What about Cuba?

Sustainable Agriculture – A Case Study
Source: Peter M. Rosset is co-director of Food First/The Institute for Food and Development Policy . He has a Ph.D. in agricultural ecology and teaches at Stanford University.

When trade collapsed with the socialist bloc in late 1989 and 1990, the degree to which Cuba relied on monocrop agriculture proved to be a major weakness for the country. Searching for the most efficient solution, the Cuban government launched a national effort to convert the nation’s agricultural sector from high input agriculture to low input, self-reliant farming practices on an unprecedented scale. By mid-1995 the food shortage had been overcome, and the vast majority of the population no longer faced drastic reductions of their basic food supply. In the 1996-97 growing season Cuba recorded its highest-ever production levels for ten of the thirteen basic food items in the Cuban diet. The Cuban experience illustrates that we can feed a nation’s population well with a small or medium-sized farm model based on appropriate ecological technology, and in doing so we can become more self-reliant in food production.

A Brief History
Even before the revolution, individual peasant producers were a small part of the agricultural scene. The rural economy was dominated by export plantations, and the population as a whole was highly urbanized. The state farm sector and a substantial portion of the cooperatives were highly modernized, with large areas of monocrops worked under heavy mechanization, fertilizer and pesticide use, and large-scale irrigation. This style of farming, originally copied from the advanced capitalist countries by the Soviet Union, was highly dependent on imports of machinery, petroleum, and chemicals. When trade collapsed with the socialist bloc, the degree to which Cuba relied on monocrop agriculture proved to be a major weakness of the revolution.
Suddenly, a country with an agricultural sector technologically similar to California’s found itself almost without chemical inputs, with sharply reduced access to fuel and irrigation, and with a collapse in food imports.
In response to this crisis the Cuban government launched a national effort to convert the nation’s agricultural sector from high input agriculture to low input, self-reliant farming practices on an unprecedented scale.
Because of the drastically reduced availability of chemical inputs, the state hurried to replace them with locally produced, and in most cases biological, substitutes. This has meant biopesticides (microbial products) and natural enemies to combat insect pests, resistant plant varieties, crop rotations and microbial antagonists to combat plant pathogens, and better rotations, and cover cropping to suppress weeds. Synthetic fertilizers have been replaced by biofertilizers, earthworms, compost, other organic fertilizers, natural rock phosphate, animal and green manures, and the integration of grazing animals. In place of tractors, for which fuel, tyres, and spare parts were largely unavailable, there has been a sweeping return to animal traction.
Gradually the national ox herd was built up to provide animal traction as a substitute for tractors, and the production of biopesticides and biofertilizers was rapidly stepped up.
Finally, a series of methods like vermicomposting (earthworm composting) of residues and green manuring became widespread production above previous levels. How can we explain the difference between the state- and small-farm sectors?
It really was not all that difficult for the small farm sector to effectively produce with fewer inputs.

After all, today’s small farmers are the descendants of generations of small farmers, with long family and community traditions of low-input production.
They basically did two things: remembered the old techniques—like intercropping and manuring—that their parents and grandparents had used before the advent of modern chemicals, and simultaneously incorporated new biopesticides and biofertilizers into their production practices.
The government began several years before to experiment with a program called “linking people with the land.”
This system made small work teams directly responsible for all aspects of production in a given parcel of land, allowing remuneration to be directly linked to productivity.
In agroecological farming, whoever manages the farm must be intimately familiar with the ecological heterogeneity of each individual patch of soil. The farmer must know, for example, where organic matter needs to be added, and where pest and natural enemy refuges and entry points are.
In the 1996-97 growing season Cuba recorded its highest-ever production levels for ten of the thirteen basic food items in the Cuban diet. The production increases came primarily from small farms, and in the case of eggs and pork, from booming backyard production. The proliferation of urban farmers who produce fresh produce has also been extremely important to the Cuban food supply.
To what extent can we see the outlines of an alternative food system paradigm in this Cuban experience? Or is Cuba just such a unique case in every way that we cannot generalize its experiences into lessons for other countries?
We hear that a country can’t feed its people without synthetic farm chemicals, yet Cuba is virtually doing so. We are told that we need the efficiency of large-scale corporate or state farms in order to produce enough food, yet we find small farmers and gardeners in the vanguard of Cuba’s recovery from a food crisis. In fact, in the absence of subsidized machines and imported chemicals, small farms are more efficient than very large production units. We hear time and again that international food aid is the answer to food shortages—yet Cuba has found an alternative in local production.
Abstracting from that experience, the elements of an alternative paradigm might therefore be:
• Agroecological technology instead of chemicals: Cuba has used intercropping, locally produced biopesticdes, compost, and other alternatives to synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.
• Fair Prices for Farmers: Cuban farmers stepped up production in response to higher crop prices. Farmers everywhere lack incentive to produce when prices are kept artificially low, as they often are. Yet when given an incentive, they produce, regardless of the conditions under which that production must take place.
• Redistribution of Land: Small farmers and gardeners have been the most productive of Cuban producers under low-input conditions. Indeed, smaller farms worldwide produce much more per unit area than do large farms. further
• Greater Emphasis on Local Production: People should not have to depend on the vagaries of prices in the world economy, long distance transportation, and super power “goodwill” for their next meal. Locally and regionally produced food offers greater security, as well as synergistic linkages to promote local economic development. Furthermore such production is more ecologically sound, as the energy spent on international transport is wasteful and environmentally unsustainable. By promoting urban farming, cities and their surrounding areas can be made virtually self-sufficient in perishable foods, be beautified, and have greater employment opportunities. Cuba gives us a hint of the underexploited potential of urban farming.
Relatively small-scale farming, even using animals for traction, can be very productive per unit of land, given technical support. And it is next to impossible to have ecologically sound farming at an extremely large scale.
The Cuban experience illustrates that we can feed a nation’s population well a farm model based on appropriate ecological technology, and in doing so we can become more self-reliant in food production. Farmers must receive higher returns for their produce, and when they do they will be encouraged to produce. The important lessons from Cuba that we can apply elsewhere, then, are agroecology, fair prices, land reform, and local production.

Source: Peter M. Rosset is co-director of Food First/The Institute for Food and Development Policy . He has a Ph.D. in agricultural ecology and teaches at Stanford University.

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