Cuba is a global exemplar of organic, agroecological farming, taking place on broad swathes of land in and around its cities, write Julia Wright & Emily Morris. These farms cover 14% of the country’s agricultural land, employ 350,000 people, and produce half the country’s fruit and vegetables. But can they survive exposure to US agribusiness?
For more than 20 years, Cuba has been developing a sophisticated urban and suburban food system, producing healthy food, improving the environment and providing employment.
But how will the sector survive if the economy opens up to US agricultural and industrial trade and investment?
The first urban farms emerged spontaneously in Cuba out of the hardships of the early 1990s. People in towns and cities began to cultivate urban waste land and keep small livestock as a coping strategy.
Possibly the first co-ordinated effort was the Santa Fe project in the north-west of Havana City, initiated in 1991. Taking advantage of the available resources within the community, empty urban space was reclaimed for food production to help overcome irregular and inadequate food supplies.
The principles of organic, or agroecological, farming were used to overcome the lack of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. These included making compost from local resources: manure, worm farms and food waste. Here, organic and agroecological farming are synonymous, meaning basically to farm in harmony with nature.
Soon the Cuban government recognised the potential of urban agriculture, and incorporated it into the National Food Action Plan. It offered support by making land available, providing extension services supplying education, seeds and other resources, and organising marketing.
In 1994 the government established a Department of Urban Agriculture, and in 1997 this became the National Programme of Urban Agriculture and part of the Ministry of Agriculture.
Suburban agriculture: the great hope for feeding cities?
The Cuban urban agriculture movement’s achievements over the past 20 years were reviewed at the International Conference on Urban and Suburban Agriculture and Family Farming in Havana in April 2015, organised by the International Centre for Fundamental Research on Tropical Agriculture (INIFAT).
It has retained three basic principles: an agroecological approach; the use of local resources; and the direct marketing of produce to the consumer. In 2013 Family Farming was added to the programme.