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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Organic Food Revolution in Cuba

Air Date: Week of

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union four years ago, Cuba's supply of fertilizers and pesticides was cut back 80 percent, its fuel supply cut in half. Now, there is an urgent need for the country to feed its people . . . but there is no money to buy farm chemicals or oil. So Cubans have turned to organic farming on a national scale. It's a high risk gamble that uses plows and oxen instead of tractors and turbines . . . and biological pest controls instead of chemical pesticides. Reporter Bruce Gellerman traveled to Cuba to find out what farmers have learned . . . and what lessons the experiment holds for sustainable growers around the world.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. When Cuba was still a bright star in the orbit of the Soviet Union, the island-nation was able to get a great price for its sugar from its vast plantations. And with that sugar money from the Soviet Bloc, Cuba bought food from abroad along with oil, fertilizer, and pesticides. But as the Berlin Wall fell, so did the artificial price for Cuban sugar. And the Castro government was suddenly faced with having to feed its own population, without enough foreign exchange to buy food or the petrochemicals needed in modern agriculture. So, in a bold and desperate experiment, Cuba is trying to feed itself with organic farming. From Havana, Bruce Gellerman has our story.

(Ocean waves washing up on the beach)

GELLERMAN: The shores of Havana are quiet. Gone for now are the desperate scenes of Cubans casting themselves adrift onto the sea, hoping their pathetic rafts made of oil drums and inner tubes would catch the current that would take them to Florida. The refugee crisis of last summer is over, but the domestic crisis which prompted it is not. Food is scarce in Cuba; there are shortages of everything, and everything is rationed.

(Sound of a motorized tram)

GELLERMAN: Meat is almost never available. On a street in Havana, a medical doctor asks for money to buy milk for his infant. It's supposed to be available for children, but a liter costs nearly an average month's salary. The situation here is sad and bleak.

(Music at a restaurant)

GELLERMAN: A band in a Havana restaurant plays "Midnight in Moscow." Peter Rosset, an agricultural expert from the United States, says the song is a fitting metaphor for why Cuba is unable to feed its people. Cuba was heavily dependent upon the East Bloc for food and agricultural products, and the demise of the Soviet Union 4 years ago plunged Cuba into a deep food crisis.

ROSSET: Cuba's lost ground. Some estimates say that there's been as much as a 30% drop in average consumption of food by the population since the collapse of trade relations.

GELLERMAN: Since 1990, Cuba has effectively lost 80% of its farm inputs: pesticides and fertilizers and half the petroleum it had used for agriculture. Yet Rosset believes urgent necessity has created an unprecedented opportunity for a new era in food production, with possibly profound consequences for Cuba, and perhaps the world.

ROSSET: First step forward out of the crisis is finding ways to produce food without relying on the inputs that were imported in the past.

GELLERMAN: Rosset is the director of the California-based Institute for Food and Development Policy, or Food First. He's a frequent visitor to Cuba and the author of the book The Greening of the Revolution: Cuba's Experiment with Organic Farming. He says that faced with mass starvation and the loss of farm imports, Cuba had no other choice but to discard the classical model of modern agriculture, the so-called Green Revolution with its intensive use of chemicals and machinery, and try a high-risk gamble.

ROSSET: What we have right now in Cuba is the cut-off of the availability of chemical fertilizers and pesticides for agriculture. The most widespread conversion, therefore, to alternative agriculture that we've ever seen in any country in the world - whoever would have expected that Fidel Castro would export the organic farming revolution?

(Harvesting: crops being shorn)

GELLERMAN: Castro has ordered that all new farm projects in Cuba follow the alternative agricultural method. No other nation has ever made such an ambitious effort to replace chemical-intensive agriculture with low-input sustainable technologies.

(Farmer giving instructions [in Spanish]; sound of plows being pulled)

GELLERMAN: On cooperative farms across the island-nation, campesinos use teams of oxen to pull single-blade plows through their fields while Soviet-made tractors sit idly by. To conserve precious fuel, Fidel Castro has ordered that hundreds of thousands of oxen be bred to do field work. Using animals instead of tractors is labor-intensive, back-breaking work, but it has distinct advantages that were lost when Cuba, and most of the rest of the world, made the switch to industrial agriculture. Dr. Miguel Altieri is visiting Cuba from the University of California at Berkeley, where he teaches alternative agricultural methods. He says besides saving fuel, oxen don't compact and compress the soil the way heavy machines do. And after the rainy season the oxen can be used in the field weeks before tractors can. The animal manure helps fertilize the soil. Altieri says it's part of an approach he calls agro-ecology.

ALTIERI: The principles of agro-ecology are basically that we need to develop systems that somehow emulate what nature does. So what we do is we set up systems of agriculture that are based on principles like diversification, crop rotations and polycultures, that is mixing of crops, and integration of animals.

GELLERMAN: It sounds a lot like what agriculture was before the Green Revolution.

ALTIERI: Yeah. Well, actually, agro-ecology is based on the principles that farmers for thousands of years have used in the Third World.

GELLERMAN: The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization has brought Altieri and Peter Rosset to Cuba to help the country make the transition to agro-ecological methods. Rosset says in many ways, the conversion to organic farming in Cuba means going back to the future, recovering and building upon much of the wisdom of an earlier age.

ROSSET: It's only since World War II that chemical fertilizers and chemical pesticides have come into widespread use. Before that, crops were produced and pests were controlled with various kinds of techniques that today we call alternative, but in the past were actually normal.

GELLERMAN: Before the Green Revolution and the intensive use of petroleum-based chemicals, farmers used biological methods to control insects and plant diseases. They used natural pesticides like soaps and predatory bugs to control pests, planted different kinds of crops together to keep down weeds, and carefully monitored their land for pest infestations. Today, across Cuba, farmers and researchers are reviving practices like these, but with a very modern twist.

(Voices in the open, clanking metal, birdsong)

GELLERMAN: Just outside of Havana is a state-of-the-art biotechnology factory, but it certainly doesn't look it. In a converted wooden shed, faded posters of revolutionary Che Guevara and an out of date calendar hang on the walls above steel tables containing a microscope, a heat sterilizer, and devices to measure humidity, temperature, and pH. At this rural biotechnology laboratory, peasant farm workers are growing fungi, bacteria, and viruses to control crop pests. Over the past 4 years Cuba has engaged in a crash program to construct and equip more than 200 rural biotech centers like this one. Dr. Nilda Perez is head of the Department of Entomology at Havana University, where the workers are trained.

PEREZ: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: Look. Come over here, look. The growing room here has all the requirements any growing room should have under normal conditions. The room still has everything needed for production.

GELLERMAN: Despite the modest surrounding and the paltry collection of equipment, Peter Rosett calls this one of the most impressive aspects of Cuba's transition to organic farming.

ROSETT: What's happening is, because pesticides are no longer available, Cubans are taking what we would consider to be cutting-edge biological technology or biotechnology, what they call bio-pesticides, which are microbes that are diseases of insect pests but are non-toxic for human beings and for the environment. In Cuba it's being produced in a sort of an artisanal production technique, on peasant cooperatives, by people who are actually from the area.

GELLERMAN: Most of the technical work here is done by the sons and daughters of local campesinos, using materials that would ordinarily be considered waste.

ROSSET: They take the residue from processing rice, the chaff. They sterilize it in the autoclave. And then they inoculate it with a small amount of fungal spores, and this fungus is a disease of key insect pests in the area, but it's not a disease of anything else so it's non-toxic. They put it in a sealed jar with the sterilized rice chaff and they leave it for a couple of weeks until the fungus has grown all over that rice. Then they take it out, they mix it with water, and they strain it and they get a solution of water with fungal spores. And they take that and they spray it on the crop, and those fungal spores make the insect pests sick and make them die without having to use pesticides.

GELLERMAN: Again, Dr. Nilda Perez.

PEREZ: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: Among the organisms produced in these centers is the fungus bioveria basiana , which is utilized in the control of black insects on plantains and the tetuan weevil that infects sweet potatoes. And we are also growing bacteria to control the sugar bore.

GELLERMAN: Biological pest controls like these are being used across Cuba today in place of the chemical pesticides that had to be imported from the Soviet Bloc.

ROSSET: The most common pesticide that was used in Cuba before was methyl parathion, which is one of the most acutely toxic pesticides in the world. Now they can no longer obtain it, because they no longer have those trade relations. So actually, they've gone from one of the most toxic, acutely toxic insecticides to a completely non-toxic alternative biological pesticide.

GELLERMAN: But there are problems. Dr. Perez says there's a national shortage of glass jars needed to grow the fungal spores. So sometimes they have to use metal trays instead. Dr. Perez says the Achilles Heel of Cuba's biotech revolution is quality control in production and also in application. Educating campesinos in how to switch from rapid-acting chemical pesticides to slower-acting biological ones, she says, can be difficult.

PEREZ: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: If farmers don't keep in mind what they've been told about the doses, the temperature, or the humidity, there's a risk of making an ineffective application. If a person sees that it's not effective, next time he will not apply it. You have to convince the farmer that this is in reality an effective method that will have better results than chemical control despite the fact that he won't see immediate results.

(Water sprinklers)

GELLERMAN: Among the farms where results are being seen is the Iberto Leon Cooperative Farm south of Havana. Modeled on the Soviet system of agriculture, it's typical of the large mechanized operations found throughout Cuba. And not unlike the industrial farms you might find in California. Here, scarce gasoline is used only for things for which there are no substitutes, like irrigation pumps.

CANTERO: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: There we see a good system for irrigation. It's very important to irrigate in our climate.

GELLERMAN: Pedro Luis Cantero is the Co-op's agricultural engineer. He's responsible for the farm's transition to agro-ecological practices. The Co-op mass-releases wasps and flies to kill sweet potato and cassava bugs, and 3 years ago it began using organic pesticides produced at the local peasant laboratory. Cantero is especially proud of his plantains. The plantains are now totally organic: no chemical pesticides or fertilizers are used. Cantero says the fruit now tastes better, and workers no longer get sick from working with chemicals.

CANTERO: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: Friends of ours have been affected as a result of applying chemicals. Our co-workers that are fumigators must have monthly check-ups because the toxicity can ruin your health. But now it has been more than 2 or 3 years since we have had such cases. Why? Because the amount of chemicals has diminished. We have replaced chemical combat with a biological war.

GELLERMAN: Instead of chemical herbicides, workers enter crop plantains with rows of tubers, root crops to control weeds, and plant legumes that put nitrogen into the soil. The farmers also spray biofertilizers, mass-produced bacteria, which in the soil make phosphorus needed by plants. Agro-ecological principles are taking root here, but Cantero's cooperative farm hasn't completely done away with conventional inputs. They still use chemicals to control pests on some sweet potato fields.

(Sound of motors)

GELLERMAN: And because this is a large farm, they sometimes use tractors, but increasingly they are employing oxen to do the work. Three years ago they had just a few of the animals; now they've got 28 and plan to raise more.

FARMER:... dos.

GELLERMAN: So you have an ox instead of a tractor; an animal instead of a tractor.

FARMER: Si. Si, si.

GELLERMAN: If you had your choice - if you had your choice, would you rather do farming this way, or the old way, with tractors and with herbicides and pesticides?

FARMER: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: This is better. The organic method is better because the technology, that's called modern, conventional technology, is based upon the high consumption of inputs.

GELLERMAN: It's taken several years, but yields on the Iberto Leon Cooperative, which declined following the cut-off of Soviet aid, have rebounded. In fact, production is now actually higher than it was before. Statistics are notoriously unreliable in Cuba, but Peter Rosset of Food First says higher yields seem to be the experience at cooperative farms across Cuba. The way he reads the statistics, conversion is starting to show results.

ROSSET: The principle reason for the food shortages now isn't that the alternative agriculture system isn't producing as much as before; actually, they're now producing more food than they produced earlier. So the incredible thing is that they've been able to withstand an 80% drop in pesticide and fertilizer imports and a 50% drop in the availability of petroleum for agriculture, and still maintain production levels of food crops. So their agricultural conversion process has actually been fairly successful, but not enough to compensate for the drop in food imports.

GELLERMAN: Cuba's organic farming revolution is still in its infancy, and even with all the technology in place, it can take 3 to 5 years to get yields using organic practices where they were with conventional methods. Somehow, Cuba has to bridge this gap. It also has to make up for the substantial portion of its food supply that it used to import from the East Bloc. And as the summer's refugee crisis made abundantly clear, Cubans are getting impatient. But, says Peter Rosset, 35 years of social revolution have put Cuba in a better position than most developing countries to speed up the transition.

ROSSET: The advantage that Cuba has is that they're trying to implement knowledge-intensive technologies to replace the capital-intensive technologies they no longer have in order to shorten that time period. They can do that because while Cuba alone only has 2% of the population of Latin America, has 11% of the scientists of Latin America. So they have tremendous human resources that were developed by the social investment of the Revolution. All of these minds are being put to work right now, trying to develop as quickly as possible different kinds of organic farming technologies.

GELLERMAN: But this is only a partial solution. Cuba won't survive its food crisis if its agricultural revolution is limited to technology alone. And Cubans all the way up to Fidel Castro himself know it. What's needed is a whole new way of thinking about farming, about the island's economy, about the organization of Cuban society itself.

(Voices echoing in a room)

GELLERMAN: The training school at the National Association of Small Farmers is part of the effort to transform Cuban society. Cubans come here for month-long courses in farm administration taught by fellow Cubans and visitors like Peter Rosset. And to learn the latest advances in agricultural production. Jose Nance is the school's director.

NANCE: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: One of the functions of the school here is to train people who are just starting out in agriculture. In Cuba, just like everywhere else in the world, we have had this exodus of people from the countryside to the city. But now we have incentives to encourage people to return to the countryside and enter agricultural production. And so an important function of this school is to provide them with training.

GELLERMAN: The incentives for Cubans to return to the farm include patriotic persuasion as well as an appeal to more selfish interests. Those who move to the countryside are promised higher wages, more time off, better housing and food, and a more democratic work place. Organic farming requires that campesinos have more independence and autonomy in the daily running of the farm. So Cuban agriculture is moving away from the Communist top-down management style to one that requires greater participation. And the incentives are beginning to work their way into fundamental economic policy. Partly to support the new approach and spur production, the Cuban government is now letting farmers on state farms and cooperatives sell some of their crops on the open market and keep the profits, with prices set by supply and demand. But even in a country which appears eager for change, there is resistance to this agricultural revolution. Agro-ecologist Miguel Altieri says it can be tough to get people to think about things differently.

ALTIERI: Basically, what we're talking about is replacing one kind of mentality for another. The agro-ecological mentality requires a fundamental review of the way we look at nature and we look at our agriculture. But I think that there's - I would say about 50% of the researchers and professors are already ready to make the change, and another 50% are not. So it's kind of a mixed bag at this point.

GELLERMAN: The Castro government says the switch to organic agriculture is permanent, not merely a strategy for getting through the so-called special period. Still, there's an ongoing debate over whether the nation should return to conventional farming after the special period ends, and conventional inputs are available again. Robert Garcia Trujillo, President of the Cuban Association of Organic Farming.

TRUJILLO: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: Right now we still can't say that should a whole bunch of inputs suddenly show up tomorrow that people wouldn't want to use them. So we have to explain to people that even if foreign exchange should suddenly appear, it would be much better used for other things. Because here in Cuba, we can meet our agricultural needs without having to rely on foreign inputs.

GELLERMAN: For much of its history, Cuba has not been in control of its own destiny. And today the fate of its national experiment with organic agriculture is at least partly in the hands of the United States. There's pressure in the US to bear down on the weakened Castro and force him from power, and on the other hand there's pressure to lift the trade embargo as an inducement to change. Some activists think that whatever the course the US pursues in regard to Cuba's Communist Revolution, it would be a mistake to undermine its new agricultural revolution. For 3 decades the US has isolated Cuba and refused to talk to Castro. Peter Rosset believes now may be the time to listen and to learn.

ROSSET: We have exactly the same problems in the United States. In the US we're suffering the declining productivity of modern agriculture. We now use 3 times as much fertilizer, in many cases to obtain the same yield increase that we got with a third as much 30 years ago. We now use 5 or 10 times as much pesticide to control pests at the same level that 1 or 2 applications achieved 30 years ago. In other words, all of these techniques, all of these modern agricultural techniques are gradually losing their effectiveness. Fertilizers don't work as well as soils are compacted and organic matter is lost. Pesticides don't work as well as pests become resistant to them. So all of us are searching for alternatives. What's interesting is that Cuba is the only case in the world right now where this is taking place on a wide scale. The special period, or the economic crisis in Cuba has forced them to make changes now that the rest of us will eventually have to make anyway. So this is our opportunity to see what this kind of change would be like before we have to do it ourselves: what will work, what won't work. What solutions may come up along the way.

(Water washing on-shore)

GELLERMAN: Hungry Cubans are no longer casting themselves into the sea. Political discussions have put an end to that. But the long-term solution to Cuba's food crisis likely depends on the success of its national experiment in organic farming. And if the United States should end its embargo of Cuba one day, we might want to consider ways to preserve the benefits of its agricultural revolution. For Cuba's well-being, and ours. For Living on Earth, this is Bruce Gellerman.



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