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A soldier works in a greenhouse with tomatoes plants at the urban garden in the academy of the Venezuelan National Guard in Caracas, Venezuela June 29, 2016. Picture taken June 29, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

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By Diego Ore

CARACAS (Reuters) - Facing a national food crisis, Venezuela's pumpkin-growing socialist president is exhorting compatriots to grow fruit and vegetables on balconies and roofs and in barracks across the country.

His government's "Great Agro-Venezuela Mission" is promoting city farming to offset shortages which have led to lootings and riots as the OPEC country undergoes a major economic crisis.

"We need to plant to ensure food sovereignty," President Nicolas Maduro said, recounting how he and his wife harvested pumpkins on their patio for a soup that tasted "like heaven."

"He who learns to cultivate in his city, his school, his university, his factory, in his communal space ... cultivates another form of faith in life," he added, urging people to grow products in schools, military bases and even jails.

In the first data on the new push, Maduro's government boasts that in the last three months, some 135,000 Venezuelans have produced 273 tonnes of vegetables, fruits and herbs in urban settings.

The production seems well short of this year's goal of 3,500 tonnes, but some participants are enthusiastic.

"If all communities began to cultivate, it would help to combat the high cost of living and food shortages," said 69-year-old Luisana Galvis, a retired administrator who helps produce 30 different types of vegetable on a state-owned plot in a west Caracas slum. Critics, though, say the project is laughably inadequate given the scale of Venezuela's problems, and absurd in a vast and fertile nation that was once a major exporter of coffee.

"Forty thousand hectares of productive land in this country and Nicolas' solution is urban agriculture!" scoffed two-time opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, who accuses the government of wrecking rural output with nationalizations.

"You listen to him and he's a century behind!"

FERTILE WASTELAND

Even some who have long grown their own food are dubious of Maduro's efforts to help solve Venezuela's unprecedented crisis by emulating their city gardens.

"It's illogical to have a grand plan for urban agriculture given how fertile the land is in Venezuela," said Omar Sharam, owner of the upmarket Casa Bistro restaurant which cultivates many of its own ingredients on a city plot.

Oil gradually took over Venezuela's economy since its discovery here a century ago and now makes up 94 percent of foreign income. That has led to the neglect of other sectors, including agriculture, and made Venezuela dependent on imports.

Vast swathes of arable land are underused.

Since Maduro was elected three years ago to succeed the late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, his popular mentor, Venezuela's economy has deteriorated rapidly with a deep recession and widespread shortages.

Mobs outside shops screaming, "We want food!" and hoping for limited bags of pasta and rice have become commonplace across the South American country of 30 million.

The government blames the crisis on an "economic war" led by opposition business leaders and the United States. Critics, however, point the finger at bad economic policy and over-reliance on oil.

With its new urban food push, Venezuela is attempting to follow in the footsteps of Cuba, its closest ally, which pioneered sustainable agriculture during the so-called "Special Period" in the 1990s after the collapse of its Cold War benefactor, the Soviet Union.

The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization calls Havana the greenest city in Latin America.

Somewhat ironically, Venezuela's socialist government is also in tandem with a wider trend among urbanites from New York to Tokyo who are setting up rooftop gardens as part of a global green movement to eat healthier, organic food.

Those on the ground in Venezuela doubt they will resolve all their country's food problems, but at least want to contribute to a more nutritious diet.

"We're not growing to fill our stomachs, but to eat better," said Militza Perez, a bank worker who grows her own peppers, chard and other herbs on a roof garden.

(Additional reporting by Liamar Ramos.; Writing by Girish Gupta; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Kieran Murray)

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