What if “Sustainable Agriculture” Weren’t Theoretical? The Case of Cuba

December 12, 2018 | 4:12 pm
Photo: Jennifer Gay.
Ricardo Salvador
Director, Food & Environment Program

“Are you farming without fossil-based chemicals because you have to? Would you do it if you had a choice?” We put our hosts on the spot with this question. They were agronomists at Habana’s Agrarian University, and they had just finished presenting some of their organic agriculture innovations to us. We were a group of 13 researchers, students and farmers visiting from the U.S., most of us from Iowa. We didn’t feel like fat-cat, inquisitive tourists, but of course we were. Except for the three farmers among us, sustainable agriculture was an object of study for us, whereas it was a necessity—a matter of literal life and death—to our patient and gracious hosts. It was May 2000, and the island nation had already endured a decade-long “Special Period in Peacetime” that severely imperiled the viability of its economy and society. We happened to be visiting at around the turning point of that particular existential crisis. At the time, however, that wasn’t at all clear and the situation was still precarious. The trigger for the Special Period had been the implosion of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in the late 80s. This forced the removal of all manner of direct and indirect subsidies the USSR had provided its client state in the Caribbean. In turn, Cuba was forced to devise strategies to support its 11 million people without that foreign input of cash, commodities and oil. One of the outcomes was the adoption of sustainable methods to assure the food supply. All of this is now the stuff of legend in sustainable agriculture lore, which holds that Cuba became then, and remains, a paragon of sustainable agriculture adoption and success. Even then, however, we could tell it was more complicated than that.

The implosion of Cuba’s economy following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In 2000, Fidel Castro was still in power and had pursued all manner of tactics to supplement the island’s cash reserves. Opening up to tourism and the concomitant inflow of U. S. dollars was one of the stratagems, and our little delegation of course was a part of that, unwitting as we were. If Cuba has been a socialist stronghold as long as you can remember (or have paid attention), I underscore that welcoming foreign tourists was a significant development because the revolution that Castro and allies rode to power in the late 1950s was a reaction against (among other things) the rampant corruption that had turned Cuba into a rum-soaked, mafia-run playground for tourists and for businesses that plundered at will. When the Castros declared themselves socialists and their policies began to show that they meant it (for example, by expropriating foreign holdings), the eventual denouement was the economic embargo of the island that has been led and enforced by the United States since then. Dollars, and thereby global purchasing power, became scarce. When Castro essentially rebuilt beachside grand hotels and casinos and welcomed European tourists and their currency with the lure of the tropical diversions that had been banished with the revolution, there was resentment about the two-tiered economy that resulted. I learned about this nuance, normally invisible to short-term visitors, quite by accident. During one of our breaks on this tour I went happily looking for a highly recommended record store (vinyl discs encoded with analog music were still a thing in 2000), and I was berated by one of the locals when I asked for directions. It wasn’t really personal, but he needed to vent. After he identified from my accent exactly what part of Mexico I was from, he told me that I had the freedom to come and go, whereas he claimed he didn’t have that luxury in his own country and that he had to bear under constant vigilance. I never did find that record store, but I did gain some insight.

On alert for sustainable agriculture shtick

The author working hard in Habana Province, May 2000

One evening, our group enjoyed a memorable performance of baroque music and Dadaism at a downtown theatre. The facility had seen better days but the art was world class and accessible to the general populace. However, we also had the opportunity, almost offhandedly, of seeing the fabled Irakere band at an intimate nighttime venue. It was clear here that, casual as such events seemed to us visitors, this particular locale wasn’t  accessible to the hoi polloi. Except for the artists and staff, we were an audience of foreigners. So we were on our toes about the sustainable agriculture story. The agricultural equivalent of entertaining ourselves with the Habana nightlife while the good Habaneros outside hustled for a living was brought into sharp contrast when we visited a neighborhood market. Our hosts had been open about the fact that a system of food rationing had long been in place. It was emblematic of the Cuban Revolution’s value of food as a human right, and had provided plentifully for all prior to the Special Period. During our visit, however, the food supply was at a historical low point (although not for us visitors.) We saw this for ourselves at the market. Even though our chaperon had a stub signifying the amount of meat he had a right to purchase, the meat counter was bare. He could barely disguise his contempt, even as our official guide.

But I’ve dragged you through this not to justify your skepticism about either sustainable agriculture or socialism, but to allay your concerns about our idealization of the experience, and to be real about what we saw and learned from this visit. The island wasn’t completely without oil, but the supply had tightened to the point where the centrally planned economy had to prioritize its use. Allocating the limited amount of fuel available for agriculture to the production of large-scale, mechanized commodities destined for export and the generation of cash receipts (e.g., sugar, tobacco, citrus) meant that there was little to none for food production (with the exception of rice—a Cuban staple—which was grown extensively and rationed to the island’s population.) Of necessity, a system of organic urban agriculture had evolved that took good advantage of every bare parcel of land, and even of cement patches of sidewalk or rooftop with sun exposure. As far as we could tell, this was a successful innovation based on two primary factors. One was the skill to use organic waste to build soil on the spot and to manage its fertility through regenerative methods. The other was an official policy shift that permitted urban gardeners and farmers to use or sell all that they produced, even though the ground on which they produced remained national “patrimony” (property.) This incentivized petite enterprise to the point where we met, and heard of, government functionaries who resigned their salaried sinecures because urban farming had become disproportionately remunerative, yielding up to four times what could be earned on a government income. We saw with our own eyes, and sampled, the abundant production of leafy greens, fruits, cassava and plantains in densely urban settings. You couldn’t stage the family-managed parcels, raised beds and compost piles, nor everyone’s conversational familiarity and enthusiasm for the basic principles of regenerative agriculture.

Cuba Oil Consumption, 1980-2014

In a tropical environment, however, nutrient and pest cycles move quickly, and it is no mean feat to maintain soil fertility, retain soil water, and keep insects and diseases from running amok. Which brings us back to that visit with the researchers at Havana’s Agrarian University. We came from luxuriously appointed university facilities, which contrasted greatly with the resources that our counterparts had available. When I heard that they were microbiologists and that they had devised mixtures and inoculum to stimulate and maintain soil fertility I immediately expected biodynamic nostrums and vacuous hand-waving. The moment these scientists began speaking, however, it was plain that their erudition was of a sort that not only wasn’t valued or pursued in the “state of the art” agricultural universities of the global north, but which had been entirely dismissed. The Cuban scientists spoke cogently and authoritatively about microbiota by their individual names, their ecology and interactions with other soil organisms, and their agricultural roles. They described how a nutrient or disease cycle could be managed through that understanding. And they were open about their gaps of understanding and concomitant research agenda. I’ve seldom been as humbled as during that hour, not just by their store of knowledge in an area that has become a blind spot for agricultural researchers in the U.S. (who sometimes can barely be distinguished from chemical salespeople), but because the knowledge they clearly commanded was gleaned despite hugely limited circumstances. By 2000 we fat cats already flung communications, research data and journal articles at the push of a button via the internet. We had access to any information we desired. Our Cuban counterparts could only dream of this. They labored hard to obtain, and then share, tattered paper copies of journal articles that were dear to come by. For a few months I remained in contact with some of my new acquaintances, but between slow and unreliable connections and the limited quotas on computer time on the Cuban end, real collaboration proved next to impossible. And while this immobilized the likes of us, the Cuban scientists were not deterred.

So when I asked the question quoted at the top, it was borne of genuine curiosity. The unspoken sentiment, among furtive sideglances—both foreign and Cuban—was that sooner or later Fidel Castro was going to die, relations with the U.S. would thaw, and oil would flow again. Because life is life, in the event what actually happened was that between Fidel and his brother Raúl, the Castros were to remain in power through the present day, and while oil did eventually flow again, it was Venezuelan oil, which meant that its supply would once again wane with the onset of the Venezuelan crisis. Furthermore, though relations with the U.S. did begin to thaw during the latter years of the Obama administration, as with so many other issues there has since been serious backtracking. Not knowing this, it was reasonable to wonder whether organic practices would last only so long as the petroleum-induced duress, and whether the siren call of petroleum-based, brute-force agriculture would make a comeback the moment it became possible. And here is the answer we received, from the legendary Cuban agriculturist Fernando Funes Aguilar: “That is a logical thing to wonder. I can honestly tell you that at one time we wondered that ourselves. But now that we have developed this knowledge and are seeing the results, why would we go back to something that works less well than what we have now?” Depending on your level of credulity, that perspective is astonishing either for its disingenuousness, or for its profound insight and commitment. I determined then that this was something to keep an eye on.

A rare opportunity to check a prediction

And now we can know. See this sober assessment of developments since that time. Cuba’s place in global socioeconomic history is destined to be prominent, if for no other reason than for the valor and capacity of that nation to take on—and survive the odds against—the fury and might of the most powerful economic empire the world has known. But even limiting myself to the agricultural realm, you can tell how enthralled I was by the real achievement I saw in regenerative productivity in urban and periurban settings, and what respect I developed for fellow scientists who were achieving orders of magnitude more than my counterparts and me relative to their resources and circumstances. In checking my memory of these events I consulted one of my fellow travelers, the Iowa State University weed ecologist Matt Liebman. He corroborated my impressions and added the following important observation of his own: “One thing that stood out for me was that many of the Cubans we met were willing to use both conventional and organic farming techniques, e.g. soil applied fungicides and large amounts of compost. I came back thinking that Cuban agriculturalists were pragmatic and adaptable people rather than ideological zealots. I also remember Funes Sr. saying that most people in Cuba died of old age, which contrasted sharply with what I had seen and heard in Brazil not too many years earlier.”

There can be none better than the Cuban scientists we visited, and their successors, to share with us the reality of the Cuban agricultural experience since that era. And, in a truly unusual fashion, the journal Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene is providing just that opportunity. Elementa has dedicated a special issue to this topic, entitled “Cuba Agrifood Systems in Transition.” The authors are the Cuban scientists at the center of this plot line, including the aforementioned Fernando Funes Aguilar (who served as guest editor for this issue), and some of their international collaborators. I won’t attempt to summarize or give away the lessons imparted by the contributing specialists. Suffice it to say that over the course of eight articles readers will gain a pragmatic perspective about what it takes to develop sustainable agricultural systems based on agroecological principles, complete with honest descriptions of obstacles (the world isn’t tidy), and of what stands to be gained by nonetheless prevailing. You are sure to come away with a deeper appreciation for the importance of food sovereignty (the freedom to decide what to grow, how to grow it, and for whom), and for the vastly neglected potential for agroecological methods to feed and sustain humans and the planet.

Coincidentally, my lifetime has essentially run on the same timeline as the Cuban Revolution. Also coincidentally, this is the exact period that has seen the haughty rise of industrial agriculture. It is clear to me that the time lag between Cuba having to figure out how to reduce its oil-dependence due to brutal realpolitik, and the world entering a global Special Period due to outright profligacy, is just a matter of decades. In the end, Cuban scientists and the knowledge and practice they have gained may well turn out to be the vanguard we all come to depend on to survive beyond that.

That is just one reason why you should read this special feature of Elementa.

About the author

More from Ricardo

As the senior scientist and director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, Ricardo Salvador has over four decades of experience working with citizens, scientists, economists, and politicians to transition our current food system into one that grows healthy foods while employing sustainable and socially equitable practices.