Sustainability is a growing topic in our society, and much of the focus is being placed on agriculture. In the United States especially, the norm of industrial agriculture is degrading the environment and posing problems for the future. The rise of urban agriculture and agro-ecology in Cuba might provide some solutions to these problems.
Under Soviet influence, Cuba’s primary agricultural production was centered around the export of sugar and rum to the Soviet Union in exchange for oil, fertilizers, and pesticides, as well as much of the country’s food. This supported a very linear, industrialized agricultural system of mono-cropping that was heavily dependent on inputs.
For Cuba, the fall of the Soviet Union resulted in a severing of international trade lines that formerly supplied the country with food and necessary agricultural inputs. Continuing with the industrial agricultural system became impossible, both because it did not supply enough food to the country, and because oil to run machinery, and conventional fertilizers and pesticides were no longer available. Cuba needed to find a way to decrease dependency on inputs and at the same time increase food production.
The solution was agro-ecology, an agricultural system which utilizes natural ecological cycles to grow, nurture, and maintain subsistence crops. Agro-ecology operates at a much smaller scale than industrial agriculture, making it possible to replace manual human labor with fossil-fuel powered machinery. Agro-ecology uses polyculture rather than monoculture, meaning that a wide variety of complementary plants are grown at the same time in the same area. Polyculture allows for more diversified food production, and it increases the resilience of the food supply to natural disaster. The era of industrial agriculture left Cuba’s soil eroded and depleted of essential nutrients. A primary focus of agro-ecology is soil building, which uses natural methods to improve soil fertility without the need of conventional fertilizers.
At the time of the Soviet collapse, most of Cuba’s agricultural land was owned and operated by the state. Civilian pressure brought about a decentralization of agricultural management. The land did not become private, but civilians were given rights and access to it. At the same time, there was a shift throughout the country where people were moving from rural areas into the cities. The combination of decentralized management and urban growth generated a rise in urban agriculture. Urban agriculture employs agro-ecology methods to grow food in the city by members of the community. Attached is a short video documenting urban food growth in Havana, Cuba.
Cuba is not entirely self-sufficient, as most of its overall calories and protein are imported. However, as a country, it produces more of its food locally than anywhere else in the world. Globalization and industrial systems may still be necessary, but throughout the world, an overall shift towards community based agro-ecology is essential to the achievement of a sustainable agricultural system.