Organic or starve: can Cuba’s new farming model provide food security?


Roger Atwood (The Guardian) writes about Cuba’s organic farming revolution.

In the town of Hershey, 40 miles east of Havana, you can see the past and the future of Cuban farming, side by side. The abandoned hulk of the Camilo Cienfuegos sugar plant, shut along with 70 other cane refineries in 2002, towers over the town. But in the lush hills and grasslands around Hershey, fields of cassava, corn, beans, and vegetables are a sign that there is life after sugar. Once owned by the famous Pennsylvania chocolate maker, the Cienfuegos plant supplied the sugar that sweetened Hershey’s candy bars. After the 1959 revolution, it was nationalised by Fidel Castro’s government and became property of the state, its sugar shipped to the Soviet Union and allies.

As the world’s largest sugar exporter, Cuba relied on pesticides and fertilisers and heavy mechanisation to produce up to 8.4m tonnes of sugar – its peak harvest, in 1990 – nearly all of it exported to the Communist bloc. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 eliminated Cuba’s preferential market and, coupled with a tightening of the US trade embargo, sent the Cuban economy into an extended coma. The sugar industry muddled along for another decade until the government ordered the closure of 71 of the island’s 156 sugar refineries. Places that had depended on sugar for a century became ghost towns.

[. . .] In response to this dependency, officials are promoting small, local farms as one way – perhaps the only way – for the country to finally start feeding itself. Although it has happened gradually, the shift to smaller, often organic farming marks a radical change from the monocrop sugarcane economy that ruled Cuba for a century. Small-scale farming is receiving the blessing of once-sceptical agricultural officials who set food priorities in this tightly controlled society.

[. . .] The new organic movement is different. Its goal is high yields in rural settings, with an eye toward a reliable, systematic output of staple crops at farms that are close to consumers and usually smaller than 40 hectares (100 acres) or so. Rather than a reaction to a crisis, the current push into organics is planned and promoted on the ruins of the industrial sugar economy.

“Organic farming does not bring the kind of large yields that will solve all our problems. But it solves many of our problems, and it is starting to become important,” said Juan José León, an official at the Ministry of Agriculture. “Ecological farming arose as a response to a reality that smacked us,” he continued. That reality was the collapse of the Soviet Union. “They were difficult years. We had to produce food somehow, somewhere.”

Tall, lean and bald as the farmer with the pitchfork in American Gothic, Agustín Pimentel takes a knife and cuts open one of his organic pineapples. It’s the size of a grapefruit, and its meat is a heavenly mix of sweetness and tart.

“It’s sad that the immense majority of farmers in Cuba still use pesticides and chemical fertilisers. They’re poison, and they enter our food,” says Pimentel, who raises 45 different crops on four hectares in an isolated valley in western Cuba. He’s proud of the fact he never uses chemicals of any kind. [. . .]

Pimentel is part of a small, intensely committed movement of organic farmers on this tropical island of red soil and royal palms. Numbering from 40,000 to a quarter of a million, depending on whom you ask. What exactly is meant by “organic” is not clear. Standards are not always known or consistently followed. But this movement of farmers sees locally grown, non-industrial farming as a vital part of the solution to Cuba’s chronic food shortages. Many of them see organic farming as nothing less than the future of Cuba’s socialist revolution; others see the potential for exports to European and eventually US markets.

[. . .] For now, vegetables for domestic consumption are the mainstays of Cuban organics. Those crops are almost the only area of farm production that has grown in Cuba, by about 15% in the last decade to 5.3m tonnes, according to official figures released in June.

The central government issued farm titles to 223,917 people in the three years up to April, covering nearly 2m hectares, said León. They’re not ownership titles – 79% of Cuba’s land is owned by the state – but they give the holder the right to till the land in perpetuity. They’re not all necessarily organic. But nearly all are small, family farms, and each one marks a sharp break from the way Cuba conducted its agriculture in the sugar heyday.

Much of the impetus for small-scale farming has come from the Programme for Local Agricultural Innovation (Pial). The initiative started around 2002 as a way of getting organic farming beyond urban plots in favour of larger-scale, locally-geared agriculture to relieve food shortages and bringing fresh produce and meats to Cuban tables. It’s a very Cuban mix of organisation, idealism and state direction, with help from sympathetic foreigners. Pial is regulated by Cuba’s agriculture ministry but funded largely by European and Canadian foundations. Its founder, Humberto Ríos Labrada, won the Goldman environmental prize in 2010.

Pial has helped small, organic farmers share knowledge, get good-quality seeds and connect with buyers, said Sandra Miranda, a biochemist and one of the programme’s designers. But Pial’s main achievement, she said, was to show farmers that organic production was no locavore foodie fad. It was, rather, Cuba’s food future.

Today about 250 farm cooperatives across Cuba are enrolled in the programme, Miranda said, or about 50,000 farmers. Each cooperative can include anywhere from half a dozen to hundreds of small farms. [. . .]

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