There's a new revolution on the island nation of Cuba; this time in the production of food. The collapse of the Soviet Union forced Cuba to turn to small-scale organic farming and urban gardens. This dramatic agricultural transformation is unparalleled in the world today. American agricultural experts, including some Minnesotans, are taking notice.
WHEN THE SOVIET UNION COLLAPSED in 1989, it threatened the very survival of the Cuban people. Half the food consumed in Cuba had been imported, much from the Soviet bloc. Suddenly there was a serious food shortage and little money to buy fertilizer or fuel. By the mid-1990s, Cuban food production halved. Thousands of Cubans were malnourished.
"Everyone expected bread riots on the streets, people clamoring for food and many people expected the government to fall," says Minor Sinclair, a food-policy expert, who was working in Cuba for Oxfam at the time.
He says the Cuban government avoided disaster through a bold move; declaring the country's farms would go organic.
Oxen replaced tractors in the fields, and in the cities, wherever there was a patch of vacant land, up sprang an urban garden.
A windmill pumps water for one garden in the heart of Havana Province.
Trucks rumble down a wide boulevard in residential Havana. Ten years ago, this was a weed patch. Now it's a lush jungle of vegetables, spices and fruit. Gardener Ignacio Aguileras Garcias feeds 10 family members from his plot.
"Here we have 43 farmers and maybe only eight or 10 sell the products. The rest use the products for their own consumption. You work on your piece of land and you do with your production whatever you want," he says.
Nowadays, most Cubans have enough to eat. Urban gardens produce more than half of the fruits and vegetables consumed in Cuba. By law no chemicals can be used on any urban gardens.
"We use organic products; for example, organic fertilizer, humus or compost," Garcias says. "There are children (and) old people, and if we use those chemical products, they could be affected by the actions of those chemicals."
This commitment to organic urban gardening has attracted attention throughout the world. For people working in alternative agriculture, Cuba is renowned. Many are visiting the island to see Cuba's methods with their own eyes, and that includes a growing number of Minnesotans.
Ramsey County master gardener Diane Dodge was in Cuba recently, part of a group organized by Food First, a California organization supporting alternative agriculture in Cuba.
"We don't know what agrarian cities are and Havana is an agrarian city. It's unbelievable - at least in the western world," she says.
In Havana, a city with slightly less population than the Twin Cities, 26,000 people work urban gardens. And so, the experts are asking, is Cuba's system of urban gardens worth exporting to the U.S. and other countries? Does it make sense that valuable urban land be used to grow food?
Oxfam's Minor Sinclair says yes.
"You produce it locally, you get people involved in the production, you market it locally. You can go out and walk two blocks and buy a head of lettuce that's been removed from the earth right there in front of your eyes. And that lettuce lasts a week in the refrigerator - better product, cheaper prices and better income for the farmers too," says Sinclair.
Of course urban gardens didn't singlehandedly avert starvation. The government also broke up inefficient state farms, placing more land in private hands. There are now cash incentives to individual farmers who can sell directly to consumers, charging whatever the market will bare.
A private market in central Havana is a little slice of capitalism in socialist Cuba. Prices here are relatively high with milk and meat in short supply.
"I'm not sure Americans would know how to feed ourselves if there was a crisis where the food supply stopped."
- Wayne Monsen
Minnesota Department of Agriculture
There's a flurry of excitement when chicken wings appear at one counter in the market, and in less than an hour the chicken is sold out.
But as Cuban agriculture rebounds, some wonder about the future of urban gardens.
American producers of chemical fertilizers and pest controls want to sell to Cuba. As the economy improves, the temptation to increase yields through the use of chemicals may takeover alternative methods.
Roberto Caballeros, a horticulturist with a Cuban research institute, explains that in the future, Cubans will probably use a combination of organics and chemicals, but will resist business pressures.
"The business of the people who sell chemical products is sell chemical products. They have nothing to do with agriculture. Their problem is to sell products, and they have to convince you that if you want more yield, you must use more product. But in reality it is not so. You don't need more product. You can do it with less product. But what we must do is intelligent agriculture," Caballeros says.
That makes sense to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's Wayne Monsen, who was also part of the Food First group visiting Cuba.
"They know how to feed themselves. I'm not sure Americans would know how to feed ourselves if there was a crisis where the food supply stopped," he says.
Cuba managed by combining urban gardens with organic agriculture and the slow unleashing of capitalistic reforms But unlike other developing countries, the move toward free markets in Cuba did not put small farmers off the land. In fact, farmers are making more money than many other professions - another sign that the Cuban experiment in alternative agriculture might bear fruit in other nations as well.