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Cuba Struggles to Feed Itself as Lack of Cash Slows Rise of Urban Farming

  • Reuters

FILE - Farmer Diogenes Cheveco, 73, picks beans on unused government land that farmers are allowed to use to grow food and raise livestock, on the outskirts of Havana, Cuba, March 3, 2015.

FILE - Farmer Diogenes Cheveco, 73, picks beans on unused government land that farmers are allowed to use to grow food and raise livestock, on the outskirts of Havana, Cuba, March 3, 2015.

Sitting beside a decaying Soviet-built housing complex on the outskirts of Havana, the Rotondo de Cojima farm grows several thousand kilos a month of carrots, lettuce and root vegetables, part of Cuba's drive to feed its people through organic farming.

Like many of its Caribbean neighbors, communist-governed Cuba imports more than two-thirds of its food, despite having rich farmland and hundreds of urban farms sprouting up in old parking lots, rooftops, or other small plots of unused land.

The country spends more than $2 billion a year importing rice, meat, grains and other foods which analysts and local farmers say could be produced at home.

Producing more food

The government, under President Raul Castro, says it is serious about producing more food for Cuba's 11 million citizens, and some environmentalists have praised it for supporting organic urban farming, which uses no chemical pesticides or fertilizers.

But local farmers and analysts say Cuba will not achieve self-sufficiency in food in the near future, despite improved trade with the United States after Washington re-established diplomatic relations last year with its former Cold War foe.

"The government is trying to make more of these organic farms," urban farmer Antonio Loma told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "But it's a lot of work for very little money."

The 10 employees who work with Loma at the Rotondo de Cojima farm, a 10-minute drive from central Havana, earn the equivalent of $25 per month, making it difficult to attract qualified workers or capital to expand production, Loma said.

Organic by necessity

Taking a break beside the store where all the farm's food is sold directly to local residents, Loma said Cuba turned to urban agriculture because it had to.

"It's organic because we couldn't get fertilizer," he said.

Founded in 1994, the Rotondo de Cojima farm and hundreds of others were set up after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had supplied its Cuban ally with energy, pesticides and machinery on preferential terms and paid above-market rates for Cuba's staple sugar crop.

"Organic agriculture was essentially forced upon Cuba," Sinan Koont, an economics professor at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Cuban food output plummeted and the economy shrank after the breakup of the Soviet Union. With little fuel for trucks or tractors, state-paid farmers had to start growing vegetables close to cities, using oxen and other animals to till the fields, Koont said.

Most observers in the United States assumed Cuba's communist government, then led by the current president's brother Fidel Castro, would collapse, too.

Caloric intake fell

Between 1989 and 1995 the average Cuban's daily caloric intake fell to 1,863 calories from 2,908, according to U.S. government data. By 1994, the average Cuban had lost about 20 pounds in weight due to food shortages, aid group Oxfam said.

The government responded to the crisis by bringing farmers like Loma from rural areas to the cities to help grow food close to the population, distributing under-used plots of land and seeds.

"I had to build all the beds for the vegetables," said Vladimir Echazabal, another urban farmer who came from the countryside to Havana to create an organic garden on 400 square metres of unused land.

"There was only grass here when I came - a lot of farms in Havana are like this," he said, while selling yucca and carrots to local residents.

Today Cuba has about 4,000 organic urban farms, Koont said. Urban agriculture supplies about half Cuba's vegetables, according a senior official with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

'America will sell a lot here'

Cuba's economy stabilized in the following years, and hunger receded, largely because of an influx of foreign investment for tourism projects and mining, along with support from Venezuela in the form of subsidized oil.

Food imports increased, particularly from countries like Brazil and to a lesser degree the United States.

Small farmers say they want to expand their organic range, but getting loans to improve their farms is difficult.

Loma, for example, thinks organic chicken would be popular but he doesn't have the money to build coops.

The low pay of the average Cuban means there is not enough money circulating in the broader economy to boost production, traders and farmers said.

"Sometimes it's hard for us to get products (from local farms)," said Ricardo Sanchez, who runs a stall in one of Havana's food markets.

"People don't want to work in the fields as they don't get paid enough," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation as shoppers picked through overripe tomatoes and wrinkled carrots.

The government says it is still committed to organic farming, though a wave of imported U.S. food, probably cheaper but not organic, is likely following the relaxing of a long-running trade embargo.

Food production

Cuban Economy and Planning Minister Marino Murillo pledged an additional 600 million pesos ($22.6 million) for agriculture in 2016, on top of the 9 billion pesos ($340 million) set aside for food production and other business promotion in 2015, state media reported in December.

So far local organic farmers do not seem worried about the threat to Cuba's successful urban farms from the expansion of trade with the United States, though the large government subsidies U.S. farmers receive will keep prices of imports low.

"The Americans will sell a lot of food here in the future, and that's positive," Loma said. "It will mean more food for the Cubans - and we will always be able to sell our vegetables."

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