Cuba: A Leader in Organic and Urban Agriculture.

Marcos Cohen


A strong sociopolitical structure has guided the development of Cuba, which has been rarely affected by globalization due to an ideological resistance to imperialism and capitalism. The case of Cuba can be seen as a unique experiment in the transition to become almost a food independent island. Currently, Cuba is a leader in organic agriculture techniques that has allowed the country to achieve self-sufficient standards in food security, ecological conservation, and sustainable development. After understanding the position of Cuba both in a political and socio-economic perspective, I ask myself. How does the shift from conventional intensive agriculture to small organic farms in Cuba have been so successful?



Cuba supported by the Soviet Union

In Cuba’s modern history existed two major events that marked significant changes in its development. First the Cuban Revolution in 1959 directed by Fidel Castro and second the “Special Period” (in Time of Peace), which began in 1989 with the “Soviet Collapse”. In between these two events, Cuba had powerful links with the Soviet Union, where 85% of its trade was with the Soviet Bloc, this relation helped to create the most well developed island in the Caribbean (Warwick, 2001). During these years urban agriculture was almost non-existent in Havana (Cuba´s capital). “There was no need, not even for the poorest residents, to grow food, as food was distributed by the State” (Koont, 2009).


The Soviet Union collapse and the oil crisis.

When the Socialist Bloc disintegrated, Cuba lost access to cheap fossil fuels, direct food imports and the agricultural inputs on which it so heavily depended for its export production (Gonzales Novo, Murphy, 2000), giving rise to the “Special Period”. Almost overnight, diesel fuel, gasoline, trucks, agricultural machinery, spare parts for trucks and machinery, as well as petrochemical-based fertilizers and pesticides, became very scarce (Koont, 2009). The oil crisis in Cuba became a very serious problem, on one hand threatening its economy by radically lowering the production capacity hence a decrease of exports income, and on the other people’s survival due to food scarcity. A shift to urban agriculture seemed an obvious and necessary solution: urban production minimized transportation costs and smaller-scale production minimized the need for machinery. Agro-ecological production (applying the principles of ecology to agricultural practices), in part, necessitated production sites near the living areas of large concentrations of people, and at the same time avoided the use of toxic petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides, which were no longer available (Koont, 2009).


Popular response

The post-Soviet crisis incited a massive popular response, initially in the form of gardening in and around the home by Havana’s people (Warwick, 2001). With the necessity of addressing the food crisis in an immediate manner, urban agriculture was started all over Havana. The initial objective was to solve the issue of immediate food security, but diverse consequences emerged from urban agriculture practices, causing a better environmental performance, as well as a change in social interactions with their natural environment. Another reason of a rapid urban agriculture development was the scientists intervention, who were influenced by the ecology movement, and had already developed a critique of Cuba’s intensive agricultural system (Warwick, 2001).


The main idea of urban agriculture in Havana was described as “Production in the community, by the community, for the community”, which refers to the cycle of producers, products, marketing and consumers (Gonzales Novo, Murphy, 2000). Such popular initiative together with governmental support brought an opportunity for Cuba to become a pioneer country in organic agriculture.


Government action

The Cuban state has been supportive through the establishment of specialized institutions, legislation, research, teaching and extension, and through productive practice (Willer, Kilcher, 2009). Moreover, in addition to a popular response, the Cuban Ministry of Agriculture, created an Urban Agriculture Department, with the aim of putting all of the city’s open land into production (Warwick, 2001). The booming urban-gardening movement was supported through the world’s first co-ordinated urban agriculture programme, integrating: 1) access to land; 2) extension services; 3) research and technology development; 4) new supply stores for small farmers; and 5) new marketing schemes and organization of selling points for urban producers (Gonzales Novo, Murphy, 2000).


Characteristics of urban agriculture in Cuba

Crops are cultivated in several ways and with different purposes depending on land availability, distributed consumers and social context. A part of Cuba’s agriculture can be considered as “organic by default,” as conventional inputs are periodically not available or not available at all (Willer, Kilcher, 2009). In the context of a rapidly evolving initiative, farms and gardens have been organized into five main categories (Warwick, 2001) by the Urban Agriculture Department:


 (1) Huertos populares (popular gardens): gardens whcih are privately cultivated by urban residents in small areas. These gardens spontaneously emerged in yards and on balconies, patios and rooftops in response to the problems of the “special period” (Gonzales Novo, Murphy, 2000). It is common that these popular gardens raise animals for meat, milk, eggs, etc.


(2)Organoponicos – Huertos intensivos (intensive gardens): gardens cultivated in raised beds with a high ratio of compost to soil and run either through a state institution or by private individuals. The organopónicos are used mainly for intensive vegetable production. This system works very well in urban settings; for example, on paved vacant lots or plots with poor soils (Gonzales Novo, Murphy, 2000). The clustering of various units of organopónicos can form a state enterprise or a BPCU (Basic Production of Co-operative Unit), the production of these units is not organically certified, but nevertheless they are one the pillars of the Cuban organic movement and internationally acknowledged for their achievements (Willer, Kilcher, 2009).


(3) Autoconsumos: gardens and small farms belonging to and producing food for workers, usually supplying cafeterias of particular workplaces. Autoconsumos contribute to small businesses and workplaces to become food self sufficient, and operate more efficiently by reducing supply logistics and the ecological footprint of previous processes.


(4) Campesinos particulares: individual small plots cultivated by farmers, largely working in the greenbelt around the city. The typical farm size is about 13 ha. (Warwick, 2001). Most of the milk and cut flowers sold in Havana originate from these farms. The milk is sold not in farmers’ markets but distributed through the state distribution system (Gonzales Novo, Murphy, 2000).


(5) Empresas estatales: large farms run as state enterprises, many with increasing decentralization, autonomy, and degrees of profit sharing with workers. There are three state-run agricultural enterprises (Empresas Estatales) in Havana: A) Empresa de Cultivos Varios (Mixed-Crop Company), B) Empresa Horticola Metropolitana (Metropolitan Vegetable Company) and C) Empresa Pecuaria (Animal Production Company) (Gonzales Novo, Murphy, 2000). As it is mentioned before state farms are formed by many organopónicos, where the government supplies the money and uses the produce in the food distribution system.


The total area of Havana is 721 km2, of which 299 km2 is used for agricultural

production, in which a very high diversity of crops is produced. (Grupo Provincial Agropecuario. 1998)


Urban agricultural production in Cuba per production system (1997)

Sector Production (tons)

Huertos populares 28,385
Autoconsumos 23,389
Organopónicos 47,651
Campesinos particulares 44,480
Empresa de Cultivos Varios 16,095
Total 160,000

Source: Grupo Provincial Agropecuario. 1998


Throughout the years Cuba has developed a large agricultural research sector. The development of the urban agriculture sector has been supported by research and technical assistance of research institutes.


The effects of urban agriculture on women and the community context.

The relation between Cuban people and their food supply had positive effects in the social context, where direct involvement of producers and consumers in Urban Agriculture has integrated the community with common practices. The social and economic environment has enjoyed the creation of sizeable sources of urban employment and the incorporation of women and young workers under the age of thirty-five, important in terms of the long-term sustainability of urban agriculture, as well as retirees into the urban agricultural workforce, bringing income and health benefits to the latter (Koont, 2009). The role of women in gardening is remarkable since, in Cuba, agricultural work is traditionally considered to be a man’s job (Gonzales Novo, Murphy, 2000). It is important to mention that the Federation of Cuban Women manages the biggest intensive garden and employs 140 women (Gonzales Novo, Murphy, 2000). When the Special Period was still in force, the UN’s Special Report wrote; “in terms of education, participation in the workforce and professional and technical training, women in Cuba are well ahead of women in most other countries.”(5), in part, this was a result of a local movement, which involved directly every citizen, regardless gender, age or race.


Environmental improvement

Urban farming is a common practice and extremely heterogeneous. It involves efficient use of water; careful management of soil fertility, crops and animals; and close attention to environmental protection (Gonzales Novo, Murphy, 2000). The crash in agricultural imports has also led to a general diversification within farming on the island. The state encourages farmers to breed oxen to replace tractors and to substitute integrated pest management for pesticides no longer available (Warwick, 2001).


One of the strong features of organic agriculture is its reliance on fossil-fuel independent and locally available production assets; working with natural processes increases cost-effectiveness and resilience of agro-ecosystems to climatic stress (Willer, Kilcher, 2009). In Cuba’s cities, the environment has benefited both from the greening of the city due to the cultivation of crops, and from the fact that this is all done agro-ecologically (Koont, 2009). In addition, urban development has taken place as a consequence of the urban agriculture movement, where reduction of transport dependence permitted a more efficient mobility of people within urban areas.



Cuba is a remarkable example of how a proactive population can make significant changes. After being in a severe economical crisis and a situation of scarce resources, Cuba has succeeded to become self sufficient through scattered local efforts while avoiding globalization trends. The internal organization between communities, academic institutes and government was a key collaboration for transforming extensive agriculture dependent on fertilizers and pesticides into a small organic agricultural farms system. To reach ambitious projects regarding to sustainability are far beyond the use of high cost technologies or large investments. It is the return to basic and more natural methods that make the difference towards a sustainable future, without excluding the development of new technologies, research advancement and improvement of life quality. In Cuba, the relation between humans and land has turned more intimate, where the experience of cultivating and breeding animals organically, and sharing with other members of the community can be transmitted to next generations as a highly productive and beneficial methodology.


Regardless to the vast problems the island of Cuba have faced, such as poverty, lack of communication with the external world, and scarce infrastructure development, Cuba, has managed to succeed through social cooperation in terms of organic agriculture production, self-sufficiency standards and environmental improvement. The adapting capacity that Cuba showed since the Soviet collapse, proves that human behavior can cross any type of barriers, it demonstrates that the richness of a country does not only come from resources abundance and material wealth, but from education, social organization and commitment to move forward.



  1. Gonzales Novo, M. Murphy, C, 2000. Urban Agriculture in the city of Havana: A Popular Response to a Crisis.
  2. Koont, S, 2009. The Urban Agriculture of Havana. Monthly Review.
  3. Warwick, H. 2001. Cuba´s Organic Revolution. Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy pp 54-57.
  4. Willer, H. and Kilcher, L. (Eds.) (2009): The World of Organic Agriculture. Statistics and Emerging Trends 2009, IFOAM, Bonn, and FiBL, Frick. pp 198-202.
  5. Cuba Solidarity Campaign. Women in Cuba. Available at:
  6. Grupo Provincial Agropecuario. 1998. Temáticas y perfiles. Ciudad de la Habana: Secretaria de Colaboración.
  7. The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil, 2006. (Film-Documentary), Directed by Faith Morgan.