Cuba’s green revolution: what to expect when you’re expecting

a bowl of tomatoes is shared in the hands of two people
Ciaran Boyle

8th July 2021


Ripe ‘n’ ready but never really ripe or ready avocados on supermarket shelves. New bougie Ethiopian-Bosnian-Plant-based-Fusion food truck parking down the road. The bewildering stroll through an Asian supermarket searching for the eight poxy ingredients needed for the ‘quick and easy’ recipe you saw on Instagram. The unlimited options Deliveroo throws at us when we’re lying in bed at 3pm on Sunday dying a slow death caused by the night before. One of the benefits of living in the neoliberal (a pro-capitalist belief system that favours a freer trade market) age is the excessive choices we can make about what to shove in our gobs on a daily basis.  With the sheer volume of food available to us, of course we feel secure in knowing that a Big Mac is only a languid mash of our phone screens away. 


With the oncoming climate catastrophe, we’re about to see how insecure we really are. We’re standing in a nice warm shower about to step out into the cold harsh light of a winter morning. And realising we forgot a towel. And realising we’re in our partner’s parents’ house. And realising the bathroom is on the bottom floor. And realising your partner’s room is on the third floor. And realising you’re going to have to waddle through the kitchen covering your bits with a hand towel past your partner’s ma making breakfast. And their dad who is about to be abruptly disturbed from reading the Sunday paper to see the flash of your bare arse darting past. 


Sounds like a bit of a recurring nightmare but this is the state we’re in. The old neoliberal model of food production, that is ‘export what you’re good at, import the rest,’ leaves us teetering on the edge of catastrophe. Neoliberal globalisation, agricultural intensification and the push for high-yielding crops in the Global South has left us with fragile supply chains and more complex bureaucracy than Stalin ever dreamed of. The fragility of this system is deeply embedded but almost counter-intuitively, it’s also pressing the fast-forward button on the inevitable collapse. Monocropping culture (growing the same crop on the same land every year) destroying biodiversity, the overuse of fertilisers and pesticides ruining fertile soil and local ecosystems, and not to repeat myself but our ever-growing demand for more choices leaves us with a house of cards that is ripe ‘n’ ready to collapse. There’s a reason why food security is an urgent priority for everyone involved in climate change mitigation and adaptation. This is all without even mentioning the exploitative and oppressive socio-political aspects of the global food production system – that’s a can of worms for another day.  


The old neoliberal model of food production, that is ‘export what youre good at, import the rest, leaves us teetering on the edge of catastrophe.”

Our current response to this problem is based off of a conceptual framework called ‘ecological modernisation’ or the more commonplace waffle of ‘greening the economy.’ This basically amounts to let’s do everything in our power to keep the current economic and political systems intact while the tech bros plaster up the leaks as they spout.’ GMOs (genetically modified organisms), hydroponic farming (substituting soil with water) and plant-based meat alternatives are some of the solutions we’ve come up with under this self-deluding paradigm. We’re stuck in a rut of trying to tweak a system that creates the problem and leaves us more vulnerable to the consequences. It’s not all doom and gloom though, there are numerous examples of more stable and sustainable food production systems that can be replicated if we just took the time to look over the parapet.  


Right, so imagine if you can: overnight, Ireland is excommunicated from the EU. Facebook and all of the other Yank companies pack up and leave (ugh, the dream), all trade ties are cut and we’re left floating, lonely in the Atlantic and entirely dependent on ourselves. Pretty hard to picture. Well, this is a fairly similar scenario to the one that Cuba faced three decades ago. Cuba relied heavily on the USSR for subsidies and most of their imports, from oil to tomatoes, leaving them with a food system even more vulnerable than ours. With the collapse of the USSR, US embargoes and an economy over-dependent on sugar plantations, Cuba was left in the dystopic scenario that keeps people up at night thinking about climate change. According to the UNFAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), calorific consumption dropped by more than half of what it was from the late 1980s to 1993 while Cuba lost 80% of its international trade.  


During what was known as the Special Period, instead of crawling back to the US and asking for a handout, Cuba decided to look inwards. Without the oil needed for industrial agriculture and no way of importing fertilisers and pesticides, Cuba needed to be revolutionary for the second period in its short history as an independent nation. The focus of  its economy was shifted to maximise food production with the limited resources available. This shifted Cuba away from the exportation of mono-cropped agricultural goods, allowing it to focus on small organic and urban farms. Without degenerating into a click-bait article, you won’t believe what happened next… 


In the Cuban capital, Havana, 90% of the fruit and vegetables consumed are provided by these  ‘organopónicos.’ This provides income, employment and access to cheap, healthy and organic foods for the majority of the population in Havana.”

Cuba now boasts over 7,000  ‘organopónicos,’ small allotments in the centre of tower blocks, rooftops and gardens. In the Cuban capital, Havana, 90% of the fruit and vegetables consumed are provided by these  ‘organopónicos.’ This provides income, employment and access to cheap, healthy and organic foods for the majority of the population in Havana. Quotas are given to the government to make sure that the people of Cuba are well fed and the rest is allowed to be consumed by the farmers or sold in the markets for a small profit. The urban allotments were matched with the Programme for Local Agricultural Innovation that sought to push small scale organic farming and agroecology beyond the city walls. This has led to over 50,000 small farming cooperatives taking part in the programme where they can share knowledge, network and help tender a vision of the future of Cuban agriculture.  


The (very limited) international attention on Cuba’s green revolution has been portrayed with heady socialist idealism and the typical ‘we should go back to the good ol’ days of subsistence agriculture’ belief that is persistent in some sectors of the environmental movement. Romanticism aside, let’s be realistic. We’re not going to get your deeply cynical uncle Gerry to step away from his pint of Guinness on a Thursday evening to join the Ballywhatever Urban Farm Co-op. What we can do is look to Cuba as an example of a food production system that has built stability, provides cheap and healthy food, and is relatively invulnerable to external shocks, and say ‘’Hey, that might be a more straightforward solution than growing a steak in a Petri dish.” There are already examples which take this re-localised approach to the food economy such as, Transition Towns and Urban Farming Initiatives. We don’t have to go the full Castro but Cuba serves as an example of simple solutions to our ever-growing list of problems.  



Featured photo by Elaine Casap

This article was supported by: STAND Environment Editor Anastasiya + Programme Assistant Alex


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