The Big Green Experiment: Cuba's Organic Revolution
Lisa Van Cleef

The world's greatest organic farming experiment is going on right now and everyone who eats food should know about it. Cuba, our island neighbor to the south, has been undergoing a radical agricultural and economic revolution as it seeks to dramatically increase its food production using organic methods.

Cuban agriculture was Latin America's star performer, relying on the latest chemical pesticides, fertilizers and farm equipment from the Soviet bloc. It was farming Central California style with huge monocrops nourished by agrochemicals.

This highly industrialized, capital-intensive farming practice came to a screeching halt in 1989 when the Soviet Union collapsed. Cuba lost 85 percent of its foreign trade, including food, agricultural imports and petroleum. Already crippled by the U.S. embargo, the country was financially devastated with its food supply hit hardest.

The Cuban response was to go organic, a much cheaper alternative to conventional chemical farming that doesn't rely on imports. The state's priorities shifted to food production, the scientific community began focusing on organic practices and city dwellers were mobilized as urban farming became a vital source of food.

Amanda Rieux, instructor for the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners' Gardening and Composting Educator Training Program, has just returned from a trip to Cuba with a Food First Sustainable Agriculture delegation. For Rieux, this was an opportunity to see organic practices in use on a nationwide scale and a chance to assess the implications for all of us.

"In America, the work I do is on the fringe, says Rieux. "Organic farming is still perceived as unusual and far from the norm. It was exciting to be in a place where the efforts of the entire government are behind sustainable agriculture. (Sustainable agriculture refers to an integrated system whereby the gardener works within natural biological cycles and uses only naturally occurring resources.) The idea of the small urban farm being highly productive, sustainable and the source of a nice income was heartening to see. Cuba proves it's feasible, it's happening.

With limited gasoline to transport, refrigerate and store food from the countryside, food production was brought to the cities. Cuba now has one of the most successful urban agriculture programs in the world. The State is making unused land available to fledgling urban farmers and thousands of empty lots have been turned into organic oases.

In Havana alone there are 8,000 organic gardens producing a million tons of food annually. The gardens range in size from a few meters to several hectares. The urban farmers primarily grow lettuce, bok choy, onions, chard, radishes, tomato, cabbage and broccoli. Gardens can employ anywhere from one to 70 people depending on the size of the garden. And people from all walks of life are participating.

Rieux says, "At one garden I visited, there was a construction worker, a mechanic, an engineer and a mathematician: all these people are working in the urban garden. You can make more money as an organic farmer than you can as an electrical engineer right now."

The state is supporting the new urban gardeners through extensive university research into sustainable organic practices, including soil health and fertility.

Cuba's scientific community is also developing breakthrough biological fertilizers and pesticides using naturally occurring organisms and insects.

According to Food First executive director Peter Rosset, there are more than 200 biotech centers in Cuba producing and distributing cutting-edge, non-toxic biofertilizers and pesticides based on local microorganisms. Biological controls, such as Bt, a common organic pesticide, are available in the U.S., but Rosset says by focusing so much of its research resources in this arena, Cuba is way ahead of the rest of the world.

In Havana, the Urban Agriculture Department was formed to educate and assist the neophyte city gardeners in implementing these new techniques. Small state run stores were established to sell seeds, hand tools, pots and some biological controls and serve as educational sites, offering workshops and advising the urban farmers and gardeners.

"Cuba is not a commercial society. You can't think, 'Gosh, I'd like to grow something. Let me go to the hardware store and buy seeds and get myself some compost.' There were no stores. The State had to provide shops with inexpensive goods to promote urban agriculture," Rieux said.

The Cuban gardeners incorporate some traditional organic practices, such as the use of worm compost-castings (worm poo) from redworms fed a diet of kitchen scraps. Worm compost is generated quickly and is higher in nitrogen that is more quickly accessible by crops than regular compost.

They also rely heavily on interplanting--where diverse crops are planted together--which discourages the pests that accompany monocrop farming. This is a major shift from contemporary industrialized farming, with its acres of corn that provide a veritable buffet for bugs, as well as monocropping's inherent dependency on pesticides.

The gardeners are also experimenting with their soil by leaving their crop residue (the stalks, vines, and anything else left after the harvest) on the field instead of clearing it off. A layer of worm compost is added on top to create rich soil another old-fashioned organic idea.

Riew says the Cuban farmers are now very articulate about healthy ecosystems. "When they find a problem in their garden, they'll watch closely, noticing if there is a check in their system that might pull the problem back. For instance, if they're having aphids, they might wash their plants off and watch for a day or two to see what happens. Does a parasitic wasp come for the aphids? Will a lady beetle show up? Will something come and work within the system and deal with the aphids? Working within a whole ecosystem is a given. That was something that the conventional agricultural methods had completely obliterated."

The city farmers are also tackling the lack of medicine in Cuba. A casualty of the trade embargo, Cuba can import neither medicine nor the ingredients to make it. Even aspirin is a rarity in Cuba. Rieux says she saw a lot of people growing green medicine in their urban gardens.

"I saw a beautiful green medicine garden grown by one man," she says. He's growing oregano, marjoram, lemon grass, sage, tila (a kind of sedative), chamomile, calendula, aloe. The herbs are processed as teas and tinctures. In half an hour he had eight or nine customers, a steady flow of business."

The state needed a dramatic incentive to stimulate interest in urban food production. And money is just as stimulating to Cubans as it is to us. So major economic changes were instituted to support the organic transition in the cities.

Prices were deregulated and the state created farmers markets, which legalized direct sales from farmers to consumers.

Farmers markets popped up all around the city on the garden sites. Some of the urban gardens, called organiponicos, were established as employee-owner cooperatives with the members sharing in all the profits made.

Today, farmers can make three times more than professionals by selling their produce direct to consumers. Reason enough for engineers to abandon their calculators for hoes.

Cuba's advanced organic farming techniques have led to major cultural shifts as many city-dwellers have become farmers. But what happens when the Cuban economy shifts and the embargo is lifted? Now that they are such capable organic growers, will they revert to chemical farming? Rieux says no.

"Yes, there are people who believe some of the gardeners will revert to the old practices, but many people will still farm organically. Even when the embargo lifts, the small farmer will make more money organically because he spends so little. He's not going to start buying chemicals. He won't have to. He has the knowledge now.

For the rest of the food-eating world, the Cuban agricultural greening shows that when a government decides to, it can put its strength behind sustainable, profitable, non-toxic agriculture. "The shift towards sustainable agriculture has been very successful in Cuba, people are eating better there now than they did five years ago," says Rieux. "And, there is an understanding that these methods have social and environmental values, as well as economic. It has been an empowering movement for the Cuban people.

Granted, Cuba was in a tough, hungry place that made willingness to experiment essential. But at a time when we are dumping ever-increasing amounts of chemical pesticides on our crops, poisoning our aquifers and sterilizing our soil, this large-scale experiment should be watched by all.
© Reprinted from the San Francisco Chronicle, Wednesday, March 15, 2000; published in The Trowel, #11, spring-summer 2000, by San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners.