Organic fruit and vegetable growing as a national policy: the Cuban story

February 21, 2006

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Micheline Sheehy Skeffington

Department of Botany, NUI, Galway, Ireland

© All photos are taken by the author


Perhaps the first crop Cuba was famous for was sugar-cane. Along with its sister Caribbean islands, Cuba was the centre of sugar-growing through the 18th and 19th century. Sugar-cane was planted throughout the island mostly by the Spanish and the crop came to depend on up to 1m African slaves for production and harvest. The Cuban sugar industry took off in earnest following a slave revolt in Haiti in 1791 and Cuba was to become the world’s largest sugar producer in the 19th century, with the United States as its biggest market (Thomas, 2001).

By 1827, Cuba had also more than 2,000 coffee plantations, following French migrations from Haiti. These plantations also depended on slaves for production. Later, in the early 20th century, tobacco and citrus fruit became important and were also traded with the US. Cuba is the biggest island in the region and therefore developed extensive trade and interchange with its nearest and largest neighbour, the U.S. At several times U.S. presidents or high-ranking politicians attempted to acquire Cuba by purchase or invasion. By late 19th century the US was attempting to support the island’s struggle for independence from Spain. This struggle was successful in 1902 and a series of corrupt US-dependent governments were to follow in Cuba. By the 1920s many U.S. companies had heavy investments in Cuban businesses and banks, owning in addition about 2/3 of its farmland. Unemployment and repression were rife and, in 1933, Fulgencio Batista gained power by means of a coup. Later elected, his government subsequently collapsed and in 1952, he repeated his coup. The violence and repression continued and the time was ripe for a revolution. Initiated in 1953, the Cuban revolution finally succeeded in January 1959 (Thomas, 2001).

After assuming power, Fidel Castro nationalised the major companies including the mines, banks and the electricity company, all of which were largely owned by U.S. interests. Very quickly the U.S. retaliated by placing a trade embargo on Cuba, attempting to isolate the island economically. The revolutionaries, already socialist in thinking, turned to the USSR for support, thus establishing three decades of dependency on another external system, even if it enabled radical reforms to be implemented.

Also, for the first time since the arrival of the Spaniards, all farmers had a share in the production of their land. But the heavy USSR subsidy had its down side, as cash crops were still central to the agronomic economy. From 1960 to 1989 the main exports were all cash crops -sugar, coffee, tobacco and citrus fruits. The crops were intensively farmed on large farm collectives throughout the country. But these were largely for export and up until 1989, 55% of food consumed in Cuba was Soviet-subsidised imports. Even animal feed was 97% imported, largely maize and soya beans (Rosset and Benjamin 1994).

The ‘Special Period’

The Soviet support enabled a large part of the revolutionaries’ ideas to be developed, notably a huge literacy campaign, housing and education for all citizens and eventually a highly-developed locally-based health system. The strengths developed from these initiatives and the effort put into agronomic and horticultural research resulted in the setting up of a network of information and techniques that became invaluable on the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. Cuba was then suddenly left without support and 1990 saw the start of the ‘Special Period’ a time of extreme shortage and difficulty that to some extent still exists. Almost overnight Cuba had virtually no fuel, no food imports and was without about 80% of the fertilizers and pesticides that were imported until then.

Compared to other countries in Latin America, Cuba was best placed to handle the crisis as it not only had a very high scientific and research infrastructure, it had addressed alternative aspects of agriculture since the early 1980s. All knowledge was immediately put to use and developed. The infrastructure was also changed such that about 40% of the collective state farms are now farmers’ co-ops, run collectively by the village community. In 2005, with a population of 11m people, there are 1m registered patio gardens and city farms provide up to 60% Cuban vegetables.

The Cuban Alternative Model

What is known as the alternative model (Rosset and Benjamin 1994) aims at self-sustainability, an objective imposed on Cuba by the over-night loss of Soviet support. This model involved the maximum use of:

  • The land
  • Human resources
  • Organic fertilizers and crop rotation
  • Biological control of pests
  • Diversification of crops

Crop rotation is useful not only to revitalise the soil, but to reduce weed infestation. This is common farm practice, but an organic system such as in Cuba will also use intercropping to reduce pest attacks. Traditionally crops such as maize were grown with cassava (yuca) or taro; plantains with cassava or coffee with taro, but intercropping soya with sugarcane not only decreased the shortfall in animal feedstuffs, but reduced the need for nitrogen fertiliser for the sugarcane (Rosset and Benjamin 1994).

But where Cuba takes its place in world leaders of alternative technologies is in the use of alternative pest control. Insect parasites, such as Lixophaga diatraeae a fly that attacks the sugarcane borer, have been reared for release over all sucarcane nurseries. This form of pest control is also used, if less extensively, in other Latin American countries. But Cuba has taken the lead in the development of entomopathogens, pathogens such as the fungus Beauvaria bassiana that attacks the banana weevil (Rosset and Benjamin 1994).

For ants such as the predatory ant, Pheidole megacephala that attacks the sweet potato weevil, are encouraged in reservoir areas, such as patches of forest, where the ant is naturally abundant. Banana stems, baited with honey, are placed in the reservoir areas and, when covered in ants, transported to the sweet potato fields (Rosset and Benjamin 1994). For another ant, the leaf-cutting bibijagua (Atta insularis), chemical pesticides have been allowed as it causes serious damage to fruit trees especially citrus, but research is on-going to develop some fungal pathogens (Pérez Alvarez 1996).

About 40 species of plants from 25 families have potential to control a variety of pests. But the most used now is neem (Azedirachta indica), from the Indian continent. One million neem trees are now used in Cuba for crop pest management and as a veterinary parasiticide and more than 25 species of insect, mite and nematode pests are being managed with neem (Lotter 2003).

Plants that fix nitrogen are long known to enrich soils, but extracts of Sesbania, a nitrogen-fixing green manure crop from China, also has an insecticidal effect and controls major insect pests of rice. It also can control weeds in some crops because of its allelopathic properties (Rosset and Benjamin 1994). However, in Cuba bacteria are also put into service for soil enrichment. Free-living nitrogen-fixing bacteria such as Azotobacter chroococcum, common in Cuban soils, are used extensively to provide N to crops, but it is less widely known that where soils are low in phosphorus -common in the tropics- bacteria have been developed in Cuba to release phosphorus that otherwise is insoluble in tropical soils. Inoculants using phosphorus-solubilizing bacteria such as Pseudomonas fluorescens or Bacillus species can decrease P fertilizer needs by 75% (Rosset and Benjamin 1994, Lotter 2003).

One form of soil improvement that is very useful especially in small patio gardens and urban vegetable plots is the use of vermicompost. More than 0.5m tons of worm castings are used per year in Cuban agriculture (Lotter 2003). Benefits are multiple, as it binds nutrients such as phosphorus in an easily releasable form for plants, helps control diseases and improves plant growth. Nitrogen has been found to be in higher concentrations in vermicompost than in ordinary compost and the Cuban Ministry for Agriculture (MINAGRI) has shown that 4 tons of vermicompost can replace 40 tons of cow manure for the same yield in a hectare of tobacco (Rosset and Benjamin 1994).

Urban horticulture

The main reason Cuba developed urban horticulture is that there was an acute fuel crisis during the Special Period and, as a large proportion of the population live in Havana and a few other cities, it made sense to grow and distribute the food on the spot. This is the ultimate in reducing ‘food miles’ and obviously easier in a tropical climate. Aside from the advantage of buying very fresh produce, there are savings on fuel –and on packaging. It is the Cubans who coined the term ‘organoponics’, referring to the watering of crops through complex irrigation systems –but without the chemical cocktail of nutrients distributed in hydroponically grown vegetables. Mostly they are grown in long raised beds or canteros to save the amount of compost/manure needed and to reduce erosion from the cultivated strips. Some horticultural ‘farms’ are 1 ha or more, on the outskirts of the cities, but sometimes near residential complexes, whose inhabitants can sometimes purchase produce straight from the producers. Often one of the canteros will be set aside for worm compost or vermiculture.

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Radishes, shallots and lettuce in canteros, some of them intercropped

Many smaller plots or huertos exist throughout the cities and are managed by individuals nominated by the local community or by the community itself. Aside from the economic and access advantages, there are many spin-offs from growing of plants –vegetables and fruit- in an urban setting. They:

  • Close the nutrient loop by composting domestic organic waste
  • Absorb green-house gases and improve air quality
  • act as refugia for wildlife, increasing urban biodiversity

About 90% of Havana’s food supply is now produced in and around Havana (Rosset in Lott 2003) and similar situations occur in other cities. In Cienfuegos the organoponicos produce over 95 grams of fresh vegetables per capita per day (Taboulchanas, 2001).

Some examples of horticulture and organic growing in Havana city

The National Botanic Gardens fruit tree project

Run by Ing. Carlos Vázquez, this project takes up several hectares of the National Botanic Gardens in Havana. It has 110 species of fruit tree in the orchards that produce in one year:

  • 27 different products for fruit preservation
  • over 2,000l of conserves, sauces and vinegars
  • 11 tons of 60 species of fruit mostly consumed in the Gardens restaurants
  • 1,900 seedlings of 50 species of fruit tree for private, community and school planting (Vázquez Rodríguez 2003)

The Fruit Tree Project experimentally grows species and varieties of tropical fruit trees, testing which perform best in the Havana climate and soils. There are over 35 varieties of mango alone, all the common citrus fruits and other less frequently encountered such as the fortunella (or kumquat). Several species of the genus Annona are grown, including chirimoya (A. cherimolia), guanábana ( A. muricta) and anón (A. squamosa). These are the custard apple group, native to tropical Latin America. Persimmon Diospyros kaki fruits abundantly and the star fruit Averrhoa carambola, native of S. Asia is accompanied by the smaller-fruited –and very sour!- A. belimbi that gets its species name from the Indonesian for star fruit: belimbing.

But fruit are not the only productive trees grown, coconuts are there and many other palms, notably an oil palm Leycithis dubia that is supposed to produce oil of better quality than the commonly grown oil palms Elaeis species.

Among the herbs is the oddly-named ‘Jamaica’ Hibiscus sabdarifa This is the focus of attention for propagation in patio gardens as it has many medicinal properties, notably for stomach and blood pressure problems. Anis Helenium amarum is related to the sunflower, but is a very small and aromatic plant that is still being researched for its properties.

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National Botanic Gardens, La Habana. a) Herbs drying in Cuban sunshine. December 2003. b) young guava, mango and citrus trees in the fruit tree project

The Botanic gardens also have a small farm and grow most of the vegetables that, along with fruit, are used in the three restaurants in the Gardens, one of which (‘El Bambú’) is entirely vegetarian. This last has used over 500 varieties of consumable plant products and about 70% of the produce is grown in the Botanic Gardens (Vázquez Galvéz 2003)

But fruit are not the only produce of the fruit tree project. As every fruit grower knows, bees are essential to ensure maximum pollination of flowers. In the Botanic gardens there are up to 20 hives and there are two harvests per year, the second being in December –a luxury of the tropics. Honey is sometimes sold to the public (at conferences), but is mostly sold to employees or local people very cheaply.

The second spin-off from producing so much fruit, is the mechanism to deal with over-ripe and fermenting fruit: alcohol. Again, there is a small workshop where over-ripe fruit is processed into alcohol, bottled and re-sold cheaply to employees. Where needs must, there is no wastage in a country like Cuba.

The Community Project of Marianao (el Proyecto Comunitario, Conservación de alimentos)

Initiated by a retired couple Vilda Figueroa and José (Pepe) Lama, this is a very dynamic educational and productive project. Situated in the suburbs of Havana in Marianao, they have built a training centre out of a derelict house. They use it for workshops in fruit preservation, such as bottling and making preserves and chutneys. In order to encourage people to grow their own vegetables and herbs (culinary and medicinal), Vilda and Pepe have used every inch of their tiny patio to grow herbs. This entails the use of old car tyres, old pipes or clay pots and fed by an ingenious piped water system. They have also colonised not only the patches of soil in the footpath around the house, but part of the space around the pre-school across the road. There they grow more herbs, teach children to grow them and have three large containers for compost: all the garden and local plant waste is reprocessed here and they do not out-source any form of fertilizer.

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Pepe shows schoolchildren how to gather vitamin C-rich berries from bushes growing outside their Project Centre in Marianao.

With some volunteer help from Lorenzo, also retired, as well as a gardener –the only person receiving a wage-, Vilda and Pepe have developed the Proyecto so that now they:

  • Grow herbs, fruit and medicinal plants
  • Hold workshops on preserving fruit
  • Work with schools on herb/vegetable programmes
  • Give seeds to the community for propagation
  • Hold a 5-minute radio programme 2-3 times weekly
  • Host weekly television educational programme
  • Produce books on how to preserve fruit, grow vegetables, grow and use medicinal plants

The books number at least 7 and some are in English, designed for Africa, where Cuba sends many trained professionals, especially in the medical field.

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‘Nonni’ fruit with red ladybird, in Vilda and Pepe’s garden

One striking small shrub in their garden is the ‘nonni’ or Morinda citrifolia. The fruit has a very pungent smell –not for the faint-hearted, but its juice is used in treating cancer and related ailments. Some herbs include an Asian oregano Coleus amboinicus, the most commonly grown and very aromatic oregano in Cuba. It is used to cure coughs among other folk remedies (Roig y Mesa 1965). The common basil in Cuba is Ocimum sanctum. A short-term purple or white perennial, its use to treat diabetes has been confirmed by research (Roig y Mesa 1965).

Small urban garden

On a street of one of the busy thoroughfares in Cerro, Centro Habana, Dra Raquel Catanedo is working with the local community group and ‘third-age’ day centre, to develop a tiny plot to grow vegetables and medicinal hers for the locality. The plot, formerly a patch of waste-land, has recently been fenced off and fertile soil imported and spread in raised beds. Dr Catanedo, a Professor of human nutrition in the University of Havana, is involved in many projects for developing and processing food and medicinal plants. She is President of the Asociación Nacional de Aficionados a la Botánica y Protección de la Naturaleza “Dr Juan Tomás Roig”, or the national botanical and nature conservation association, named after a botanist and herbalist who published extensively on the description and uses of Cuban plants, native or cultivated (see e.g. Roig y Mesa 1965). Dr Catanedo, who lives nearby, is co-ordinating the development of this small plot, that does not lack helping hands, but often has to await funding as a lot of the equipment is only available in Cuban dollar equivalents. It now grows onions, spinach, beans, carrots and various herbs.

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a) Dr Catanedo in the Centro Habana plot, December 2003 and b) the plot 11 months later, October 2004.

Dr Catanedo, along with vet Aleida Fernández and chemist, Marlen Jay, is also developing a plant processing unit in Cerro where plants are dried and processed into cosmetics, foods and medicines for both human and animal treatment.

Suburban gardens in Santiago de Las Vegas

On the outskirts of Havana in the district of Santiago de Las Vegas, there are several small plots tended by individuals growing vegetables and condiments for their extended families and –one of the conditions of using the plots- for the local community. These plots, administered by the local community committee, serve partly as a reference source for different crops and their varieties. Thus Julio Martínez, based part-time in the National Botanic Gardens, made a study of the crops in this, his local area as part of ethnobotanical work in collaboration with botanist, Prof. Montserrat Gispert Cruells of the University of Mexico. Some of the vegetables grown were not documented and resulted from the knowledge of each individual, often gleaned from family lore originating in the rural parts of Cuba. One variety of bean produced a small red bean, but has the advantage of being a climber that can add foliage to a fence, taking up little of often small spaces. A herb more widely used in Cuba is a relative of the Irish sea holly and is used for its aromatic properties as it smells and tastes like coriander seeds.


Lotter, D. 2003. Cuba’s 5th conference on organic agriculture features the fruits of a decade-long focus on organic. The New Farm. Farmer-to-Farmer Know-how from The Rodale Institute.

Pérez Alvarez R. P. 1996? Lucha biológica contra la bibijagua (Atta insularis Güerin)

Roig y Mesa, J.T. 1965. Diccionario Botánico de Nombres Vulgares Cubanos. Ministerio de Cultura, Ciudad La Habana.

Rosset P. and Benjamín M. 1994. The Greening of the Revolution. Cuba’s Experiment with Organic Agriculture. Ocean Press, Melbourne.

Taboulchanas, H.K. 2001. Organic status and dietary role of organiponicos in Cienfuegos, Cuba. Masters of Environmental Studies thesis, Dalhousie University, 2001.

Thomas, H. 2001. Cuba. The Pursuit of Freedom. Pan Macmillan, London.

Vázquez Rodríguez, C. 2003. Frutas para incrementar la seguridad alimenticia en las familias cubanas mediante la reforestación con árboles frutales. Germinal. Boletín de educación alimentaria para la sustentabilidad. Year 2 no. 8, pp. 119-120.

Vázquez Gálvez, M. 2003. Cocina ecológica en Cuba. Germinal. Boletín de educación alimentaria para la sustentabilidad. Year 2 no. 8, p. 104.

Tags: Food