millions of dollars,” that would other- wise go “to the international pesticide cartel,” Bourque said.

According to official figures, in 1999 organic urban agriculture produced 65% of Cuba’s rice, 46% of the fresh vegetables, 38% of the non-citrus fruits, 13% of the roots, tubers, and plantains, and 6% of the eggs, Bourque said.

He noted that food is “still very expensive in spite of rationing programs designed to make sure everyone has access to the basics, but Cuba has clearly grown itself out of the food crisis of the mid-1990s.”

In the last year Food First has taken dozens of farmers, researchers, academics, and activists from around the world to learn from Cuba’s organic agricultural experience.

Contact Food First at
398 60th St.,

Oakland, CA 94618;

(510) 654-4400.

Author: Renee Kjartan

News Service: Black Radical Congress- News


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