The Greening of Cuba: Organic Farming Offers Hope

By Rosset, Peter | Canadian Dimension, June-July 1995 | Go to article overview

The Greening of Cuba: Organic Farming Offers Hope

Rosset, Peter, Canadian Dimension

Times are hard in Cuba. The collapse of the socialist bloc has led to an estimated 85 per cent 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 per cent 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 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 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, salinized by excessive irrigation and sterilized 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.

From the Cuban revolution in 1959 through 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, Cuba depended upon its socialist trading partners for petroleum, industrial equipment and supplies, agricultural inputs such as fertilizer and pesticides and food stuffs -- possibly as much as 57 per cent of the total calories consumed by the population.

Cuban agriculture was based on large-scale, capital-intensive monoculture. More than 90 per cent 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 per cent, 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.

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

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