Organoponico! Cuba's food security

SUBHEAD: Cuba is no democratic paradise, but the country could certainly teach the west a thing or two about sustainable, secure food production, as this new film demonstrates.

By Claire Birch on 6 November 2009 in The Ecologist -

image above: An example of organoponico garden bed. Low concrete wall, organic material, drip system. From 
Organoponico! begins with a summary of life after the start of the Special Period. In Cuba, the Special Period refers to the period of economic crisis that began in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was defined primarily by severe shortages of oil derivatives and imports, leading to widespread famine. 
 From this desperate need for food came the establishment of small organic farms, making use of any available space, from disused car parks to road-sides. The result is not just highly productive, but also attractive - splashes of lush green space within urban environments: flourishing gardens, grown without any pesticides, offering an oasis of calm amongst the busy Havana streets.  

The six minute film demonstrates the strong sense of cooperative spirit provided by the organoponicos, organised, as they are, 'by the neighbours of the community, to produce food for the community'. Government subsidies allow the organic produce to be sold at often half the price of conventionally farmed produce, making the enterprises economically viable too. 

Video above: "Organoponica!", a six minute film in Spanish with subtitles (5/9/2009) From 

One of Organoponico!'s strengths is that its story is told entirely by workers, painting a realistic picture of working life for those who tend organoponicos, illustrating that although the work is intensive, employees enjoy good conditions and pay. The food security created by the system is highly valued: Cuba’s 7000 organoponicos supply 90 per cent of the country's fruit and vegetables, and have helped lift Cuba from the poverty of the Special Period. 

Peak oil 
Although born out of necessity, organoponicos have proven that an oil-scarce society can survive, if not thrive. Many environmentalists have seen the Cuban experience as something of a model for how to survive peak oil. Because of this, other countries have attempted to replicate it, although results have been variable. 

The film ends with some startling facts about the state of the food industry here in the UK. Currently we import 95 per cent of our fruit and 50 per cent of our vegetables. Since consensus is forming around the possibility of an oil supply crunch within the next decade, perhaps the time to start reclaiming the UK's urban landscape is now. 

Organoponic Raised Bed Gardening was created in Cuba and was born from the crisis the Cubans experienced after the collapse of the Soviet Union and this crisis was deepened by the strengthening of the American Trade Embargo An Organoponico simply consists of low level concrete walls filled with organic matter and soil, with a couple of lines of drip irrigation laid on the surface of the growing media.  

The concrete sided beds are called “Cantero” in Spanish and the organic matter is usually “Bagasse” which is the waste left over from crushing sugar cane. Normally the ratio between soil and organic matter is 50%:50%. Sometimes every 7th bed is used for worm farming and the resultant vermicast is an important contributor to the fertility, especially for nitrogen and microorganisms. So it is obvious where the “organo” part of organoponic comes from but why call it “ponic” ?

Well it just so happens that the Cubans had installed an hydroponic operation just before the crisis which quickly became defunct, but because they liked the hi-tech sound of that term and probably because the new gardens incorporated the use of drip irrigation they coined the term organoponic, which transformed into the generic name for these type of gardens, Organoponico.

 I have adopted this word for my garden beds because the garden beds are highly amended with organic materials and also I believe in using the drip irrigation system for fertigation with both organic and chemical fertilisers. In fact the high organic matter levels in the beds provides a excellent buffer for the input of regular small doses of chemical fertilisers either through the irrigation or lightly sprinkled on the surface by hand. This is because chemical fertilisers are by nature very acidic and salty and the nutritive elements are present in a very concentrated form which can easily get out of balance and do harm to soil and plants, but a very high organic matter content in the soil can to a large extent buffer and balance all that.  

Zen Concrete
 If a Hydroponic Glasshouse operation is one extreme of the vegetable growing spectrum and a Large-Scale Open-Field Market Garden is the other end, then what we are trying to create here is something in between. In the Cuban Capital of Havanna there are 200 large Organoponicos providing a city of 2.2 million people with 50% of their vegetable supplies.

See also: Ea O Ka Aina: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil 2/25/09

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