A few days ago, I came across an article on Cuba’s use of urban agriculture. I found the entire story to be quite interesting, so I’ve summarized it below: Cuba’s relationship with urban agriculture did not arise until 1990, but the story truly begins in the in the 1970s and 1980s. During this time period, Cuba exported mass supplies of sugar to the Soviet Union in exchange for cheap, subsidized oil. To make this exchange possible, the vast majority of Cuban farmland was devoted to a single crop: sugar. This intensive monoculture forced Cuba to import over 50% of its food. When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1990, Cuba’s sweet deal (pun intended) came to a petroleum-lacking halt. Cuba was left without oil and without the funds needed to continue its food imports.
At this point, Cuba was faced with a harsh reality: it would have to feed itself without oil. This difficult situation lead to the creation of government-run initiatives aimed at drastically expanding urban and organic farming. And these initiatives worked. From 1990-2003, over 3,000 patio and backyard gardens were started in Havana and every settlement of over fifteen houses was given its own food production capacity, either through organopónicos, community gardens or individual plots. Additionally, Cuba reduced its agriculture-related petroleum usage by 50% and its chemical-based fertilizer usage by 91%. Now, Cuba is seen as a beacon of hope for the future of sustainable and urban farming.
While I was processing all of this information about Cuba, I went up to work at the Free Farm—an urban farm located in the Western Addition of San Francisco. While there, I started chatting with a woman who had helped get the Free Farm started a year and a half ago, but had recently stopped regularly volunteering. When I asked her why she had largely stopped coming to the farm, she told me: “There used to be so much energy here. The economy had crashed and coming here was what people did. They did not have jobs and they gave all their energy to the farm. They needed the food and they needed a project that was their own. Now, the economy is moving again and people are back in offices…It just does not have the same energy.”
That statement got me thinking. In Cuba, urban agriculture emerged out of a state of crisis. In San Francisco, the Free Farm was largely fueled by manpower that an economic crash enabled. Similarly, urban farming in the 1910s and 1940s flourished when WWI and WWII demanded the planting of “Victory Gardens.” In all these cases, urban farming emerged out of troublesome conditions. This makes me wonder: Can urban agriculture exist as a permanent farming practice? Or is it domed to act as Plan B whenever things get bad?
I am very unsure what the answers are to these questions, but if I had to make a guess, I would say that as the world runs lower and lower on petroleum, cities are going to start to look a lot more like Havana. Until that time comes though, I’m afraid that I believe the future of urban farming is quite unstable.