Can Organic Agriculture Replace Contemporary Agriculture?
The story of how Cuba, a small island nation, survived peak oil
By Zhou Miao-Fei
Translated by Gan Ruyu

The operation of contemporary agriculture relies on fossil fuels, chemical fertilizers and insecticides. If fossil fuels run out, we cannot run machineries. Without chemical fertilizers and insecticides, will agriculture still be possible? Will people still have sufficient food?

Cuba, a small island nation to the south of America, has gone through the crisis of peak oil and the challenge of national survival due to a lack of fossil fuels, chemical fertilizers and insecticides. However, Cuba has proven that even without all these, a country can still thrive, and its people can become healthier and happier.

After World War II, The Soviet Union and The United States of America were competing in all ways to become the world’s strongest. Both were engaged in a cold war that lasted for years. Soviet Union was joined by many countries, including Cuba. Hence, USA boycotted and placed an embargo upon Cuba. Since the 1960s, Cuba could only export its cane sugar to Soviet Union in exchange for food, medical supplies and 99% of its fossil fuels.

In 1991, with the collapse of Soviet Union, USA intensified its embargo upon Cuba and prohibited other countries from trading with Cuba. Almost overnight, food and medical supplies worth 750 million dollars were stopped from importing into Cuba. Cuba was crushed. The economical impact cost Cuba 80% of its imports and exports; the national production gross figure dropped dramatically by 34%; the yearly import of fossil fuels dropped from 14 million tons to 4 tons.

All of a sudden, the whole nation sank into depression. The transport system collapsed, the country ran out of steels, factories shut down, farming and agriculture were paralyzed, and there was a shortage of food. Basically, Cuba in desperation was facing social unrests, collapse of its government and starving people all over the country. The only way for Cuba to survive was for its people to put hands together and make full use of their existing resources.

To deal with the most basic yet urgent survival problem, Cuban government started rationing rice, corns, legumes, etc. on a mass-scale level. But the economy, agriculture, transport system, social and cultural aspects also urgently needed a reformation. During the toughest period, the waiting time for a public bus took 3 hours; without fossil fuels to generate electricity, power supply was continuously cut off for more than 16 hours a day; without electricity and being located in the tropics, the food could not be refrigerated, and using an air-con or fan was out of the question. Lacking cement and tools, construction and repair works could not be done. Private sedan was a rare sight; most people walked or cycled (Cuba produced 500,000 bicycles and bought 1.2 million bicycles from China). People also hitchhiked to school or work. Modified trucks, horse or mule carriages became “public buses”. Energy resources were used with extreme caution.

Food was the top priority for survival. According to the food ration, each person’s daily intake was one-fifth of previous consumption. Although there was no famine, Cubans experienced dire starvation every day. Within a few weeks, children below the age of 5 suffered from malnutrition, pregnant women became anemic, newborns were underweight. During these toughest years from 1992-1996, Cubans’ weight was reduced by an average of 10kg.

Meanwhile, Australia and other organic farmers came forth to provide assistance. Without petrol and spare parts, more than 90,000 tractors and harvesting machines manufactured by Soviet Union became useless. They were replaced by human labor and animals. Without chemical fertilizers and insecticides, only the self-sustainable technique of organic farming could be the answer. To increase food supply, Cubans started cleaning up empty plots. They learned to grow edible plants at their balconies, rooftops and corners of parks. This type of farming quickly gained the government’s support, replacing the old type of industrial agriculture.

As Cuba could no longer use sugarcane to exchange for fossil fuels, the nation’s sugarcane farms were converted into vegetables and fruits farms. The farms did not have to be large. Many public lands were divided and allocated as community farms. People shared the costs of buying seeds or renting tools. The government also provided farmlands and built simple houses in the rural areas. The aim was to encourage relocation of urbanites, for them to grow their own produce and become self-sufficient. All the lands were provided free of charge, with the condition that it must be used for farming. Slowly, Cuba survived its toughest 10 years in history, called the “special period”. 

The oil crisis changed Cubans’ lives in all aspects, especially in agriculture. Before the “special period”, Cuba used its land just like all the other countries in the world -- deforestation, overgrazing, demineralization of soil leading to desertification. Its use of insecticides exceeded USA. It was the most industrialized country in Latin America. When its economy was at its peak, it exported cane sugar, coffee, tobacco, etc, and imported basic food items such as 55% of its rice and 50% of its cooking oil. Back then, its industrialized agriculture seemed to be producing a higher yield. Yet the basic needs of its people were not fulfilled.

During the “special period” in 1993, Australia and other organic farmers started helping Cuba to build an organic agriculture. To improve the soil, they used organic fertilizers such as compost, green manure and animal manure. They also applied techniques such as crop rotation and polyculture. They replaced chemicals with organic fertilizers and organic insecticides. It took them 3-5 years to restore life in the soil.

Other changes in agriculture included giving up tractors and large machineries that had been previously used during the industrialized period. Replacing these machineries were human and animal labor and techniques that would not harm the soil. Older farmers taught the younger generation animal husbandry and how to plough with a buffalo, and to increase buffalos to help with farming. The use of human labor reduced dependency on fossil fuels. There were also farmers’ markets in each community. Farmers could sell their produce directly; the locals could buy fresh produce on the spot, reducing long-distance delivery and saving energy consumption.

Today in Cuba, 80% of its agricultural produce is organic. Farming is one of the highest paid occupations. Organic fertilizers and organic insecticides are being exported and sold in Central America. Most of the farmlands (12-15%) are farmed by individuals, and on average they produce the highest yields. Farmlands managed by groups come next. The rest are public farmlands where the produce is specifically for exporting. The most surprising thing is that there are more than one thousand farmers’ markets in the capital, Havana, where the population is 2.5 million. The city dwellers get 50% of their food from nearby community farms, and it is 80-100% for the suburban dwellers! The transition into organic community farms brings great benefits; the biggest being the improvement in the health of the people. Their diet consists of fresh plant-base food that is high in fiber and low in fat. Walking and cycling have also reduced illnesses such as diabetes, cardiac arrest and stroke.

The measures taken by Cuba in response to the oil crisis are indeed commendable. There is much for us to learn from them. Normally when facing an economic crisis, a country would first reduce its social welfare. Not for Cuba. In terms of education, Cuba had only 3 universities initially, all free of charge. During the “special period”, there were nearly 50 universities located at different towns around the country in order to cut down traveling and energy consumption. As before, education was all free of charge.

Without fossil fuels, energy sources are derived from nature: solar, wind, water and biological resources. 2000 schools in the community, hospitals, community centers and some private houses are installed with solar panels. Biological resources come from the scraps and wastes from the cane sugar factories. Residential houses are designed to shade out sunlight with good ventilation to reduce indoor temperature. On average, each Cuban only consumes one-eighth of energy compared to Americans. 30% of the energy consumed comes from biological resources. There are also plans to gradually increase the usage of green energy.

Today, the standard of living in Cuba may not be as high as before 1991; the average yearly income is USD3,500. However, compared to USA, Cubans have a higher life expectancy rate, a higher newborn survival rate, and a higher literacy rate. Not to forget its free education.

The “special period” has forced Cuba to switch from being a consumer of natural resources that relies on imported fossil fuels to being a self-sufficient nation. There are 3 factors for its success - making use of natural resources, community bonding and cooperation among the people.

Nature actually supplies us with sufficient resources - sun, wind, water, land, animals, plants, microorganisms, and human power. When we work with nature, the resources flow in a sustainable cycle. By using solar power, wind power and organic farming, Cubans have proven the abundance of natural resources. Apart from using these natural resources wisely, teamwork and unity are also necessary among the huge population. Whether it is a city or village, Cuba localized its communities, providing people with accessible schools, workplaces and recreational areas. This is to cut down delivery and transportation. Meanwhile, it has increased human interactions. Residents take care of each other. Farmers often donate fresh produce to elderly folks, childcare centers, schools, pregnant mothers, etc. This has strengthened bonding among the people. Most importantly, Cubans are diligent, willing to cooperate, compromise and sacrifice. That was how they survived the crisis hand-in-hand.

The most difficult 10 years are now over for Cuba. As this fossil fuels crisis was caused by the collapse of Soviet Union and the embargo by USA, it was called “artificial peak oil”. However, humanity is now on the verge of facing a real worldwide peak oil crisis. Therefore, many countries are taking Cuba as a model with the hope to move through the transition smoothly.

Cubans have understood deeply the preciousness of energy resources: as an island nation with limited resources, its political independence must rely on economical independence; to gain economical independence, independence of energy consumption is foremost. But energy does not equal to fossil fuels. The sun and the earth can support life for millions of years. If we cannot depend on them for survival, something is wrong with our ways of living. Reduce consumption, give back to resources. We can make the earth a better place!

1. “Peak oil” is a theory by geologist/physicist, M King Hubbert. As fossil fuels from the earth are finite, the supply will eventually reach a peak and then decrease until exhausted. The estimated peak oil time is within these few years.

2. After former US vice-president Al Gore stepped down, he has spent years working on protecting the environment. He has shown many worrying statistics regarding global warming and its serious effects. Mr Gore received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. On 17 July, in his speech at the D.A.R. Constitutional Hall in Washington, USA, he beseeched the American government to give up its reliance on fossil fuels. Instead, he proposed a complete reliance on the use of solar, wind and thermal mass to generate electricity within the next 10 years. It was mentioned that 40 minutes of solar energy is sufficient for the whole world's consumption for 1 year.

3. The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil is an American documentary distributed by The Community Solution in 2006. It was directed by Faith Morgan.

Original Chinese article is published in August 2008 issue of Lapis magazine and is available online at: