Cuba: A Model for Sustainable Agriculture

In 2006, the World Wildlife Fund identified Cuba as the only country in the world to achieve sustainable development. This was largely due to the great success of its agricultural sector. The Cuban state for the past quarter of a century has encouraged local production by small scale farmers, using sustainable strategies without chemical pesticides.

Some estimates argue that up to 60% of the fruit and vegetables consumed within Havana is grown in Havana by a large network of small-scale farmers. It is worth pausing for a second to consider how a city the size of Houston, Texas, is so agriculturally productive. In total, Cuba has 383,000 urban farms, covering 50,000 hectares of otherwise unused land and producing more than 1.5 million tons of vegetables. Thus Cuba’s small farmers, whilst only controlling 25% of the land, are producing 65% of its food. This is a model of food production that differs sharply from it neighbours in the Caribbean, such as the Dominican Republic, which grows and exports sugar to the United States, and imports staples such as soya beans.

An urban agriculture business in a suburb of Havana, by Arnoud Joris Maaswinkel

It was not always this way. From 1959 until the mid 1990s Cuba engaged in a similar trading pattern as the Dominican Republic but instead with its communist ally, the USSR. The Cuban government devoted 30% of its agricultural land to sugarcane for the purposes of export, in return importing 57% of Cuba’s food supply. Importantly, it relied on importing tractors and large quantities of pesticides and fertiliser inputs. During this period, pests started to increase, and the land suffered soil erosion, compaction, salinization, high acidity, and lower fertility.

The collapse of the USSR hit Cuba hard, as it lost both generous subsidies and its main trading partner. It was no longer able to maintain all the Soviet tractors it owned, or even run them, as it lacked the oil. It didn’t produce fertilisers or pesticides of its own. Most importantly, 57% of its food supply just dried up in a few short years. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation estimated that calorie intake plunged from 2,600 a head in the late 1980s to between 1,000 and 1,500 by 1993. In other words, Cuba only had half the food it used to.

The response by the government was radical. Land was switched from producing crops for export to producing food for domestic consumption. They decentralised, dismantling inefficient state farms and encouraging farmers to work in local collectives. Integrated pest management, crop rotation, composting, and soil conservation were implemented as farmers became experts in worm composting and biopesticides. Furthermore, the Ministry of Agriculture established urban gardens and small-scale urban farming so that by 1995, there were 25,000 allotments farmed by families and small groups. From this period of crisis, Cuba’s food system managed to emerge even stronger than it had been before. In 2007, Cuba’s average daily per capita dietary energy supply was over 3,200 kcal, the highest of all Latin American and Caribbean nations and higher than the 2,600 it had been in the late 1980s. The most productive urban farms in Cuba yield up to 20 kg of food per square meter, the highest rate in the world, and they manage this without any synthetic chemicals.

Given the success of the Cuban experiment, it seems that other countries could learn lessons from it, notably those who are suffering from food shortages, as Cuba was in the early 1990’s. The most obvious candidates would be Cuba’s neighbours, such as Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua, all who suffer much higher rates of undernourishment of their populations than Cuba.

The right to food is one of the most basic human rights a state can provide. It underpins the right to life, the right to a livelihood, the right to an adequate standard of living, and so on and so forth. This is why it is part of Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and also why it was included as one of the eight Millennium Development Goals, the first being the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger. The successor to the Millennium Development Goals, the Sustainable Development Goals, simply stated zero hunger. Yet despite this, the right to food is often forgotten in human rights discourse. Topics such as slavery, refugees, or female genital mutilation take centre stage. They are shocking, violent, and dramatic, demanding the attention of the media, politicians, and the public. However it is not always helpful to think of human rights in these terms, as some of the most important rights are as mundane and banal as food production.

Cuba may not just be the model for the global south though, it may also be the model for the global north as well. The world’s population is predicted to rise to 9.7 billion by 2050, with 70% of those people predicted to live and work in urban areas. The question hangs over us: how will we feed all those people? For many the answer lies in the Green Revolution, which was a set of initiatives that were put in place from the 1930s up until the 1960s, which focused upon technological responses. This meant planting high-yield crops, mechanisation, and the mass use of pesticides. Whilst it was highly effective in increasing the level of food production in many countries, notably in less economically developed regions, it also produced some notable downsides. It increased greenhouse gases, its methods were non-renewable, the high use of pesticides had health effects on local populations, it reduced both biodiversity and the quality of many people’s diets, and whilst it increased food production, this did not always mean it increased food security due to the economic and social systems in place. As we are aware of these problems, we could try and update the Green Revolution for the 21st century. However, Cuba is an intriguing example, which points us in another direction in which we can meet the dietary demands of the coming century. Most interesting is the focus on urban agriculture, which has to be one of the responses in more urbanised parts of the world. It expands the amount of land which can be potentially used for agriculture, it shortens the supply chain, reducing the resources used on shipping produce across the globe and increasing food security in these urban areas, which are normally the worst affected when food shortages occur.

Cuba was forced to think rapidly and forced to adapt in the 1990s by the collapse of the Soviet Union. The rest of the world was not. However, the lessons learned from Cuba should be taken on board by other countries sooner rather than later, so that they can more effectively provide for their citizens, and help prepare for whatever the future may throw at them.

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