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Canadian visits five different cities and eight different small scale agricultural operations in Cuba

The first “organoponico” or urban market garden I saw was in Santa Clara, in the centre of Cuba. Three people work there and they sell all their produce from a stall in the front of the garden, which occupies a formerly vacant city lot. Photo by David Stott.

Watch Out Folks, Look What’s Coming Down the Street: Reflections on Cuba, the Global Food Situation and Victoria, BC

By David Stott
2011, Victoria, BC
David Stott is a community garden organizer and food security projects coordinator. Prior to working in this field he spent twenty years working in the international development and development education fields.

When most of us think of Cuba we tend to think of sun, sand, great music or Fidel Castro. However, when I spent a month in Cuba in January of this year, I had other ideas in mind. As a local organic farmer turned garden projects organizer for the last 20 years or so, I have a particular personal interest in Cuba and its role in sustainable agriculture, particularly in urban areas. What I learned there, and since I have returned, has caused me to open my eyes not only to food production in Cuba, but also to what is happening elsewhere on the planet and here at home. Where we are at now and where we could be going with global and local food production and availability, something that most Canadians have either taken for granted or left to “the experts”. After all, we’re an advanced country that will always be able to feed itself, right?

Cuba is often cited as being a world leader in sustainable food production, a model for the rest of the world to follow. And, as I discovered in my visits to five different cities and eight different small scale agricultural operations, there are some really good things happening in and around the cities in Cuba in terms of small scale urban agriculture. For example, the number of small scale organic market gardening operations that can be found in and around Cuban cities has established itself as a major food contributor in the last twenty years. Most noticeably this has happened in the last decade, so that according to Wikipedia, today over 7,000 of these community based and serving market gardens can be found throughout the country, with more than 35,000 hectares of land in and around Havana producing 90% of the fruit and vegetables this city of 2.4 million consumes.

It would appear also that Cuba has been subject to some of the same trends that are shaping the rest of the world. Despite efforts by the government to discourage rural-urban migration, Cuba, and particularly Havana, have been subject to a major rural urban shift, particularly in the last 20 years. In fact, according to Lisa Wolfe of the Food First Institute, in 1989 some 28 percent of Cuba’s population lived in urban areas but by 2005 this figure had shifted to 74%! No wonder large parts of the countryside looked barren—most of the producers had left for the cities! At the same time, however, many people, perhaps some of the same people who left the countryside, are starting or working on the cooperative or privately operated market gardens that ring the cities. In fact, today Cuba has more than 7,000 of these enterprises, and, with the agreement from and support of the state, more are being started every year.

As beneficiaries of a long heritage of cheap globalized food sources, it may be hard for us to think that this should be of direct or immediate concern to us. And yet the news media occasionally raises us from our slumber with headlines such as the recent headline in the business section of the Times Colonist reading Global Food Prices Hit Record High. Is this something that we should be concerned about? What I discovered after checking on what I believe to be authoritative information from sources such as the World Bank, Lester Brown of the World Watch Institute and writer Gwyn Dyer might best be summarized in the following manner.

This is a large organoponico that is located in the suburbs of Sancti Spiritus, also near the centre of Cuba. In the forground is a garden that was started by a class of Univ. of Alberta students under the guidance of Ron Berezan and in the background is the garden itself. As part of their agreement with the state, they provide food for a nearby hospital and a lunch program at a nearby school. The state provides the land as well as the cement and other materials for the raised beds. This was the case with all the organoponicos I saw. Photo by David Stott.

There appears to be a broad concensus that a major global food shortage including increasing numbers of famines is coming. Why? It would appear that we are creating a “perfect storm” in global food supply. The exploding world population, together with overfarming, overfishing and environmental degradation, to name just four of several major factors, are all starting to catch up with us. How has this affected world food prices thus far?

It is perhaps not surprising that a report by the World Bank in 2008 reported an 83% increase in global food prices between 2005-2008 when oil prices were peaking, heading towards $147 per barrel..Historically, because of conventional agriculture’s huge dependence on oil for all aspects of its production, food prices have always paralleled oil prices in increases. Now, once again, after some drop in food prices during the recession, food prices increased over 30% this last year, only 3% below their peak in 2008.

As food prices continue to rise, will we start to see more food riots erupt all over the world as starving populations demand answers from their governments? According to CNN’s website, “Social media may have fanned the flames of revolt which toppled governments in Tunisia and Egypt and triggered demonstrations across the Middle East. But the tinderbox was built on high unemployment, corruption and rising food prices. It’s a telling sign that the trouble in Tunisia started with the self immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor protesting the police seizure of his produce cart.”

And, what will happen if weather patterns get even worse or if we have a string of really bad natural disasters?

Due to escalating resource scarcities from oil and gas to fish and forests together with climatic changes and economic vulnerabilities, we are faced with the virtual certainty of an increasingly volatile future, perhaps starting with food supplies. Even in our situation, where our wealth and high valued currency cushion us from the full impact of global food scarcities and rising prices, more people are starting to have to change their food buying and eating habits. Of course those most severely affected are lower income households, who have fewer if any alternatives and whose health is being affected.

I also think most of us sense that, in a number of very important ways, our planetary culture is skating on increasingly thin ice, not just in terms of food production, but in many other respects, environmentally, economically and in terms of our social safety nets. For the most part, however, most of us have been too busy with the demands of our work, social or personal lives to be concerned or to seriously consider and act on these concerns. But food is perhaps our most basic of needs, and something we can all do something about.

Here as elsewhere, as food becomes more expensive and in shorter supply, will we, children of the cities, start to relearn and repractice the smaller scale food growing skills that were an important part of the lives of our forefathers and mothers? We here on the Island have begun to take notice, with farmers markets selling local food springing up in almost every municipality, as well as groups such as the Slow Food Movement, the Island Chefs Collaborative, Gorge Tillicum Urban Farmers and the Land Conservancy supporting local growers and gardeners and training programs such as Halliburton Farm, Glendale Gardens and LifeCycles offering training to interested individuals. Then there is the community garden movement, which I am personally involved with, which is creating new community gardens.

Nevertheless, while these may be leading indicators for a growing movement and there is certainly public interest and support for such initiatives, without the active support of all levels of government, as well as local groups and organizations in a position to offer land or other forms of support, they are still responding to a tiny fraction of what needs to be done to simply grow more food for ourselves and to seriously impact on our huge vulnerability to global food challenges and scarcities. Rules need to be altered in support of local food production, funds need to be made available to support new farmers coming into farming. And something that individuals, governments at all levels and of all stripes, church and non-profit groups of all sorts could do now as a first step towards greater self sufficiency is to undertake assessments or inventories of their available land and resources. As Gandhi put it so well, “If the people lead, the leaders will follow.” Let us hope so.

As Cuba is showing, using intensive organic growing methods, our backyards as well as municipal lands together with private and organizationally owned lands that can produce huge amounts of food for our populations. If a country with a fraction of the resources available to it can do so, why can’t we? In fact, if we either have the foresight, or necessity drives us to do so, I foresee a time in the not too distant future, when we can begin to repopulate our rural areas as productive green spaces rather than rural estates, suburbs or hayfields. We could in fact, witness a form of rural renaissance in our lifetime as we begin to repopulate the areas surrounding our cities with new communities of small scale farmers taken from our cities. We can do so out of choice or we can do so out of necessity. I think that choosing to become more self sufficient is preferable to waiting until we have no choice and fewer options available to us.

To end where we began: Towards the end of my visit to Cuba, I spoke with a Cuban woman at one of the bed and breakfasts we were staying at. She mentioned that she had a 14 year old daughter. I asked her what she thought her daughter might do when she had finished school. Silence, then, “We don’t know what she should be preparing for.” Hesitation, then “But we do know that there will be work in agriculture.” Perhaps there is a lesson here for us, our children or our grandchildren.


1 Jennifer { 12.26.11 at 10:17 am }

Hi David,
I’m working on my MA and I’m really interest in your thoughts on alloting land to urban agriculture in the City of Victoria. I’d love to get in contact with you to ask a few questions. If you’re interested, please email me at

2 Richard { 12.30.11 at 8:13 am }

Interesting article David.
Do you have any contacts in Cuba? I am returning for my third visit this coming March break, and would like to meet someone in the food sector while there.
Thank you.