Lettuces of Lead

Organopónico en Miramar, La Habana (flickr)
Urban organic garden in Miramar, Havana (flickr)

The raised bed exhibits its curly lettuces a few meters from the rough concrete building. There is an hour to go before the urban organic garden near Hidalgo Street in the Plaza township begins its sale, but already customers are thronging to get fresh vegetables and lower prices. None of them knows that the products they will buy here are neither organic nor very safe for their health.

Urban agriculture is a phenomenon that dawned in the nineties with the rigors of the Special Period. In the words of a humorist, “We Havanans turned ourselves into peasants and planted leeks even on balconies.” The economic crisis and the inefficiency of state farms required taking advantage of empty lots in order to cultivate greens and vegetables.

The initiative helped all these years to alleviate shortages and has many defenders who emphasize their community character, so different from the mechanization of modern agriculture. Nevertheless, together with the undeniable merits are hidden serious problems that point to the contamination of the crops with wastes characteristic of urban areas.

Hidden, serious problems point to the contamination of the crops with wastes characteristic of urban areas

Nationwide, about 40,000 people work in urban agriculture projects on some 83,000 acres (130 square miles) that are divided into 145,000 parcels, 385,000 patios*, 6,400 intensive gardens and 4,000 urban organic gardens. These last under the leadership of the Ministry of Agriculture, although with some autonomy for crop management.

With these lands planted in populated areas, it has been the goal to reduce food insecurity, offer greater access to fresh produce and to expand green spaces in urban zones.

Havana has 97 high yield urban organic gardens. One of the best known is located in the Alamar neighborhood and is currently managed by a cooperative of 180 members. The capital also has 318 intensive gardens, with crops sown directly in the ground, in addition to 38 crops that are semi-protected and in enriched soil.

The soil enrichment uses a technique known as vermicomposting, which consists of transforming solid wastes by the action of earthworms and micro-organisms. The problem is that many of the urban wastes that serve as a basis for the process are gotten from residential trash and carry a big load of heavy metals that with time accumulate in greens and vegetables.

The compost comes from household trash containing cadmium and lead above the maximum permissible levels

A study carried out in 2012 by several researchers from the Institute of Soils and that included samples from urban organic gardens in Havana and Guantanamo brought to light that “the compost obtained from the urban solid wastes originating in household trash extracted from landfills without prior sorting, and the subsoils prepared from them, contain heavy metals, especially cadmium and lead, above the maximum permissible levels.”

The lack of an effective system of trash sorting and processing works against us, because much of the waste used for compost in the urban organic gardens has had previous contact with materials like cans, paints, and batteries, thrown indiscriminately into landfills all over the country.

Agricultura urbana en La Habana (Flickr)
Agricultura urbana en La Habana (Flickr)

Furthermore, the process to achieve compost often is not carried out properly, so that the pathogens contained in the wastes are not destroyed. Although part of the material used in this process comes from the garden itself, trash from nearby settlements, market wastes and agro-industrial refuse are also added.

Family gardens account for close to 90% of the greens consumed by the population, so ingestion of high doses of heavy metals could be affecting a great number of Cubans.

Irrigation adds a high content of chlorine and other water purifiers

Irrigation of the urban organic gardens aggravates the problem because the water comes from the population’s supply network and affects the amount of water available for human consumption, besides also being unsuitable for crops because of the high content of chlorine and other purifying products.

The proximity of streets and avenues to the crops worsens the pollution because heavy metals also arrive through the ground and the air. Add to that the use of pesticides and fungicides for control of pests in the urban organic gardens. An un-confessed but widespread practice.

Most alarming is that the Ministry of Agriculture keeps silent about this matter and does not promote research into the presence of chemical agents harmful to health in produce that consumers imagine fresh and organic. Complicity or apathy? No one knows, but there are many reasons to distrust that bunch of lettuce with its attractive green leaves.

*Translator’s note: “Patios” in this context refers to home gardens producing food primarily for family consumption.

Translated by MLK

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