January 01, 2016

The Back Page: Cuba’s Alternative Agriculture

Jonathan Scoll

Imagine if a country suddenly stopped all agricultural chemical use. Cuba involuntarily undertook such a countrywide “experiment” in 1990, when agricultural chemical imports virtually ceased with the demise of the Soviet Union. A system of highly mechanized, high external input agriculture, based on sugar cane, collapsed. Widespread starvation soon followed.

The Castro regime responded by making food a priority. It broke up Soviet-style collective farms into sizes manageable without gasoline-powered machinery or farm chemicals. It organized farmers’ cooperatives and a system of organopónicos, locally tended organic garden beds. Cuba’s universities and government devoted intensive efforts to research and extension in low external input agriculture.

State domination of agriculture remains a drag on productivity and farm income. The visitor to Cuba today hears a wry joke: “I pretend to work,” a farmer says, “and the state pretends to pay me.” Much farmland appears undercultivated or choked by marabú, an invasive shrub. Plots are small, and using draft animals in place of tractors is common. Havana lacks the large, colorful markets typical of other Latin countries. State stores, where Cubans line up with ration cards, are bleak and poorly stocked. A substantial amount of food still has to be imported.

Yet for all this, Cuba is adequately fed, thanks largely to its development of an entrepreneurial, albeit labor-intensive, community-scale urban agriculture. A web of organic gardens in backyards, vacant lots—even roadway shoulders—produces food at significant scale using biopesticides, intercropping, biological complementarity, composting, and water harvesting—methods with no geographic or political limitations.

Professor William Moseley of Macalester College notes that Cuban universities have been forced to develop substantial intellectual capital in what is now termed agro-ecology, a field in which the United States conducts only limited research. In contrast, he says, U.S. agribusiness, government, and academia remain firmly wedded to the post World War II–era “Green Revolution” narrative that only a hydrocarbon-intensive chemical agriculture can stave off global famine.

Moseley fears that as trade and diplomatic relations resume between the two countries, the United States will re-export this ideology to Cuba. A better social and environmental outcome, he says, would be an “equitable exchange of ideas between the United States and Cuban scientific communities” on agro-ecology. U.S. agriculture “would certainly benefit from a more robust set of alternatives, and American scientists could learn a lot from their Cuban counterparts.”

Moseley’s colleague at Macalester, Professor Amy Damon, sees something resembling convergence. Eventually, she believes, in response to climate change and environmental pollution, America’s use of high external agricultural inputs will diminish. At the same time, limited chemical pesticide use can afford Cuba’s farmers relief from the onerous hand labor of wholly organic cultivation.

Damon observes that climate change already compels third-world subsistence farmers to intensify their soil and land stewardship, or else perish. Sooner or later, even in the United States, she says, “something’s got to give.”

And when it does, Cuba’s hard-earned lesson will be there for the taking.

Jonathan Scoll

Jonathan Scoll is a member of the editorial board of Natural Resources & Environment. He may be reached at jonscoll@gmail.com.