Castro Topples Pesticide in Cuba

By Renee Kjartan, Washington Free Press

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/Food First
a group 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


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 FoodFirst at 398 60th St., Oakland, CA 94618; (510)

Copyright (c) 2000 Washington Free Press. All Rights Reserved.

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