Cuba is probably not a country you tend to think of when you hear the words ‘role model.’ But when it comes to urban agriculture, we have something to learn from them. In the early 1990s, Cuba was experiencing a food shortage crisis. After the Soviet Bloc collapsed in 1989, Cuba lost the food and chemical imports it so heavily depended on from them. The tightening of the US embargo made the food security situation even worse. With the worsening conditions, residents of Havana took it upon themselves to begin planting food crops on porches, balconies, backyards, and abandoned city lots. Both the Cuban Ministry of Agriculture and Havana’s city government supported this movement, and decided to form the Department of Urban Agriculture in 1994. Initially used to secure land use rights and provide free land for those who wanted to grow food in the city, the department now offers organic agriculture knowledge and advice to the urban gardeners, while also playing a role in the start-up and functioning of various popular gardens. In addition to the Department of Agriculture, gardeners also get support from each other, in the form of horticulture clubs that pool resources and experience, and from both national and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
Havana’s urban agriculture ranges from private gardens to state-owned research gardens, with their popular gardens being the most widespread and accessible. A wide selection of produce is cultivated, depending on family needs, market availability, and suitability with the soil and locality. Because gardeners apply the principles of organic agriculture (i.e., low cost, readily available, environmentally sustainable), they have achieved garden productivity with minimal inputs. They rely on organic fertilizers rather than chemical fertilizers, control weeds by hand weeding, and often maximize the use of land by cultivating crops that produce in the ground, on the ground, and above the ground.
Many people thought that the commitment to urban agriculture would not last once the food shortage had been alleviated. But, though the food shortages have decreased considerably since the mid 1990s, Cubans have become increasingly more involved in urban agriculture. Havana’s farms and gardens have been increasing in size, number, and in quality. Yield and production levels have gone up. Today more than half of Havana’s fresh produce is grown within the city limits. The gardens have had a significant impact on the food security of the city and in improving the Cuban diet. They have also helped to empower individuals and communities within Havana, build community pride, and renew solidarity during a time of crisis.
So what can we take from this? Urban agriculture in Cuba may have come about as a response to a food shortage crisis but the benefits have been far reaching. If cities in the U.S. were to follow their example (and some have), it is likely that they would see similar benefits. Right now in the U.S. more food is being shipped in from outside markets than at any other point in history, and a higher percentage of Americans are living in cities than ever before. This leads to a wide array of social, environmental, economic, and public health costs, ranging from air pollution to the food insecurity often experienced by the working poor. Sustainable urban agriculture addresses a city’s problems in innovative ways. Purchasing food that is locally grown decreases energy needs and costs associated with long distance travel and refrigeration. Individual health improves when city residents have access to and greater control over their own food system. There are environmental benefits, including cleaner air, lower summer temperatures, and recycled wastewater and trash. Economic development and community revitalization are actualized when neighborhoods take pride in a community garden, when inner-city residents have the ability to grow and market their own food, and when inner-city farmers’ markets provide new opportunities for entrepreneurs and commercial farmers. Perhaps most importantly, urban agriculture can be used as a way for the food insecure to gain access to fresh, affordable, nutritious food.
Clearly, there are a lot of benefits to be gained by implementing urban agriculture. Hopefully cities will begin looking to Cuba as inspiration to develop an urban agriculture infrastructure that will improve food security, increase economic development, and help our communities on their way to becoming more sustainable.
Guest Contributor: Ariel Ardura