Life after Oil: Cuba's Fossil Fuel Shortage Has Inspired Innovations That Combine Sustainable Agriculture and Renewable Energy

By Zytaruk, Melinda | Alternatives Journal, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Life after Oil: Cuba's Fossil Fuel Shortage Has Inspired Innovations That Combine Sustainable Agriculture and Renewable Energy


Zytaruk, Melinda, Alternatives Journal


ONE OF THE FIRST MISSIONS of the Cuban revolution was to achieve the greatest sugar harvest Cuba had ever seen. World sugar prices were rising in the 1960s and the island was in need of foreign currency to pay for imports and to service its debts. Cuba lost most of its educated class to the US during the revolution, but it did have workers, and a land suited for growing sugar. Sugar could be traded with the Eastern Bloc countries for oil.

This sugar-for-oil relationship fuelled Cuba's energy needs for the first thirty years after the revolution; it also set the terms for agricultural development. Colonial-era sugar plantations became nationalized, monocropped farms. It was a classic case of a socialist economy adopting the same industrial model as the capitalist countries.

That industrial model depends, on oil and petrochemicals. So when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989 and Cuba lost its main trading partner, the impact was severe. Imports were virtually eliminated, oil supplies were cut in more than hall and the economy drew to a halt. Electricity was available for only a few hours a day, it at all, and manufacturing all but ceased. Without fuel for transportation, food that was produced in rural areas on large state farms could not be delivered to the cities to feed the urban majority. People tell stories of truckloads of rotting tomatoes getting stuck halfway between the farm and the city, broken down with no parts for repair, or simply out of gas. Cut off from imported foods such as meats, grains and processed foods, Cuba had to produce almost all its food domestically. But it also lacked the petrochemicals needed to maintain the sugar fields and the fuel for transportation, large machinery and electricity. (1)

A crisis was declared and the "special period in peace time" began. Dramatic changes in the way Cuba practiced and thought about food production and energy were needed. Sugar and oil were not just exchangable resources, but part of interconnected systems: a self-sufficient, sustainable food system was going to require more energy efficient practices; moreover, agriculture could be a key source of renewable energy. These insights--and sheer necessity--have led Cuba to some remarkable innovations.

Agricultural revolution

Many Cubans recognized early on the unsustainability of their country's development path. Biological pest management and other environmental alternatives, such as the conversion of waste into fertilizer and the generation of renewable energy, were already being explored on an experimental basis before the special period was announced. Overnight, the implementation of these experiments became an immediate priority.

One of the first initiatives was to turn un-used city plots into large vegetable gardens for feeding the urban community. The success of this urban, organic gardening has earned Cuba international recognition and praise. (2) Lesser known are the many initiatives in the countryside that have combined energy and agricultural innovation to create a countrywide shift to organic, low-energy input agriculture.

Without imported petrochemicals or access to the materials to make their own petroleum-based pesticides, fertilizers and other agro-chemicals, Cuba needed to find immediate alternatives for pest management and soil regeneration.

A biological strategy for producing healthy crops was developed. Soil health is built up and maintained by farming in smaller plots, rotating and mixing crops, tilling some crops into the ground to feed the soil, and close monitoring of crops and soil quality by scientists and farmers themselves.

But the country could not afford to wait the three to ten years it can take for soil to recover from conventional agriculture to support organic agriculture. So, in addition, Cuba turned to science and invested heavily in its biotechnology sector, likely, for outsiders, the most controversial aspect of its organic agriculture program.

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Life after Oil: Cuba's Fossil Fuel Shortage Has Inspired Innovations That Combine Sustainable Agriculture and Renewable Energy
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