History Repeating – Old Habits Die Hard.

The early 1990’s saw Cuba enter a severe crisis due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and its associated economies in Eastern Europe. These countries supported around 80% of Cuba’s economy, which was based on intensive single-crop agriculture and was highly dependent on imports of agricultural sub-products, such as fertilisers and pesticides. Up until the collapse, the Soviet Union had been paying much higher prices for sugar than the true price in the international markets, providing much needed income for Cuba.  In a very short period Cuba’s agricultural system collapsed, posing a serious threat to something that had been taken for granted, its supply of food.  This heralded what is known as the “special period” where many Cubans were starved of basic food supplies while their whole countries approach to Agriculture went through some radical changes.

However, during the 1980’s Cuba’s government and agriculture-related professionals, had been developing alternative technologies and processes for agriculture, anticipating the vulnerability of their economy being so dependant on a few agricultural products.  When the crisis arrived they were relatively prepared, even so the crisis was tougher than anyone expected. The response from the government was to attempt to instil nothing short of basic survival strategies into urban communities. Agriculture, in a few years, moved from the large export-oriented, chemical dependant monoculture, that is the norm for most of the world, to a small size, local urban-based, organic food production model. Small scale farms and orchards at home or in disused plots, became the standard.  The government supported this new approach of urban agriculture and it soon became part of national policy.

urban farm

Cuba’s achievements in urban agriculture are truly remarkable, there are now over 380,000 urban farms, covering 50,000 hectares of otherwise unused or marginal land, producing more than 1.5 million tons of vegetables with top urban farms reaching yields of 20 kg/m2 per year of edible plant material using no synthetic chemicals or the equivalent to a hundred tons per hectare. Urban farms now supply 70% or more of all the fresh vegetables consumed in Cuba’s main cities.  However, this change has come at a price with Cuba’s agriculture sector contributing an estimated 4% of GDP in 2010, but comprising of 20% of Cuba’s 5.1 million labour force.

Under this new scenario the importance of the contributions being made by peasant farms, in reducing food imports, should not be underestimated.  However, despite these notable advances of sustainable agriculture, and evidence of the effectiveness as an alternative to the monoculture model, Cuban Government interest persists in promoting high external input systems based models. Under the pretext of increasing food security and reducing reliance on food imports, these specific programs pursue the old paradigm of large scale crop and livestock production and insist on going back to the previous monoculture methods, in turn increasing dependence on synthetic chemical inputs, large scale machinery, and irrigation, despite proven energy inefficiency and technological fragility, in short leading Cuba right back to where they started.

Chemical useMany of the resources that are being provided by international partners, such as Venezuela and Brazil, are dedicated to protecting or boosting agricultural areas where a more traditional, intensive, agriculture is practiced for crops like potatoes, rice, soybean, and vegetables. Currently these areas used for large-scale, industrial-style agricultural production still represent less than 10% of the cultivated land, however, millions of dollars are being invested in pivot irrigation systems, machinery, and other industrial agricultural technologies, a “quick fix” model which increases short-term production but generates high long-term environmental and socioeconomic costs, while replicating a model that was failing even before 1990.  This cyclical mindset would seem to strongly undermine the advances achieved by Cuba’s agricultural organic farming since the economic collapse in 1990.

However, since 2008 Cuba’s agricultural sector, in general, has started to underperform, and the authorities have acknowledged the heavy cost of importing food to fill the gap. Interestingly the worst affected sectors are the traditional, large-scale production crops, Plantains dropped by 44.2 percent, potatoes by 36 percent and citrus by 33.9 percent. The category of “other tubers” plunged by 58.4 percent. Corn production fell by 22.5 percent, beans by 7 percent and fruit by 13.9 percent, according to the report by the National Statistics Office (ONE).  Increases in production were reported in garden vegetables, up 8.4%, and rice, up by 2.5%.

Cubans are only too aware of the implications, which translate into high retail prices for foodstuffs.  As President Raúl Castro told a recent cabinet meeting, every time the production quota is missed, the cost to the state runs into millions of US dollars.  Official figures show that Cuba spent 1.7 billion dollars on food imports in 2012, up from 1.5 billion in 2010. The projection for 2013 is another 200-million-dollar increase, to 1.9 billion dollars.  In early December, state television reported that annual production of beans, a Cuban staple, was running at 20,000 tons a year, when consumption was 100,000 tons.  Despite President Castro’s focus on raising farm output since 2008, the sector has consistently failed to fulfil the Communist Party’s stated plan of growing enough rice, beans, maize, soya and other crops to allow a “gradual reduction of imports”.

the normCuban agriculture currently experiences two extreme food-production models: an intensive model with high inputs, and another, beginning at the onset of the special period, oriented towards local small scale farms based on low inputs. The experience accumulated from these initiatives in thousands of small-and-medium scale farms constitutes a valuable starting point in the definition of national policies to support sustainable agriculture, thus potentially displacing a monoculture model that has reigned supreme for almost four hundred years.  However, is the drive for short terms gains combined with the external pressures being put on Cuba, by “partner countries” ensuring that that their sustainable agriculture model was nothing more than an interesting experiment developed out of necessity and if so, what chance is there for a wider, world, adoption of such techniques as we try to loosen our dependency on fossil fuels?

Matt Willis is TerViva’s Director of International Markets.

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