Born of Necessity

“Quimbombó, quimbombó echoed off the sides of the weathered concrete buildings of Havana. A man poked his head out from a terrace and tossed a woven basket on a string down to the street below, where a woman with a shopping cart full of okra, or quimbombó, stood waiting. She replaced the coins in the basket with okra, and the man hoisted it back up to his balcony. 

This woman spends her days delivering okra directly to her neighbors—a trusting exchange we don’t see often enough in the United States. In modern industrial societies, food production happens on a much larger scale. The mass production of food usually depends on polluting the environment and our bodies, wasting enormous amounts of food, and exploiting low-wage labor. What’s more, the U.S.’ system prevents the kind of personal connection through food that this woman seems to have with her neighbors in Havana. Industrial agriculture offers us an overwhelming abundance of options on supermarket shelves. But it also means that the choice of what to buy at the grocery store becomes a political one. 

In the United States, attempting to buy only organic, non-GMO food means you fit the mold of a crunchy, progressive friend of the earth. But being a healthy, environmentally responsible citizen is a choice only a privileged few get to make. You need the money, and the knowledge about how food is produced, to be able to go to King Soopers and support your beliefs with your dollars—to choose multigrain bread over Wonder Bread. If you can afford it, you can even go to the local farmer’s market instead. The true puritans cultivate vegetables in their backyards, so they don’t even have to enter a lowly supermarket. 

Cuba seemed to fulfill this green dream on a national scale. Buying and growing organic is ubiquitous in the Cuban food system. Cuban farming practices are exactly what New England organic growers drool over: no pesticides, no chemical fertilizers, and no petroleum-powered machinery. The only crops that are produced on a large enough scale that they need to be grown nonorganic are tobacco and sugarcane, export crops grown in order to satisfy Americans’ desire for a classic Cuban cigar or mojito. This means that Cuba’s only pesticide-laden crops are sold to developed nations that already indulge in pesticide-laden industrial agriculture. 

My desire to study Cuban agriculture arose out of a longing for familiarity, both of farming and my own Cuban roots. Before visiting Cuba I only had my father—a white-passing, introverted immigrant—to give me any idea of what Havana was like. He left the island in 1960, at eight years old, just a year after Fidel Castro came into power. Most Cubans who escaped during the revolution were relatively wealthy, educated, and conservative. They had both the values and the means to escape across the Florida Strait. But my dad ended up further to the left than Bernie Sanders. 

He doesn’t talk about his Cuban roots unless probed, and because his accent faded long ago, a conversation rarely gives him away. But when he sings, it’s often in Spanish. Some of the strongest connections to Cuba I experienced growing up were the island colors he chose to paint the walls of our house: mint green, peach, rubber duck yellow. And my father still retains his staunch frugality, refusing to throw away the stuff that’s accumulated in piles on the shelves. Like the island where he was born, he is colorful, resourceful, and reluctant to spend money on anything new. This I have inherited (sometimes with an ounce of resentment). 

The importance of community is at the heart of my dad’s beliefs, which is why I ended up being raised in an intentional, sustainable cohousing community. Pioneer Valley Cohousing is a mix between a condo association and a commune, where neighbors share land, values, and resources in an attempt to foster community. Cohousing residents are responsible for collective chores and collaborative decision-making. For the first two decades of my life, I lived among this quirky mix of retired hippies and young families, nibbling carrots in the garden, collecting chicken eggs, and eating meals made from these homegrown ingredients with 40 of my neighbors twice a week. Crunchy paradise, indeed. 

Now, community and sustainable agriculture are fused in my mind. To make small-scale, eco-friendly farming work, you need a network of consumers who share values. The existence of community has always depended on equitable food systems and vice versa. In the U.S., a cooperative lifestyle is a privilege, accessible to few. But in Cuba, community and organic food appear to be woven into the fabric of society. At least that’s what it looked like on paper. 

By the time I stood in a checkout line at a Cuban supermarket, my hope of rediscovering agricultural community had faded. Beads of sweat gathered along my hairline as I fumbled with two five-gallon jugs of water. Vegetables were absent from the shelves, which were sparsely stocked with plastic-wrapped, vacuum-sealed, and not-quite-frozen food that appeared to be sweating as much as I was. Despite the sparseness, the bustle of Cubans shopping for staples filled the air with chatter and a jovial spirit you don’t see at American grocery stores.

My spirits lifted a bit when, walking home, I passed an agromercado, an outdoor air market overflowing with root vegetables, greens, and tropical fruit. All of the produce was fresh and organic, as I had been expecting. But I would later learn that the agromercados were only masking the reality that rice and beans characterized the Cuban diet, not organic produce. Most Cubans can’t afford to shop at the agromercados on a government salary. I set out to find a farm that supplied a market vendor with vegetables so I could follow the process of organic farming from the source. I ended up at the largest and most renowned urban farm in Cuba: Vivero Alamar. 

I had met a British woman living in Cuba, who told me to wait on a street corner in Old Havana for a shared taxi heading toward the district of Alamar. I squeezed onto the wide leather seat in an already-packed 1950s Cadillac. After nervously searching the passing buildings and beaches, I somehow found the correct soda stand that marked my destination. I hopped out and asked around until I found myself staring at an overflowing vegetable stand beneath a chipped white sign that read “Organopónico Vivero Alamar.” A man directed me toward an expanse of crop fields to wait for Raúl, a farmer who would show me around. 

Raúl and I talked under the thatched roof of a cafe. He fiddled with a sprig of yerba buena as he explained the disconnect I had observed between organic agriculture and food consumption in Cuba. Raul had been working at Vivero Alamar for the past few years and took pride in the farm’s international reputation and impact on the local food economy. As the largest organic urban farm in Cuba, Vivero Alamar spreads over 25 acres and grows everything from peppers and plantain trees to medicinal mushrooms and ornamental mariposa lilies. They sell 80 percent of their harvest directly to the local community through farm stands. The rest ends up in hotels and restaurants in Havana. To improve output without pesticides, they practice companion planting. This method involves the pairing of two plants to maintain soil quality and prevent erosion. For example, marigolds are planted to repel insects and nematodes that would otherwise destroy root systems. Vivero Alamar improves the soil quality of their land, while helping to feed the greater Havana community. And these methods are not unique to Vivero Alamar. Chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and oil-powered agricultural machinery are entirely absent from any of Havana’s urban farms. 

Raúl’s overview of the farm left me speechless and giddy: here, there is no produce that’s weeks old and shipped from hundreds of miles away. Ninety percent of vegetables eaten in Havana are grown locally, and all are grown organically. Environmentalist farm geeks eat that shit up. But when I expressed my admiration, Raul laughed incredulously. “Sure, we take pride in the fact that it’s all natural, but it wasn’t a choice,” he told me. “When there was a lack of teachers, an education initiative was created; when there was a lack of food and fuel, people began to farm. Simple.” 

“Sure, we take pride in the fact that it’s all natural, but it wasn’t a choice,” he told me. “When there was a lack of teachers, an education initiative was created; when there was a lack of food and fuel, people began to farm. Simple.” 

Raul was referring to the Special Period. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 propelled Cuba into an economic crisis. Cuba had relied on the Soviets for petroleum, gas, medicine, and food. After the collapse, Cuba remained hostile toward the global capitalist economy, and the U.S. refused to trade with the island nation just 90 miles off the coast, so Cuba faced severe shortages. The average Cuban lost 12 pounds. The Special Period forced Cubans to be extremely resourceful, which led to the development of sustainable agriculture. Due to the lack of imported oil to fuel tractors and chemicals to spray on crops, Cuba resorted to using a system of organopónicos, urban farms like Vivero Alamar that use companion planting, crop rotation, integrated pest management, and human labor. Now, these organic farms are nestled between bustling Havana city blocks.

From my perch as an affluent American foodie, I had fetishized the natural cultivation techniques, while remaining oblivious to the circumstances that forced Cuba to adopt these food production methods. Unlike activist-minded consumers from the U.S., Cubans never had the privilege to say “no” to Roundup or “yes” to fair trade. In the U.S., organic food is a highly politicized dietary trend—by eating organic, you alter personal consumption in support of alleviating global problems. We have adopted organic farming as a form of protest. But in Cuba, organic agriculture was born of necessity. People needed food, and they didn’t have access to expensive pesticides and machinery; they couldn’t afford to be worry about ethical concern for the quality of the land or, say, the lifestyle of their pigs. 

Cuban farmers are government employees, subject to the will of the Castros. What the government says goes. For now, their mandate is, “Live simply, don’t use oil.” But if the Cuban government were able to increase their profits from export-oriented production by welcoming Monsanto or artificial pesticides, then the farmers at Vivero Alamar would have no choice but to abandon their small-scale agroecological practices. 

As I left Vivero Alamar, I noticed a painted sign that advertised “all-organic,” which struck me as ironic considering that this was by no means a selling point in an all-organic country. I started thinking back on my time so far in Cuba: the few times I had eaten food that was labeled as organic and local were in chic cafes that catered more to tourists than locals. After visiting the farm, I ate those veggie-stuffed crepes beneath tropical plants, surrounded by rustic wooden décor, with the sour taste of disillusionment on my tongue, knowing that the average Cuban couldn’t even afford food like this. 

I realized that I could not equate my backyard garden (even the one in my hippy town) with the hardships Cubans have faced in figuring out how to grow food the “old-fashioned” way. Nor did I find ethnic validation by reveling in Cuba’s eco-socialist agenda or discovering the harmonious way that healthy, organic produce has flourished in Havana. Instead, I realized that going to Cuba does not make me more Cuban. I may have the heritage, but I haven’t suffered from unreliable access to food, antiquated technology, or lack of social mobility. 

I had a new sense of a country I had previously regarded as an idyllic leftist’s paradise. I had so revered Cuba’s iconic communitarian spirit but had ignored the scarcity and isolation that has been Cuba’s reality. The U.S. might well have to contend with a similar situation—Cuba has already experienced a world that’s coming down the pipeline due to climate change; a world in which oil is no longer a viable fuel option and water is even more scarce than it is now. We too might be forced into a future where resource shortages abound. 

But as much as Vivero Alamar had initially inspired me with its sustainable practices, it dashed my hope that communities in the U.S. would be able to follow its example. The U.S. can’t model a shift to sustainable agriculture after a country that never had the choice to be anything but that—we can’t look to Cuba for a set of values that will change our food system. Cuba didn’t arrive at its system by means of a social movement, but rather by necessity.