Organic Farming in Cuba

by Peter Rosset

HAVANA - Times are changing in the Cuban countryside. Since September 1993, all state farms, which once occupied 80 percent of the nation's farmland, have been privatized. They are now employee-owned shareholder enterprises. Farmers' markets - an experiment in free-market pricing that was initiated and then quickly abandoned in the 1980s - have been re-opened to rave reviews from the populace. And, suddenly organic farming has become the norm in a country that prided itself on the most industrialized, chemical-intensive agricultural sector in Latin America.

The driving force in these changes has been economic crisis. Since the 1989 collapse of trading relations with the former socialist bloc, imports of agrochemicals have dropped by more than 80 percent. Tractors are idle for lack of spare parts and petroleum, and the government is searching desperately for ways to provide incentives so that farmers will up their food production in the face of these difficulties. Yet in the midst of crisis, something is happening with positive implications that reach far beyond Cuban shores.

Cuban Agriculture in Perspective

 From the Cuban revolution in 1959 through the collapse of trading relations with the socialist bloc at the end of the 1980s, Cuba's economic development was characterized by rapid modernization, a high degree of social welfare and equity, and strong external dependency. While it ranked high on most quality of life indicators, Cuba depended upon its socialist trading partners for petroleum, industrial equipment and supplies, agricultural inputs such as fertilizer and pesticides, and foodstuffs. Possibly as much as 57 percent of the total calories consumed by the population came from foreign suppliers.

 Cuban agriculture was based on large-scale, capital-intensive mono-culture, more similar in many ways to the Central Valley of California than to the typical Latin American small-scale farm. More than 90 percent of fertilizers 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, pesticides and fertilizers virtually disappeared, and the availability of petroleum for agriculture dropped by half. Food imports also fell by more than a half. Suddenly, an agricultural system almost as modern and industrialized as that of California was faced with a three-pronged challenge: 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.

 The result is that Cuba is currently undergoing a conversion from modern conventional agriculture to organic or semi-organic farming. The government has adopted a strategy of mobilizing Cuba's substantial scientific infrastructure - both physical plant and human resources - to substitute native technology for the no longer available inputs. Thus, farmers are combining what the Cubans call biopesticides and biofertilizers (Cuban- made microbial pesticides and fertilizers that are non-toxic to humans) with earthworm culture, waste recycling, biological pest control, composting and other ecologically rational practices in an attempt to avert a catastrophic shortfall of food availability for the population. At the same time, government planners are creating the smaller scale management units that are essential for effective organic farming, and providing ownership incentives to farmers. Government officials hope that in combination with the freeing of prices, these steps will lead to higher yields and less diversion to the black market.

A new model

 In some ways, Cuba was uniquely prepared to face this challenge. With only 2 percent of Latin America's population but 11 percent 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.

 Planning authorities within the Cuban Agriculture Ministry speak of 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 advisers. In this conceptual framework, the Classical Model is based on extensive monoculture of foreign crop species, primarily grown for export. It is highly mechanized, and requires a continuous supply of imported technology and inputs. It promotes dependence on international markets and, through mechanization, drives people from rural areas to the city. Finally, it rapidly degrades the basis for continued productivity, through the erosion, compaction and salinization of soils, and the development of pesticide resistance among insect pests and crop diseases.

 The Alternative Model, on the other hand, 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 biofertilizers and biopesticides. The Alternative Model requires the reincorporation of rural populations into agriculture - through both their labor as well as 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 nation's population. It is virtually identical to alternatives proposed in the United States, Latin America, Europe and elsewhere - differing only in one key respect. While it represents a utopian vision elsewhere in the world, it is now government policy and increasingly agricultural practice in Cuba.

Demystifying Biotechnology

 What is happening in Cuba is the largest conversion in world history from conventional agriculture to organic or semi-organic farming. Empirical evidence from the United States and elsewhere demonstrates that it can take anywhere from three to seven years from the initiation of the conversion process to achieve the levels of productivity that prevailed beforehand. That is 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 seven years - its population must be fed in the short term. Cuban scientists and planners are therefore attempting to shorten this process by bringing sophisticated biotechnology to bear on the development of new organic farming practices.

 In the United States, biotechnology is often associated with the release of genetically engineered organisms into the environment, posing ecological and public health risks that are not consistent with the goals of organic farming. What the Cubans are doing is different. They have collected locally occurring strains of microorganisms that perform useful functions in natural ecosystems. These range from disease microbes that are specific to certain crop pests, and thus non-toxic to other forms of life, to other microorganisms that fix atmospheric nitrogen and make it available to crop plants or that aid in normal processes of nutrient cycling. These are then reproduced massively to be used as biopesticides and biofertilizers in agroecosystems. Some such products are available commercially in the United States as well, but Cuba is way ahead in terms of the diversity of such biological preparations that are in widespread use.

 A total of 222 artisanal biotechnology centers located on agricultural cooperatives produce these products of cutting-edge technology for local use. They are typically produced by people in their twenties, 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 scale 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. In this sense, Cuba is demystifying biotechnology for developing countries - showing that it does not have to rely on multi- million dollar infrastructure and super-specialized scientists, but rather can be grasped and put into production even on peasant cooperatives.

 Cuba is like the United States in that both countries face labor shortages in agriculture, yet both are experiencing booms in organic farming, which is normally very labor intensive. Eighty percent of the Cuban population lives in urban areas and only 20 percent is rural, (the U.S. figure for urbanization is in the high 90s). Cuba and the United States thus need more labor-saving technology for organic farming than does a country like China, where the vast majority of the population continues to live in the countryside; hence the emphasis on biotechnology in Cuba.

Controversial changes

 Cuba's shift to organic agriculture is not taking place without controversy. There is a dynamic debate underway inside the country, a debate which cuts across the agricultural sector, from government ministries, universities and research centers, to production units and associations of producers. One common point of view holds that what is taking place is not a process of conversion, but rather a temporary substitution during a period of crisis. This viewpoint holds that once trade conditions change, agrochemical inputs should once again be used vigorously. The opposite point of view, put forth by the Cuban Association for Organic Farming, a non-governmental organization, holds that the previous model was too import-dependent and environmentally damaging to be sustainable, that the present change is long overdue and that further transformations are needed to develop truly rational production systems. One can find people who hold each viewpoint in virtually any setting, and one can hear discussion of these issues almost anywhere.

 As soils are progressively eroded from exposure to the elements, compacted by heavy machinery, salinized by excessive irrigation and sterilized with methyl bromide, and as pests become ever more resistant to pesticides, crop yields decline and aquifers and estuaries become contaminated with agrochemical run-off. Cuba offers the very first large- scale test of more sustainable alternatives, perhaps the only chance to see what works and what doesn't, before environmental realities mandate the rest of the world embark on a sudden, wholesale switch to organic agriculture.