Healing a metabolic rift

Urban farming as a response to climate-driven food crises: Cuba shows the way

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Cuba’s experience suggests that urban farming can help stave off potential famine when the climate crisis cuts food production

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Cuba’s experience suggests that urban farming can help stave off potential famine when the climate crisis cuts food production

by Paul Brown
Climate News Network, November 12, 2019

When countries run short of food, they need to find solutions fast, and one answer can be urban farming.

That was the remedy Cuba seized with both hands 30 years ago when it was confronted with the dilemma of an end to its vital food imports. And what worked then for Cuba could have lessons today for the wider world, as it faces growing hunger in the face of the climate crisis.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s, most of Cuba’s food supplies went with it. To stave off severe malnutrition the people of the capital, Havana, found an imaginative answer: urban gardening. That’s now seen as a possible blueprint for the survival of city populations in a warming world.

The Rapid Transition Alliance has published a longer account of Cuba’s very fast move towards self-sufficiency as part of its series Stories of Change, which describes cases of large-scale, rapid transformation that can seem difficult to achieve but which have often worked before.

The problem of hunger for the Cubans arose because during the Cold War they had stopped producing food of their own and turned over most of their farmland to sugarcane plantations to supply the Soviet Union. In return for these mountains of sugar Moscow provided Cuba with food, chemical fertilizers and fuel oil for its cars and tractors.

The Soviet collapse brought the breakdown of this trade, and food rationing for city dwellers. And Cuba lost its main food supply while it was still coping with strict US sanctions. Reverting to conventional farming would have taken time and was in any case difficult because the Soviet fertilizers, fuel and pesticides had also dried up.

So the highly-educated urban citizens, faced with rationing which reduced the average Cuban’s daily calorie intake from 2,600 in 1986 to 1,000-1,500 in 1993, organised themselves to grow their own food in improvised urban allotments.

At first, struggling with little know-how and without fertilizers, their yields were low, but by producing compost and other organic growing mediums, plus introducing drip-fed irrigation, they began to see improvements.

Short of chemicals, the gardeners resorted to biological controls like marigolds (where opinions today are mixed) to deter harmful insects.

By 1995 Havana alone had 25,000 allotments tended by families and urban cooperatives. The government, realizing the potential benefits, encouraged the movement.

Soil quality was improved with a mixture of crop residues, household wastes and animal manure to create more compost and soil conditioners. The extra fresh vegetables and fruit this provided quickly improved urban dwellers’ calorie intake and saved many from malnutrition.

In the Cuban climate, with irrigation changes and soils undergoing constant improvement from added organic matter, the allotments could produce vegetables all year round. Lettuce, chard, radish, beans, cucumber, tomatoes, spinach and peppers were grown and traded.

There is evidence as well that the extra exercise which these urban gardeners got from tending their allotments, plus the time they spent outdoors in the open air, benefited their health.

Eventually, realizing that self-sufficiency was the only way to feed the population, the government banned sugarcane growing altogether. Lacking fertilizer, many former plantations were turned over to organic agriculture. The shortage of oil for tractors meant oxen were used for plowing.

Cuba’s experience of urban agriculture inspired many environmentalists to believe that this is at least part of the solution to the food shortages threatened by climate change. By 2008 food gardens, despite their small scale, made up 8% of the land in Havana, and 3.4% of all urban land in Cuba, producing 90% of all the fruit and vegetables consumed.

As a result the calorie intake of the average Cuban quickly rose to match that of Europeans, relying on a diet composed mainly of rice, beans, potatoes and other vegetables – a low-fat diet making obesity rare.

Because of the climate, though, wheat does not grow well in Cuba, and the island still has to import large quantities of grain for bread. Meat is in short supply and also has to be mainly imported.

Despite this, Cuba’s experience since the Cold War ended in the 1990s shows that large quantities of fresh food can be grown in cities and that urban agriculture is sustainable over decades.

For other countries vulnerable to sudden loss of food supplies, Cuba’s experience suggests that urban farming can be one way of staving off potential famine when imports are restricted, expensive or simply unobtainable.


  • Mr Angus is correct: The USA has waged economic war against Cuba since Kennedy was president. Cuba had a market for its products in the Stalinist USSR but when that political entity ceased being what it was, Cuba suffered another whammy.
    The World Wildlife fund, certainly not a socialist NGO, went out of its way to praise former president Castro and the Cuban people; that underlines, and supports, what Cuban statistics show. Cuba was the only country attending the Rio conference to take significant steps to stop their contribution to the disruption of the 8 or 9 earth systems, even changing their constitution to put emphasis on sustainability.

  • FAO stats tell a rather different story about the “success” of Cuban agriculture. From 1961 to 2016, Cuba’s net per capita Food (PIN) production declined 29%.
    Consider how milk production increased in Cuba compared to Latin America from 1961 to 2017.

    Milk production, metric tons
    1961 Latin America1 8,569,829
    2017 Latin America 79,545,712
    1961 Cuba 350,000
    2017 Cuba 541,100

    From 1961 to 2017, Latin America’s milk production increased 328%,
    From 1961 to 2017, Cuba’s milk [production increased 55%.

    Had Cuba’s milk production increased from 1961 to 2017 at the same rate as Latin America’s, in 2017 Cuba’s milk production would have been 1.5 million metric tons- nearly three times its actual production of 541,000 metric tons.

    It wasn’t “climate crisis” that cut Cuba’s production, but the disincentives of Cuba’s totalitarian regime.

    http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#data/QI Production indices: Food (PIN), Net per capita Production Index Number (2004-2006 = 100)

    http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#data/QL Livestock primary bulk download of The Americas

    • Your comment omits one vital word: BLOCKADE. From 1961 on, the United States has illegally blocked Cuban access to its traditional markets and sources of seeds, fertilizers, and other agricultural technologies. It has done everything possible to damage the Cuban economy, including organizing invasions, sabotage, and assassinations.

      No other Latin American country faced anything even approaching the campaign that the world’s most powerful country has waged against it.

      So it is not surprising that in some important areas, Cuban agriculture has not grown as fast as agriculture in countries that received massive US aid. But it has grown, and the Cubans not only survived, they improved their standard of living, their life expectancy, their nutrition, their health care, their education, and more.

      When the USSR collapsed, they suffered again — and they pulled themselves up again, still in face of US attacks and blockade. What’s more, as this article shows, they did it without the ecologically destructive technologies used in other countries.

      One result — Cuba is Number ONE on the Sustainable Development Index. (See: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921800919303386)

  • This is interesting. There are certainly possibilities from this to learn from here in the UK; but our climate is cool, wet and temperate, nothing like Cuba’s, and it’s hard to imagine what could be grown if Scotland, for example, were to create urban farms.