Farming the future: Cuba's food transformation

A visit to Cuba served up a menu of innovative climate-friendly food projects for Khanh Tran-Thanh.

An image showing rabbits raised in elevated cages. This and manure being collected for the worm composting and to create organic fertilizers illustrate a permaculture food production system in action (Photo: Khanh Tran-Thanh/IIED)

When the Soviet bloc collapsed in the early 1990s, Cuba was plunged into an extended economic crisis – known as the Special Period. Imports from its main trader, the Soviet Union, stopped and Cuba lost access to the pesticides, chemical fertilisers and fuel that had sustained the island's agriculture.

State-run farms quickly came to a standstill and Cuba's import-dependent food system started to unravel. The country found itself in the grips of a severe food crisis almost overnight.

For decades, Cuban farms had been dedicated to monocrop production for export (mostly sugarcane) and the country was primarily fed on imports (click on any of the images to expand them).

An image of people on a horse and cart looking over a garden area full of plants. El Ranchón, an organopónico (or urban organic garden) located in a residential neighborhood in Sancti Spiritus, contributes to the community's nutrition and food security (Photo: Khanh Tran-Thanh/IIED) An image of a man, Jamon, looking out over the El Ranchón organopónico. He tends the garden but also sells produce to the local community (Photo: Khanh Tran-Thanh/IIED)

With vast areas of agricultural land left unproductive, and food supplies running low, the state turned to local production, leasing out unused plots of land to Cubans willing to grow food. The Cuban organopónico – a system of organic urban agriculture for local needs – was born. 

Cuba now has around 8,000 organopónicos, and around 80 per cent of the fresh fruit and vegetables consumed in Havana is produced locally. 

From dancefloor to vegetable patch

In the city of Sancti Spiritus, the island's geographical heart, I visited the organopónico El Ranchón, run by Ismar and her husband Roger. Set up during the Special Period, the garden, once a disco club, now has 340m of growing beds and six plant rotations per year.

The diversity in plant colours and shapes is remarkable – a mix of vegetables, tubers, medicinal plants, herbs, fruit trees and ornamental plants, with more than 250 plant varieties.

Ismar and Roger use permaculture principles (a form of agroecological practice) to grow their crops: they collect organic waste from the nearby farmer's market for composting; they practice companion planting to control pests; rabbits are raised in elevated cages where the manure falls into worm composting to create organic fertilisers.

An image showing a man behind a counter, displaying a variety of seasonal organic produce from a Cuban organopónico in Sancti Spiritus (Photo: Khanh Tran-Thanh/IIED) A close-up image of a nitrogen-fixing species of plant that is planted along food crops to increase soil fertility. Diversity of crops at El Ranchón is key to a healthy garden (Photo: Khanh Tran-Thanh/IIED)

Their produce is sold at subsidised prices to the neighbourhood nursery, hospital and church, with the rest sold on site. El Ranchón plays an important part in ensuring community access to essentials vitamins and micro-nutrients.

As a successful response to the food crisis, the organopónico is not the only grassroots movement that has been quietly transforming Cuba's food landscape.

Home restaurants

Culinary traditions in Cuba have been suppressed for generations, partly by colonisation and, later, by cheap food imports from the Soviet Union, the US trade embargo and chronic food shortages. 

The libreta ration card, introduced in 1962, ensured a basic level of subsidised food for everyone – it still provides 30 per cent of the population's food intake – but it de-emphasised self-sufficiency and stifled creativity by dictating what produce was available and when. Cuban food developed a reputation for being monotonous. 

But there is a whiff of change coming from the kitchen. As a result of modest market reforms introduced by Raul Castro since 2008, Cubans are now allowed to open private restaurants in their own homes, unleashing culinary creativity. 

The restaurants, known as paladares, offer a menu usually based on Cuban creole cuisine (rice, beans, plantains, meat) and dishes will depend on what is found at the market that day.

An image inside a Cuban household kitchen, showing the cookers and pots and pans. Meals are not only prepared for the family but also for paying customers as part of the paladares, or home restaurant (Photo: Khanh Tran-Thanh/IIED)

In Havana, a number of stylish paladares have become expensive tourist attractions. But in Sancti Spiritus, I visited one which catered for locals who live on state salaries.

For 25 pesos (equivalent to US$1) I enjoyed a simple yet nutritious meal – prepared by a grandmother and served by her grand-daughter at one of three tiny tables in the family's lounge. Paladares across the country have helped Cubans revive and reconnect with past culinary traditions.

An acquired taste

With fresh produce available from organopónicos and the paladares revolutionising the way ordinary citizens eat, Cuba faces yet another challenge: to change its population's unhealthy taste for foods high in fat, salt and sugar.

I met Pepe at his home in the suburbs of Havana, where he has been running the Proyecto Communitario Conservación Alimentario (community food preservation project) with his wife Vilda since 1996.

The pair help Cubans meet their basic nutrition needs, by teaching them how to grow and cook their own food. They teach natural preservation techniques – to stretch the supply of seasonal produce throughout the year and build resilience to shortages due to hurricanes. 

An image of labelled tubs, taken at the headquarters of the Proyecto Communitario Conservación Alimentario, in Havana. Testing naturally preserving techniques is vital to stretch seasonal produce supplies throughout the year (Photo: Khanh Tran-Thanh/IIED) A libreta ration card: the libreta is a food distribution system introduced in 1962 that provides 30 per cent of the food consumed in Cuba today, but through the years has negatively impacted cooking habits (Photo: Khanh Tran-Thanh/IIED)

Crucially, the project also tackles Cubans' dietary preferences – an issue that is often overlooked. What good is improved access to locally grown healthy produce if the population prefers imported processed food?

With a cookery show on national television and over 20 recipe books based on endemic ingredients, Pepe's hope is to change the country's eating habits. The project supports the "field to fork" concept and works with organopónicos in Havana to encourage locals to eat a more diversified diet based on locally grown produce.

They have introduced innovative recipes such as rice mayonnaise and yucca flour, for example, to reduce dependence on unhealthy oil and imported wheat.

Food for thought

Cuba is still a long way from being self-sufficient. Between 70 to 80 per cent of food is still imported from places such as Venezuela and Vietnam. But with a resurgence of efforts around the world to support and strengthen local food systems, the Cuban experience can perhaps offer some important lessons on responding to local needs.

The personal stories I had the privilege to hear during my visit told a story of a country's hardship, resilience and resourcefulness in the face of adversity.

Cuba is embarking yet  again on a new chapter. As it re-engages with the world economy, there are questions as to whether the state will continue to nurture its home-grown entrepreneurs – such as Ismar and Pepe – who can drive positive change in their communities in ways that further strengthen nation-wide efforts to improve food and nutrition security for everyone.

Khanh Tran-Thanh (khanh.tran-thanh@iied.org) is a senior coordinator in IIED's Natural Resources Group.