The mythical paradise of Cuba

Organic farming is an important source of fresh produce in Havana, but that is a virtue born of necessity and in the countryside it is a different story. James Mitchell Crow reports.

Cuban men work in an organic vegetable garden near San Andres, Cuba. – Steve Winter/getty

Havana, Cuba. In the capital city, any abandoned pocket of land has been reclaimed for growing organic fruit and veg, consumed fresh by local city dwellers. The country has become a poster child for organic food production, but the urban scene only tells a part of the story. The country is not, and never has managed to feed itself using organic farming.

To tell the story in full, “you have to go back to what Cubans call the ‘special period’, in the beginning of the 90s, after the Soviet empire had collapsed,” says Julia Wright, a sustainable agriculture researcher at Coventry University in the UK. Cubans turned to organic agriculture because its Soviet supply of fuel, fertiliser and pesticides was abruptly switched off.

Wright first visited Cuba in the late 1990s as a PhD student researching the country’s enforced organic switch. By that time, urban organic production was thriving. “I think that’s where the myth of Cuba being organic has come from,” she says. “When you visit, they take you around these urban plots and your picture of agriculture in Cuba is that it is organic.”

Seeing the rural Cuba is much harder. It took Wright six months to get government permission to visit some farms. In the Soviet era, these had been large, highly mechanised, chemical-intensive operations. Large-scale organic farming requires a set of skills that the Cubans simply didn’t posses. Even at the darkest point of the “special period”, the country still imported any agrochemicals it could. The government plan was to keep about a third of its agricultural land under intensive production, planted with key food crops. And throughout the crisis, Cuba continued to rely on imported food.

By the early 2000s, Cuba solidified its relationship with Venezuela, and more oil and agrochemical inputs started to flow back into the country. Official figures vary, but even now Wright’s best estimate is that 40-50% of the country’s food is still imported.

Wright hopes to export something, too. Organic Cuba might be a myth, but there are still plenty of sustainable agriculture pointers, such as its urban scene, that the rest of the world might learn from.

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