The greening of Cuba: organic farming offers hope


By Peter Rosset with Shea Cunningham*

Times are hard in Cuba. The collapse of the socialist bloc has led to an estimated 85% drop in total external economic relations — that is exports, imports and foreign aid. The US trade embargo has been strengthened through the passage of the Torricelli Act, making it impossible for the West to make up for the bulk of the loss in trade with the socialist bloc.

From less than 20 consumer items that were rationed in the mid-'80s, shortages have led to the rationing of everything. Food intake by the population may have dropped by as much as 30% since 1989 — moving Cuba from the top five Latin America countries for both average caloric and average protein intake, to the bottom five, though Bolivia and Haiti are still worse off. Prostitution and petty theft are at their highest point since the 1959 revolution.

Amidst the suffering, however, there have been some remarkable innovations that have not been widely reported outside of Cuba. [One is] the technological transformation of Cuban agriculture in response to a massive drop in pesticide and fertiliser imports. Cuba is presently in the third year of the largest conversion of any nation in history from conventional modern agriculture to large scale organic farming.

While this is a calculated risk for the Cuban people, it is also a critically important experiment for the rest of the world. We must all confront the declining productivity and environmental destructiveness of what passes for modern agriculture.

As soils are progressively eroded, compacted by heavy machinery, salinised by excessive irrigation and sterilised with methyl bromide, and as pests become ever more resistant to pesticides, crop yields are in decline, even as aquifers and estuaries are contaminated with agrochemical run-off.

Organic farming and other alternative technologies are intensively studied in laboratories and experimental plots worldwide, but examples of implementation by farmers remain scattered and isolated. Cuba offers us the very first large-scale test of these alternatives, perhaps our only chance before we are all forced to make this transformation, to see what works and what doesn't, what problems and which solutions will come up along the way.

Rapid modernisation

From the Cuban revolution in 1959 through the end of the 1980s, Cuba's economic development was characterised by rapid modernisation, a high degree of social equity and welfare and strong external dependency. While most quality of life indicators were in the high positive range, Cuba depended upon its socialist trading partners for petroleum, industrial equipment and supplies, agricultural inputs such as fertiliser and pesticides and foodstuffs — possibly as much as 57% of the total calories consumed by the population.

Cuban agriculture was based on large-scale, capital-intensive monoculture. More than 90% of fertilisers and pesticides, or the ingredients to make them, were imported from abroad. This demonstrates the degree of dependency exhibited by this style of farming, and the vulnerability of the island's economy to international market forces.

When trade relations with the socialist bloc collapsed in 1990, pesticide and fertiliser imports dropped by about 80%, and the availability of petroleum for agriculture dropped by a half. Food imports also fell by more than a half. Suddenly, an agricultural system almost as modern and industrialised as that of California was faced with a dual challenge: the need to essentially double food production while more than halving inputs — and at the same time maintaining export crop production so as not to further erode the country's desperate foreign exchange position.

In some ways Cuba was uniquely prepared to face this challenge. With only 2% of Latin America's population but 11% of its scientists and a well-developed research infrastructure, the government was able to call for "knowledge-intensive" technological innovation to substitute for the now unavailable inputs. Luckily an "alternative agriculture" movement had taken hold among Cuban researchers as early as 1982, and many promising research results — which had previously remained relatively unused — were available for immediate and widespread implementation.

Alternative model

Though the technological changes in agriculture might be viewed pessimistically as short-term responses to crisis, Cubans are quick to claim that this is a long overdue structural transformation. Planning authorities within the Agriculture Ministry have officially decreed that all new development of agriculture be based on what they call the "Alternative Model", which they contrast with the "Classical Model" of conventional modern agriculture.

They say that the Classical Model was always inappropriate for Cuban conditions, having been imposed by European socialist bloc technicians. In this conceptual framework, the Classical Model is based on extensive monoculture of foreign crop species, primarily for export.

It is highly mechanised and requires a continuous supply of imported technology and inputs. It promotes dependence on international markets and, through mechanisation, drives migration of people from rural areas to the city. Finally, it rapidly degrades the basis for continued productivity, through the erosion, compaction and salinisation of soils, and the development of pesticide resistance among insect pests and crop diseases.

The Alternative Model seeks to promote ecologically sustainable production by replacing the dependence on heavy farm machinery and chemical inputs with animal traction, crop and pasture rotation, soil conservation, organic soil inputs, biological pest control and what the Cubans call biofertilisers and biopesticides — microbial pesticides and fertilisers that are non-toxic to humans.

The Alternative Model requires the reincorporation of rural populations into agriculture — through both their labour and their knowledge of traditional farming techniques and their active participation in the generation of new, more appropriate technologies. This model is designed to stem the rural-urban flood of migrants, and to provide food security for the population.

It is virtually identical to alternatives proposed in the US, Latin America, Europe and elsewhere — differing only in one key respect. While it represents a utopian vision for the rest of us, it is now government policy and agricultural practice in Cuba.

A non-governmental organisation is playing a pivotal role in what might be called the institutionalisation of the Alternative Model. The Cuban Association for Organic Farming is composed of ecological agriculture activists ranging from university professors and students to mid-level government functionaries, farmers and farm managers. It is struggling on a shoestring budget to carry out an educational campaign on the virtues and indeed the necessity of the model.

Food First is working with the association and with a Cuban university — the Advanced Institute for Agricultural Sciences of Havana (ISCAH) — on a project to document the transformation of agriculture, with particular emphasis on the evaluation of the efficacy of the new technologies, in terms of economic productivity as well as environmental and social indicators.


Cuba is undergoing large-scale conversion from conventional agriculture to organic or semi-organic farming. Empirical evidence from the US and elsewhere demonstrates that it can take anywhere from three to five years from the initiation of the conversion process to achieve the levels of productivity that prevailed beforehand, because it takes time to restore lost soil fertility and to re-establish natural controls of insect and disease populations.

Yet Cuba does not have three to five years — its population must be fed in the short term. Cuban scientists and planners are shortening this process by bringing sophisticated, "cutting edge" biotechnology to bear on the development of new organic farming practices.

This is not the environmentally dangerous genetic engineering version of biotechnology of US agriculture, but rather a locally controlled variety based on the mass production of naturally occurring organisms to be used as biopesticides and biofertilisers. Cuba is demystifying biotechnology for developing countries — showing that it does not have to rely on multimillion-dollar infrastructure and super-specialised scientists.

Among the alternatives being used to offer insect control, the most important are conventional biological control based on mass releases of parasitic and predatory insects, and the use of biopesticides. In the latter area, Cuba is substantially more advanced than other Latin American countries and compares favourably to the US.

Cubans produce numerous formulations of bacterial and fungal diseases of insect pests which are applied to crops in lieu of chemical insecticides. A total of 218 artisan biotechnology centres located on agricultural cooperatives produce these products of cutting-edge technology for local use. They are typically produced by people in their 20s, born on the cooperative, who have received some university-level training. While industrial production of these biopesticides will soon be under way for use in larger farming operations that produce for export, it remains most remarkable that the sons and daughters of campesinos can make the products of biotechnology in remote rural areas.

Furthermore, Cuban use of biofertilisers in commercial agriculture is unrivalled in the world, including not only standard Rhizobium inoculants for leguminous crops, but also free living bacteria that make atmospheric nitrogen available for other crops. Perhaps of greatest importance for other developing countries, Cubans are mass producing solubilising bacteria which make phosphorous, which in many tropical areas is bound to soil particles, available for uptake by crop plants.

As agricultural scientists, environmentalists, and concerned citizens, we can say that the experiment in agricultural alternatives currently under way in Cuba is unprecedented, with potentially enormous implications for other countries suffering from the declining sustainability of conventional agricultural production.

We call upon the international community to support the efforts of Cuban farmers, scientists and planners to remake their agriculture in a more independent and sustainable fashion, and to pay close attention to the lessons we may learn from both successes and failures in Cuba. One key element of such support is to press strenuously for the lifting of the US trade embargo that is causing such suffering among the Cuban people.
[Peter Rosset is the executive director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy (Food First). He holds a PhD in agricultural ecology from the University of Michigan, and recently led the International Scientific Delegation and Fact Finding Mission on Low Input Sustainable Agriculture in Cuba. Shea Cunningham is a research assistant at Food First.]

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