Cuba The vegetable gardeners of Havana
Posted 23 August 2009 - 11:14 AM
By Sarah Murch
BBC Two's Future of Food
Climate change, drought, population growth - they could all threaten future food supplies. But global agriculture, with its dependence on fuel and fertilisers is also highly vulnerable to an oil shortage, as Cuba found out 20 years ago.
Around Cuba's capital Havana, it is quite remarkable how often you see a neatly tended plot of land right in the heart of the city.
Sometimes smack bang between tower block estates or next door to the crumbling colonial houses, fresh fruit and vegetables are growing in abundance.
Some of the plots are small - just a few rows of lettuces and radishes being grown in an old parking space.
Other plots are much larger - the size of several football pitches. Usually they have a stall next to them to sell the produce at relatively low prices to local people.
Twenty years ago, Cuban agriculture looked very different. Between 1960 and 1989, a national policy of intensive specialised agriculture radically transformed Cuban farming into high-input mono-culture in which tobacco, sugar, and other cash crops were grown on large state farms.
Cuba exchanged its abundant produce for cheap, imported subsidised oil from the old Eastern Bloc. In fact, oil was so cheap, Cuba pursued a highly industrialised fuel-thirsty form of agriculture - not so different from the kind of farming we see in much of the West today.
But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the oil supply rapidly dried up, and, almost overnight, Cuba faced a major food crisis. Already affected by a US trade embargo, Cuba by necessity had to go back to basics to survive - rediscovering low-input self-reliant farming.
Oxen replaced tractors when Cuba became a low-fuel economy
With no petrol for tractors, oxen had to plough the land. With no oil-based fertilizers or pesticides, farmers had to turn to natural and organic replacements.
Today, about 300,000 oxen work on farms across the country and there are now more than 200 biological control centres which produce a whole host of biological agents in fungi, bacteria and beneficial insects.
Havana has almost 200 urban allotments - known as organiponicos - providing four million tons of vegetables every year - helping the country to become 90% self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables.
Alamo Organiponico is one of the larger co-operatives employing 170 people, which was built on a former rubbish-tip that produces 240 tons of vegetables a year.
There are a wide range of crops planted side by side and brightly coloured marigolds at the edges.
vegetable plot in Havana
Car parks and rubbish tips have become vegetable plots
"We produce all different kinds of vegetables," says farmer Emilio Andres who is proud of the fact that his allotment feeds the local community.
"We sell to the people, the school, the hospital, also to the restaurant and the hotel too.
"It's important because it's grown in the city, it's fresh food for the people, it's healthy food, and it provides jobs for the people here too.
"We don't spray any chemicals. We only spray biological means like bastilos - a bacteria and fungus to kill the pests. And we use repellent plants like marigolds to keep away the pests.
"When I see all of these healthy crops, without too many pests, grown without any chemicals, it's amazing for me - I am making a contribution for the people that get healthy crops, healthy products."
The organiponico uses raised beds filled with about 50% high-quality organic material (such as manure), 25% composted waste such as rice husks and coffee bean shells, and 25% soil.
A Western diet includes about three times as much food energy from animal products like meat and dairy
As well as marigolds, basil and neem trees are planted around the containers to keep the aphids and beetles at bay. Sunflowers and corn are also planted around the beds to attract beneficial insects such as lady bugs and lace wings. Sticky paper or plastic funnel-shaped bottles are positioned throughout the beds to trap harmful pests that do get into the garden.
And the methods work. Lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, squash, sweet potatoes, spinach herbs and many other crops are grown in huge quantities and sold cheaply. Mangoes are 2 pence (3 US cents) a pound. Black beans 15p (25 cents) and plantain, just 12p (20 cents).
At the time of the oil shock, average calorie consumption in Cuba dropped by a third to dangerously low levels. Since then they have bounced back and Cubans eat just a little less than people in the UK.
The biggest difference is that a Western diet includes about three times as much food energy from animal products like meat and dairy.
The Cuban diet is much less fatty and requires less fuel to produce. A far less varied diet than in the West, it is also much healthier. The standard lunch for the farm workers is black beans, potatoes and rice.
Cuban agricultural researcher, Fernando Funes reckons the rest of the world has something to learn from the Cuban agricultural story.
"Well, do you have oil forever? And there also other considerations like global warming, nature conservation... the conventional way of farming generates a lot of damage to the environment and to human health.
"Developed countries as well as developing countries should pay a lot of attention to this kind of agriculture which takes care of land, people, environment and is also efficient and productive. You can combine both."
Find out more on BBC Two's Future of Food, Mondays 17, 24 & 31 August, at 2100 BST. All three episodes will also be available in the UK on BBC iPlayer .
Posted 23 August 2009 - 01:19 PM
Epictetus said "Freedom is the right to live as we wish."
Voltaire said "Man is free at the moment he wishes to be"
Blayz'd said "When I grow up, I want to be a budologist"
Gil S-H said "Each one reach one, each one try to teach one"
Posted 24 August 2009 - 08:35 AM
I love Cuba, its a lovely place and from what I could see it was immaculately kept.
Posted 24 August 2009 - 08:35 AM
The only place we came across lots if veg was in an international hotel in Havana and we guessed that they probably shipped it in!
The worst food I have ever eaten and sooooo expensive if you are a tourist. I am guessing all the food gets exported along with their well-trained and often demoralised doctors. Tricky to find bud too.
But despite this a stunningly beautiful country with industrious, open but sometimes pissed off people. Oh yeah and you gotta pay £25 to leave the country the cheeky bstards!!!
Posted 24 August 2009 - 11:13 AM
I visited Cuba as a guest of Cubatobacco back in the early Nineties, during the first phase of the 'special period' and it was grim, with no food in the shops and hardly anyone on the streets. Despite that, I loved the country and its people who are, for the most part, startlingly well-educated and sharp (the horticultural science guy was typical). There was talk back then about the island's potential to become agriculturally self-sufficient, so I'm pleased they've made strides although I hear what rubabudbud says. I guess most tourists in Cuba stay in the resort hotels?
As for the rest of the programme, I found myself thinking about how long it is since I first read 'Diet For A Small Planet' (it was nearly 30 years ago); about being involved with The Hunger Project in the 1980s (it's mission was to end world hunger by the end of the Century); and about the rise of the Soil Association in the 1990s. Has it really taken so long for the understanding of how inefficient the meat-based diet is and what Alagiah called the 'perfect storm' of global warming, water depletion and rising populations to reach the mainstream?
Eric: "Put 'em on the table and I'll hit 'em with this mallet."
Posted 27 August 2009 - 07:40 PM
It was a hopeful future destination esp as when in Italy WOOFing last year lots of organic type people said it's a popular holiday destination for them.
Italy would appear to be more keen veg growers too then - veg allotments and gardens all over.