How to Feed a City on Urban Organic Agriculture


A clip from the BBC's "Around the World in 80 Gardens" (2008) showing some of the urban food gardening in Havana, Cuba. Presented by Monty Don.

Havana, Cuba, is a world leader in urban agriculture. Today more than 50 per cent of Havana’s fresh produce is grown within the city limits, using organic compost and simple irrigation systems. Can we all learn from this sustainable solution to agriculture?

When the Soviet Bloc collapsed in 1989, Cuba lost its food imports and agricultural inputs from which it depended for an adequate supply of food. The US Embargo also created a shortage of petrol necessary to transport the food from the rural agriculture sector to the city. This marked the beginning of serious food shortages that shook the entire country, but most of all Havana.

When these sources where cut off and food shortages began, Havana residents responded en masse, planting food crops on porches, balconies, backyards and empty city lots. The Cuban Ministry of Agriculture and Havana's city government supported this grassroots movement, jointly forming an Urban Agriculture Department in 1994. This department first focused on securing land use rights for urban gardeners and committed itself to provide land - free of charge - to all residents who wanted to grow food in the city. Today, the Ministry advice and disseminate knowledge based on the principles of organic agriculture and usually plays a pivotal role in the start-up and functioning of the popular gardens and horticulture clubs. They also operate centres, selling agricultural supplies like seeds.

While Havana's urban agriculture has taken on many forms - ranging from private gardens (huertos privados) to state-owned research gardens (organicponicos) Havana's popular gardens (huertos populares) are the most widespread. Cuban statistics are difficult to get, but in 1995 it was estimated that there were 26,600 popular garden parcels (parcelas) throughout the 43 urban districts that make up Havana's 15 municipalities. The popular gardens range in size from a few square meters to three hectares. Shared use of the popular gardens, range from one to seventy people per garden site. The sites are usually vacant or abandoned plots due to collapsed houses located in the same neighbourhood, if not next door to the gardeners' household. Gardens are cultivated on concrete ground.

A wide selection of produce is cultivated depending on family needs, market availability and suitability with the soil and locality. Garden productivity has been achieved with minimal external inputs, applying principles of organic agriculture i.e. low cost, readily available, and environmentally sustainable. Gardeners seldom use chemical fertilizers. Instead they rely on organic fertilizers in the form of chicken or cow manure, compost from household food waste and occasionally vermiculture (the use of worms). Farmers often maximize the use of land by cultivating multilayer crops, i.e. crops in the ground, on the ground and above the ground at the same time. A popular combination includes cassava (providing shade), sweet potatoes (providing good ground cover) and beans (fixating the soil with nitrogen).

Some predicted that with the easing up of the food crisis, Cuban’s urban gardens would fade away. But just the opposite has happened. Havana’s farms and gardens are steadily increasing, both in size and number, but most importantly in quality. They have had a visible impact on the food security of the city and in improving the Cuban diet. The gardens also bring environmental benefits. Many empty lots, which earlier were informal garbage dumps, are now beautiful gardens that provide food to local communities and improve neighbourhood aesthetics and health.