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De Facto Organic

By Christine Grillo

Sometimes hunger is the mother of invention.

In 1991, when Cuba lost its comradely support from the collapsing Soviet Union, the island country faced a sudden food crisis. It had no choice but to reinvent its agriculture. Once a sugar crop monoculture, this socialist nation now puts mostly organic, sustainably farmed fruits and vegetables on Cuban tables 365 days a year.

At the time of the USSR’s collapse, Cuba had relied for 30 years on trade with the Soviets, receiving above-market price for sugar, while buying heavily discounted oil, pesticides and fertilizers, and importing much of its food. Without Soviet support, Cubans found themselves largely unable to import, farm or even put gasoline in their tractors.

A decade of dire straits followed. Dubbed by Fidel Castro the Special Period in Peace Time, this era precipitated an involuntary reduction in the average Cuban diet from about 2,900 calories a day to 1,900. Some research suggests that the average Cuban lost 20 pounds during the Special Period.

But during this time, Cuban agriculture metamorphosed. Forced to use the resources available, and unable to transport sufficient food from rural to urban areas, farmers found ways to bring agriculture into the cities, improving both food access and food security.

Earlier this year, two senior research program coordinators from the Center for a Livable Future (CLF) traveled to Cuba as part of a delegation to learn from models in the agricultural metamorphosis. Jesse Kurtz-Nicholl and Sarah Rodman observed the intensive growing systems that yield 11 crop cycles a year.

“Everything is planted by hand,” says Kurtz-Nicholl, MPH ’10. “And the second they harvest, they infuse the soil with nutrients so they can start again.” Says Rodman, MPH ’10, “Cuba is actively working on research that hopes to show a diversified, organic, sustainable system can be just as productive while protecting the soil and using fewer inputs.” (In March, the UN published a report attesting that eco-farming can double food production in 10 years in low-income countries.) The researchers will share their findings in lectures for food production and sustainability courses, and Rodman will present findings about Cuban systemic support of urban agriculture at the annual meetings of the Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society in June.

While there, the researchers studied Cuban farming methods. Via vermicomposting, farmers use worms to create fertilizer from waste. By planting multiple species of plants in the same bed—intercropping—soil is enhanced and pests are confused. And for further pest control, farmers rely on crops such as oregano, marigolds, roses and basil to either repel or lure away invasive insects. In rural areas, oxen, not tractors, pull carts and plow fields.

It’s not unusual to see farms outside of apartment buildings, or in former parking lots, or even in reclaimed dumps, say the researchers.

The Ministry of Public Health conducts regular soil testing and provides farmers with rat poisons that are made from natural materials and can be placed alongside gardens. The Ministry of Agriculture sends specialists four times a year to every growing site to share information and gather data on pests. Also, farms are obligated to provide a quota of food directly to institutions such as schools or hospitals, guaranteeing food access and security for citizens.

“If you wanted to start an urban farm here [in the U.S.],” says Rodman, “you’d have to be your own advocate. In Cuba, you can be part of a co-op that shares seeds, shares tools, buys together…. I think we can learn from these models.”

Although the country has succeeded in the produce market, protein still poses a problem. Cuba imports much of its poultry, mainly from the U.S. (The current U.S. embargo of Cuba prohibits the import of Cuban products but allows exports.) The next hurdle for those who want to further develop sustainable agriculture and self-reliance in Cuba is to sustainably incorporate farm animals into the current organic agriculture systems.