Growing food in Cuba, post-peak-oil



by Susan
The 2006 movie "Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil" is one of those underground things here in DC – with screenings in private homes of would-be revolutionaries, like enclaves of the American Communist Party in the ’30s.  So I jumped at the invitation and joined 20 other would-be rabble-rowsers to watch and then discuss a movie that goes waay beyond easy tips for "going green".

"Peak oil" refers to the moment at which the world  oil resources max out permanently, after which they decline forever.  And Cuba went through an abrupt version of it in 1991 with the demise of the Soviet Union and the loss of its oil subsidies. The Cuban economy and the entire society were radically transformed – a drastic reduction in the use of cars, a switch to sustainable agriculture (from farming methods that were even more industrialized than in the U.S.), and a change in diet and health for all Cubans. Nothing like a crisis to get things done, huh? 

Too bad it took famine conditions and an average weight loss of 20 pounds per adult between ’91 and ’94 for Cubans to change the way they grow food and eat.  Food was actually rationed for the first five years.  And it’s hard to imagine the disruptions caused by their 14-16-hour power black-outs.

So a group called The Community Solution has put together their plan for food in the post-peak-oil world and made this documentary about the amazing changes in Cuba – a possible model for the rest of the world.

So how DID Cuban agriculture become even more industrialized than ours?  The movie didn’t tell us and I’d love to know that back story.  But the movie does describe their decidedly unsustainable practices, like the use of massive amounts of pesticides, complete reliance on synthetic fertilizers, and the use of imported inputs.  Today oil-based fertilizers and pesticides are a thing of the past.  Lands formerly used for large conventional agriculture have been
distributed – free if you grow food on it.  Over a period of 3 to 5 years the soils have become fertile and productive again through
the use of compost, green manure, and crop rotation.  Eighty percent of
Cuba’s food is now grown organically, and permaculture practices are commonplace.  Oxen
save fuel and cause less compaction than large equipment, so they’ve made a comeback.   And of course there are backyard and urban community gardens everywhere, with all vacant space used for growing food.

I wonder if Americans are open-minded enough to learn anything from our Commie heathen neighbors to the south.

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Susan Harris

Susan’s a garden writer, teacher and activist in the Washington, D.C. area. Co-founder of GardenRant, she also wrote for national gardening magazines and independent garden centers before retiring in 2014. Now she has time for these projects:

  • Founding and now managing the pro-science educational nonprofit GOOD GARDENING VIDEOS that finds and promotes the best videos on YouTube for teaching people to garden.
  • Creating and managing DC GARDENS, the nonprofit campaign to promote the public gardens of the Washington, D.C. area, and gardening by locals.
  • Creating and editing the community website GREENBELT ONLINE to serve her adopted hometown of Greenbelt, Maryland (a “New Deal Utopia” founded in 1937).
  • Also in Greenbelt, MD, writing the e-newsletter and serving on the Board of Directors for the cooperatively-owned music and arts venue and restaurant called the NEW DEAL CAFE.

Contact Susan via email or by leaving a comment here.

Photo by Stephen Brown.


  1. Open-minded? Perhaps. But willing to make the difficult changes it would take? No. After all, big agriculture is fully embedded in our economic system. I know from my own work in a closely related industry that the big companies (and you know their names) are still not taking the organic/sustainable movement seriously. Sure, they acknowledge that it is a “movement.” But instead of finding alternatives to the “old way” of doing busiess, they are still trying to find ways to market the products that consumers decidedly do not want in their foods.

    Unraveling such a complex system will take decades. But where to begin? I hope it doesn’t take a crisis, as in Cuba.

    As for the “underground D.C.” viewings…I am clearly not in the “in” set, cause I’ve never heard of it! Or maybe I’m just not enough of a rabble rowser!

    Thanks, Susan, for an interesting post.

    Robin at Bumblebee

  2. Unless big companies would change, (and they only would if they could make even bigger profits) Unfortunately I doubt anything will change in the US until it does become a crisis.

  3. Change is hard and most of us don’t embrace it unless we have to and even then with much hollering, kicking, screaming, moaning and groaning! It’s going to get ugly.


  4. I’ve actually been inspired by my DH to dig up (yikes) part of my native prairie garden in the back yard to create a decent sized organic vegetable garden.

    What’s weird? I actually don’t mind – I’m finding good homes for the plants I can’t keep and redistributing those elsewhere in the yard that I am keeping.

    I’m just looking so forward to having fresh, pesticide free produce. And soil, the prairie plants left behind is beautiful so no additional organic material is needed for now.

  5. Interesting – it’s similar to what happened in Britain in WW2 – every open space was used for growing produce, it was part of the war effort.Gas was rationed, so farmers used horses to plough and pull carts, and yes, there was no obesity problem, although there was severe rationing, my Mum told me they ate lots of veggies, and my grandmother kept chickens, and her cats caught rabbits which she would cook! Apart from bombs falling out of the skies, the rationing of medical supplies, and the dental problems caused by diets low in calcium, life was much healthier! And for 6 years millions of women raised children without their husbands, and without handouts from the government!!

  6. Change can be hard, for individuals, and for businesses, but you’d think that US business which used to be known for its innovation has been so resistent to change that could ultimately mean profits for them. The movie also reminds us of history (the US as well as Britain during WWII) and how much food countries can grow in home gardens when the need is there.

  7. Cuba developed an industrialized agricultural system for several reasons:

    1. Sugar is a plantation crop and plantation crops lend themselves to industrialized production.

    2. Cuba’s educational system allowed people to leave agriculture in large numbers. At the time of the revolution, 70% of Cuba’s population lived in rural areas. Today it’s barely 30%. The children of agricultural workers went to school and got better jobs in urban areas.

    3. Oil was relatively cheap for Cuba, as the Soviets subsidized the price. (Cuba did encourage conservation, but mostly among urban users, and sold the subsidized oil on the spot market.)

    In addition, Cuba has cut sugar production substantially over the last few years, so industrial agriculture would be reduced there even if the government had made no other changes.

  8. This is a joke and a farce the FACT’s are after 50 years there is still food rationing in Cuba and these very gardens you point ot are being closed as we speak. The country is living on a meager amount of rice and beans oh but they are allowe 5 eggs a year. up from 3. I grow a large organic garden and use a hand scythe to mow hay for my 5 sheep but I do it from a sense of my love for histroy and to be honest because I like the exercise and quiet but to say that Cuba or any nation is being feed and sustained without modern agricultural practices of some kind is FOOLISH. This reminds me of Scott Nearing who 50 years ago visited Albania and suggested it as a model for the U.S. ALBANIA for Christ sake. Guys like it or not capitalism won it is the system that delivers the goods and all the central planing tried left the shop shelves bare and that goes for Cuba as well.

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