Cuba’s organopónicos began in the early 1990s. International political changes made it impossible to maintain large-scale mechanized agriculture, as former trade relations could no longer provide the machine parts or fertilizers needed to run the expansive soviet-style farms. Other challenges, notably the US trade embargo, also greatly restricted new economic development. The era was dubbed “the Special Period” due to the extreme hardships Cubans faced and unique solutions they found to solve these challenges.
In response to food shortages, Cuba developed an expansive top-down system of small-scale agriculture programs with incredible success. One of the most effective programs is the organopónicos. Vacant lots in urban areas have been transformed into intensive organic farms. Using a combination of traditional organic gardening methods and new innovations developed to conquer the challenges of farming in cities, these gardens have flourished across the country and now supply an estimated sixty percent of Cuba’s fresh produce.
Beyond the organopónicos, diverse initiatives touch on many areas of agricultural development… One focuses on providing fresh flowers, with a goal of five dozen per Cuban per year. The popular rice program has allowed Cubans to grow rice in limited areas and with less water than large-scale rice farms. Fruit trees are being planted throughout many cities. Programs involving livestock have also been tremendously successful. Perhaps the popularity is in part because many of the programs provide a rare economic opportunity for everyday Cubans, as the gardeners can sell surplus produce after government quotas have been met.
The Cuban food program is a remarkable experiment in agriculture, showing that sustainable methods can be used effectively on a national scale. It has also demonstrated that these programs provide a wide variety of benefits, from increased food security and urban beautification to the promotion of public health. The entirely organic methods, diverse programs, and community based approach sometimes gives each a unique and personal touch to these incredible examples of an effective 'slow food' movement.