Thursday, September 10, 2009

Cuba Demonstrates Large Scale Low Tech Farming

Cuba was hit with massive oil shortages after the fall of the Soviet Union, and their mechanical agriculture industry suffered greatly for it. However, they made the transition after a couple years. Quite an amazing story, providing a blueprint for how low-tech organically-based farming can work on a mass scale.

Twenty years ago, Cuban agriculture looked very different. Between 1960 and 1989, a national policy of intensive specialised agriculture radically transformed Cuban farming into high-input mono-culture in which tobacco, sugar, and other cash crops were grown on large state farms.

Cuba exchanged its abundant produce for cheap, imported subsidised oil from the old Eastern Bloc. In fact, oil was so cheap, Cuba pursued a highly industrialised fuel-thirsty form of agriculture - not so different from the kind of farming we see in much of the West today. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the oil supply rapidly dried up, and, almost overnight, Cuba faced a major food crisis. Already affected by a US trade embargo, Cuba by necessity had to go back to basics to survive - rediscovering low-input self-reliant farming.

With no petrol for tractors, oxen had to plough the land. With no oil-based fertilisers or pesticides, farmers had to turn to natural and organic replacements. Today, about 300,000 oxen work on farms across the country and there are now more than 200 biological control centres which produce a whole host of biological agents in fungi, bacteria and beneficial insects.

Havana has almost 200 urban allotments - known as organiponicos - providing four million tonnes of vegetables every year - helping the country to become 90% self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables. The organiponico uses raised beds filled with about 50% high-quality organic material (such as manure), 25% composted waste such as rice husks and coffee bean shells, and 25% soil.

As well as marigolds, basil and neem trees are planted around the containers to keep the aphids and beetles at bay. Sunflowers and corn are also planted around the beds to attract beneficial insects such as ladybirds and lace wings. Sticky paper or plastic funnel-shaped bottles are positioned throughout the beds to trap harmful pests that do get into the garden.

At the time of the oil shock, average calorie consumption in Cuba dropped by a third to dangerously low levels. Since then they have bounced back and Cubans eat just a little less than people in the UK. The biggest difference is that a Western diet includes about three times as much food energy from animal products like meat and dairy.


  1. I just bounced here from a link on another blog and I am really enjoying your blog- this article was fascinating!

  2. It is some cool info, glad you liked it, Dee. There are so many possibilities once you get outside the box. Sometimes crisis is a great opportunity for improvement, and we will probably face that day ourselves.