Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

AGRICULTURE-CUBA: Organic Farming Takes Off

Patricia Grogg - Tierramérica*

HAVANA, Mar 6 2003 (IPS) - Organic tomatoes, ginger, broccoli, oregano and other produce and spices are readily available today in Cuba’s free farmers’ markets, thanks to the country’s urban gardening programme.

Small farmers in Cuba produced three million tons of organic vegetables and herbs in 2002, compared to just 4,200 tons in 1994.

But the vegetable crops grown without chemical pesticides and fertilisers in the organic family gardens of this Caribbean island nation currently go towards domestic consumption, unlike organic sugar and coffee, which have made headway in European markets.

Exporting organic products requires international certificates that entail relatively high costs for small farmers.

A group of farmers who have achieved higher-than-normal yields on plots of land in and around Havana began to sell part of their produce this year to Cuba’s tourism industry, the country’s leading foreign exchange-earner.

”We are going to sell directly to hotels,” Havana farmer Olga Oye Gómez, 42, told Tierramerica. ”For now, the hard currency we earn will go towards maintaining our gardens and improving the technology we use.”

Oye Gómez grows three varieties of lettuce as well as cherry tomatoes, chard, celery, watercress, leeks, spinach, basil, parsley, mint, oregano and ginger.

Cauliflower, broccoli and cabbage are other organic crops planted in the small urban family gardens that have been heavily promoted by the government.

Growing crops or raising small livestock on empty lots and other unused portions of land in Cuba’s cities and towns took off in the 1990s, in the midst of the economic crisis and food shortages triggered by the break-up of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the east European socialist bloc.

Organic farming on small family plots currently provides employment to 326,000 people in Cuba, a country of 12 million.

Among the virtues of urban agriculture, experts point to the use of organic compost and mulch instead of chemical fertilisers, biological pest control methods instead of chemical pesticides, and other green-friendly techniques.

In addition, giant greenhouses allow vegetables to be grown in any season. ”We can thus offer tomatoes in July and August, the hottest months of summer,” said Oye Gómez, who farms a half- hectare plot that the Cuban state lent her in 1985 on the condition that she would use it to grow food crops.

The average yield of organic vegetable crops ranges between 18 and 20 kgs per square metre, but Oye Gómez achieved a yield of 25 kgs per square metre in 2002, which she hopes to boost to 27 kgs this year.

Oye Gómez is a member of a credit and services cooperative that groups around 160 small farmers who work plots of land on the outskirts of Havana and sell their crops in farmers’ markets that operate on the laws of supply and demand, which were authorised by the government in 1994.

The cooperative offers its members access to technical advice on organic farming methods.

”This was just a rocky piece of ground, because it is near the coast. But we gradually worked large quantities of organic compost into the soil to make it what it is today: fertile land offering good conditions for growing crops,” she said.

In her garden she grows lettuce in the middle of summer using a technique that consists of replanting sprouts with clumps of earth in soil that is rich in organic waste, and watering the plants twice a day.

Reducing the distance between each plant and using biological preparations for controlling pests completes her successful formula for obtaining ”high-quality lettuce, with good taste and texture,” she explained.

Instead of chemical fertilisers, Oye Gómez uses earthworm humus, sugar cane filter cake (part of the waste left after processing), and cow and chicken manure. The pesticides she uses are also natural.

The prices that organic products fetch on the international market are competitive and provide incentives for environmentally- friendly agriculture, which does not pose risks to human health, and preserves the soil.

According to Cuban economist Armando Nova, the prices of organically-grown fruits and vegetables in European Union countries are 60 to 70 percent higher than those grown with agrochemicals.

However, in Cuba, organic and non-organic produce costs the same. ”But there is a difference in quality, because our products go directly from the garden to the market, and are always fresh when they arrive,” said Oye Gómez.

* Tierramérica is a specialised news service ( produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.

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