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Post-Cold War Necessity Makes Cuba a Model for Scaled-Up Urban Farming

Susanne Bollinger/Wikimedia Commons

Cuba is emerging as a model for countries intent on feeding dense urban populations in a warming world, after the geopolitics of the Cold War ended with the island nation’s remarkable success with urban farming.

“When countries run short of food, they need to find solutions fast, and one answer can be urban farming,” writes Climate News Network, recalling Cuba’s spectacular, citizen-driven move to grow food in city plots after the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s.

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The UK-based publication explains that Cuba largely ceased to grow its own food during the Cold War, instead turning most of its farmland over to sugar cane plantations to supply the Kremlin. When that arrangement fell apart, Cuba lost both the market for its sugar and the supplies of food, fertilizer, and food it had received from the USSR.

With the country further crippled by U.S. sanctions, Cuba was in desperate straits, at risk of severe malnutrition, and with no time to revert to conventional large-scale farming, which would have been “in any case difficult because the Soviet fertilizers, fuel, and pesticides had also dried up,” Climate News Net writes. Instead, in what is “now seen as a possible blueprint for the survival of city populations in a warming world,” the urban dwellers of Cuba rapidly organized small garden allotments and set out to learn, mostly through trial and error, how to grow their own food.

“At first, struggling with little know-how and without fertilizers, their yields were low,” writes reporter Paul Brown. “But by producing compost and other organic growing mediums, plus introducing drip-fed irrigation, they began to see improvements.”

Their collective, year-round success at growing vegetables like beans, tomatoes, spinach, and peppers was such that “by 1995, Havana alone had 25,000 allotments tended by families and urban cooperatives.”

As of 2008, those urban gardens were still going strong, “making up 8% of the land in Havana and 3.4% of all urban land in Cuba, [and] producing 90% of all the fruit and vegetables consumed.”Climate News Network cites a more detailed account of Cuba’s “very fast move towards self-sufficiency” by the UK’s Rapid Transition Alliance [2], part of a series of case studies of large-scale, rapid transformation that seemed difficult to achieve…until they actually worked.