Eat Local: Cuba’s Urban Gardens Raise Food on Zero Emissions

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Growing food where it will be eaten means transportation costs that approach zero and fresher produce (not to mention fostering local economies and communities). Yet such projects seem to run up against the key demographic fact of our era: the parabolic growth in urban populations.

The answer, rising to the level of social policy in Cuba, has been an efflorescence of urban gardens, or organopónicos, that simultaneously resolve waste-disposal issues and food production problems. The organopónicos exist in the interstices of Cuba’s cities, in vacant lots and the alleys between old colonial mansions, in backyards, on patios, and on rooftops — anywhere growers can find space.

Organopónicos have become a kind of post hoc economic development program in Cuba. They didn’t emerge from a Utopian organic plan, although they may be becoming a model for one, not just in Cuba but in the United States as well. Instead, they emerged out of emergency — the collapse of the Soviet Union and the “Special Period” it inaugurated.

Until 1989, the USSR and its satellites provided Cuba with well over 50 percent of its oil, and a constant influx of tractors, combines, nitrate-heavy fertilizer, pesticides, food. In return, the USSR received sugar, massive amounts which it “bought” at prices well above the market rate. Briefly, the USSR enabled modern industrial agriculture within a poor, Caribbean nation. But then it ended. Environmental writer Bill McKibben puts it best: Cuba became a “moon base whose supply ships had suddenly stopped coming.”

From 1990 to 1994, Cuba lost a third of its GDP (imagine the Great Depression, but instead of afflicting a burgeoning world power, devastating a third world country). Calorie consumption fell by one-third.

Cubans needed more food. So they grew it themselves.

Cuba created what food policy expert Raj Patel calls an "environmentally and socially sustainable farming system.” In the countryside, that means organic, manure-based fertilizers and organic pest-control systems, as well as a thorough-going agrarian reform that redistributed close to 80 percent of state-owned land, disbursing it amongst cooperatives and smallholders. In the cities, it means a profusion of small, organic gardens.

Statistics from the Cuban experiment are impressive. Organopónicos produce an estimated half of Cuba’s leaf vegetables. The urban plots cover 86,000 acres of Havana’s land. The capital alone hosts over 200 urban gardens, which supply over 90 percent of the city’s fruits and vegetables, and no small portion of its milk and meat.

By eating locally grown food, Cubans also avoid the immense cost of emissions required to shipped food across the ocean. Havana’s 2 million residents can walk to a market and eat food grown with no petrochemical fertilizers, further reducing their carbon footprint. Carbon authorities haven’t calculated the full savings the Cuban model entails, but one need not be too enamored of the agricultural model to imagine that the drop is stunning.

That’s not all. Vegetation is a supremely efficient thermo-regulator—during hot times it provides a cooling effect, through evapo-transpiration, and by blocking heat from the sun. As Professor Nyuk Hien Wong, of the Department of Building at the National University of Singapore, told Reuters, “From the scientific point of view, every plant produces a cooling effect. … The rule of thumb is one degree less is a five percent (energy) saving.” Speaking more generally, vegetation cover influences just how hot surface temperatures can get.

So urban gardens cut back on emissions, allow the efficient use of the nitrogen cycle, and can moderate the climactic changes inevitable under anthropogenic climate change. And they are already being implemented in several U.S. cities, including Baltimore and Milwaukee, though only in piecemeal fashion.

Hopefully we won’t need a cataclysmic shock such as the one that hammered Cuba before implementing them on a large scale here.