[permaculture] The greening of Cuba - Organic farming in Cuba

Lawrence London lfljvenaura at gmail.com
Mon Jun 15 03:44:39 EDT 2015

*The greening of Cuba - Organic farming in Cuba*

Date: Thu, 31 Mar 1994 02:52:51 -0800
From: Hank Roth <pnews at igc.apc.org>

Written  7:19 pm  Mar 29, 1994 by foodfirst at igc.apc.org in igc:dev.foodfirst
"Organic Farming in Cuba"

Food First Action Alert
Institute for Food & Development Policy
Please read informational material on the Institute at the
end of this piece.


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
U.S. trade embargo has recently 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-eighties, shortages have led to the
rationing of everything. There is virtually no item that a
Cuban can buy with pesos that does not require a ration card.
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 of the Cuban people, however, there have
been some remarkable innovations that have  not been widely
reported outside of Cuba. It is far too early to say whether
these developments will be sufficient to help Cuba weather
the present storm, but they do offer some hope in contrast to
the generally bleak outlook. These changes run from the
legalization of small-scale private enterprise, to the
privatization of the state farm sector in the form of
worker's cooperatives, both within the past six months. This
Action Alert focuses on another recent development: the
technological transformation of Cuban agriculture in response
to a massive drop in pesticide and fertilizer 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 -- and possibly a life and
death gamble -- for the Cuban people, it is also a critically
important experiment for the rest of the world. Whether we
are citizens of the United States, Mexico, Germany or
Thailand, we must all confront the declining productivity and
environmental destructiveness of what passes for  modern

As soils are progressively eroded because of their 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, crops
yields are in decline, even as aquifers and estuaries are
contaminated with agrichemical 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.

Cuba before and after the collapse of the socialist bloc

>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 equity and welfare,
and strong external dependency. While most quality of life
indicators were in the high positive range (see Box 1), 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

Cuban agriculture was based on large-scale, capital-intensive
monoculture, more similar in many ways to the Central Valley
of California than to the typical Latin American minifundio
or small-scale farm. More than 90% 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 in 1990,
pesticide and fertilizer 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 industrialized 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.

Box 1: Selected social indicators from Cuba in 1989, prior to
the collapse of trade relations with the socialist bloc,
ranked in comparison to all of Latin America.

Category                            Rank

Average daily caloric intake            2
Average daily protein intake            4
Infant mortality                    lowest
Life expectancy                 2
Doctors per person                  1
Scientists per person               1
Housing per family                  1
Tractors per unit of farm land          1
Yields of grain crops               2
Theater attendance                  1
Museum attendance                   1
Movie attendance                    1
Average of health & education indicators    1

Source: Rosset & Benjamin, 1994

Mobilizing science and technology to respond to the crisis

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.

The Alternative Model vs. the Classical 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 declared 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 (see Box 2). 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 mechanized, and
requires a continuous supply of imported technology and
inputs. It promotes dependence on international markets and,
through mechanization, drives migration of 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 rotations, soil
conservation, organic soil inputs, biological pest control,
and what the Cubans call biofertilizers and biopesticides --
microbial pesticides and fertilizers that are non-toxic to
humans. 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 U.S., 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.

Box 2: Translation of a chart circulated to all planning
personnel by the Cuban Ministry of Agriculture.  "Classical
Model vs. Alternative Model"

Classical Model (originating fundamentally in developed

- External dependence
    - of the country on other countries
    - of provinces on the country
    - of localities on the province & the country

- Cutting edge technology
    - imported raw materials for animal feed
    - widespread utilization of chemical pesticides and
    - utilization of modern irrigation systems
    - consumption of fuel and lubricants

- Tight relationship between bank credit and production; high
interest rates

- Priority given to mechanization as a production technology

- Introduction of new crops at the expense of autochthonous

crops and production systems

- Search for efficiency through intensification and

- Real possibility of investing in production and

- Accelerated rural exodus

- To satisfy ever increasing needs has ever more ecological
or environmental consequences, such as soil erosion,
salinization, waterlogging, etc.

Alternative Model

- Maximum advantage taken of:
    - the land
    - human resources of the zone or locality
    - broad community participation
    - cutting edge technology, but appropriate to the zone
where it is used
    - organic fertilizers and crop rotation
    - biological control of pests
    - biological cycles and seasonality of crops and animals
    - natural energy sources
        - hydro (rivers, dams, etc.)
        - wind
        - solar
        - slopes, biomass, etc.
    - animal traction
    - rational use of pastures and forage for both  grazing
and feedlots, search for locally supplied animal nutrition

- Diversification of crops and autochthonous production
systems based on accumulated knowledge

- Introduction of scientific practices that correspond to the
particulars of each zone; new varieties of crops and animals,
planting densities, seed treatments, post-harvest storage,

- Preservation of the environment and the ecosystem

- Need for systematic training (management, nutritional,

- Systematic technical assistance

- Promote cooperation among producers, within and between

- Obstacles to overcome:
    - difficulties in the commercialization of agricultural
products because of the number of intermediaries.  Control
over the market and its particulars.
    - poverty among the peasantry
    - the distances to markets and urban centers (lack of
sufficient roads and means of transport, etc.)
    - illiteracy

Source: Rosset & Benjamin, 1994

A Cuban NGO

A rare phenomenon in Cuba - a non-governmental organization,
or NGO, is playing a pivotal role in what might be called the
institutionalization 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 shoe-string budget to
carry out an educational campaign on the virtues and indeed
the necessity of the alternative 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.

Conversion from conventional agriculture to organic farming

Cuba is undergoing large scale conversion from conventional
agriculture to organic or semi-organic farming. Empirical
evidence from the U.S. 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. 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 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 not the environmentally dangerous
genetic engineering version of biotechnology that we see in
U.S. agriculture, but rather a locally controlled variety
based on the mass production of naturally occurring organisms
to be used as biopesticides and biofertilizers. 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

Elements of the Alternative Model

During several trips to Cuba I and other agricultural
scientists have been able to document the development and
implementation of alternatives in the areas of pest and soil
management, labor mobilization, and participatory methods for
generating new technology.

Management of crop pests

Among the alternative tactics 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 favorably to the U.S. 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 artesanal 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.

Furthermore, Cuban use of biofertilizers in commercial
agriculture is unrivaled in the world, including not only
standard Rhizobium inoculants for luguminous 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 solubilizing
bacteria which make phosphorous, which in many tropical areas
is bound to soil particles, available for uptake by crop

An experiment that the world should be watching

It is unclear whether the widespread implementation of an
alternative model of agricultural development will, in
conjunction with other government policies, allow Cuba to
emerge from the crisis wrought by the collapse of the
socialist bloc. As agricultural scientists,
environmentalists, and concerned citizens however, we can say
that the experiment in agricultural alternatives currently
underway in Cuba is unprecedented, with potentially enormous
implications for other countries suffering from the declining
sustainability of conventional agricultural production.

What Can We Do?

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 pressure strenuously for the
lifting of the U.S. trade embargo that is causing such
suffering among the Cuban people. One simple and important
way to participate is to write a letter to President Clinton
stating your opposition to the embargo. And, to both learn
more about Cuba and to provide international solidarity, join
a "Reality Tour" or a "Freedom to Travel Challenge" trip to
Cuba with Global Exchange, 2017 Mission St. #303, San
Francisco, CA 94110, 415-255-7296. To further support Cuba's
new agricultural development strategy, donate money to Food
First's collaborative project with the Cuban Association for
Organic Farming and the Advanced Institute for Agricultural
Sciences of Havana (ISCAH). The University of California at
Berkeley and the Latin American Consortium for Agroecology
and Development (an NGO network) are also cooperating in this
effort. And finally, for more extensive reading on Cuba's
agricultural transformation, order The Greening of Cuba: A
National Experiment in Organic Agriculture, the new book by
Peter Rosset and Medea Benjamin.

* Peter Rosset is the Executive Director of the Institute for
Food and Development Policy (Food First). He holds a Ph.D 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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>From werner at zzyx.UCSC.EDU Mon Apr  4 22:38:13 1994
Date: Mon, 4 Apr 1994 16:10:42 -0700
From: Mat Werner <werner at zzyx.UCSC.EDU>
To: dickr at utxvm.cc.utexas.edu
Cc: sanet-mg at oes.orst.edu
Subject: Cuba

Hello Dick,
Yes, I read the Cuba issue of Ag & Human Values ans was very interested. In
fact I just visited Cuba, as part of a sustainable ag fact-finding delegation
with Paul Gersper of UC-Berkeley and a varied assortment of 2 dozen other
US Americans. The Cubans are hungry, and they are doing some very inspiring
things to respond to the crisis. Levin's comments were instructive because
they gave me a historical context for what is happening in Cuba. Apparently
the ecological movement has been growing for some time in Cuba, and conditions
in the past 5 years have pushed that movement into the forefront of Cuba's
desperate efforts to survive. I hope they can make it, because what they are
doing right now can provide a model for the rest of the world. So that when
we hit our crisis...

I am interested in conntinuing a dialog with other folks who are following
Cuban agriculture and environmentalism. Keep in "touch"

Matt Werner
UCSC Agroecology Program

PS. as a soil biologist, my big interest in Cuba was vermiculture, which the

Cubans are conducting on a large scale to replace lost fertilizers. I was very

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