Organic or starve: can Cuba's new farming model provide food security?
Written by Roger Atwood, The Guardian
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.
The trains that once carried Hershey’s sugar to port sit idly on the tracks, apparently abandoned. Old timers rest under a tree reminiscing and drinking rum from a bottle. Yoanki Valdés lives across the street from the carcass of the plant where, for 30 years, he went to work every morning at the sound of the 7am whistle. He was dedicated to the job, received training in industrial engineering in Czechoslovakia and had risen to the position of foreman by the time he heard the news: the plant was closing. A week later it was shut.
“The most normal thing for everyone was to work in the sugar plant. Sugar gave work and a way of life,” said his son, also named Yoanki. Yet the two men don’t sound bitter. They understand the reasons for the closure: sagging prices, inefficiencies, dependence on a single, distant market, and the continued refusal of the United States to restore Cuba’s sugar quota long after the ostensible reason for revoking it – the alliance with the Soviet Union – was gone.
In the wake of the Soviet collapse, Cuba lost 80% of its international trade in under three years. The result was severe food shortages. Castro dubbed it “the special period in peacetime,” a euphemism for what many Cubans describe as one of the worst traumas of their lives. It dragged on for five years, but its psychological effects lasted much longer.
One woman I met remembered people fainting in the street from hunger. An artist remembered regular rations for children, but, for adults like himself, an endless diet of sugar water. Another stressed years of blackouts and boredom, relieved only by lots of marijuana. An agronomist described to me the death of hundreds of thousands of farm animals due to the loss of imported feed. “We came very close to starvation,” he said.
Out of the special period came a resolve that it must never happen again, and so Cuba’s food-focused farming movement was born.
“The way people thought about food and agriculture changed drastically with the special period,” said Miguel Angel Salcines, who runs a 25-acre organic farm in the outlying Havana district of Alamar, which started in those years. “Boats had arrived from the Soviet Union full of chemicals and fertilisers and suddenly there were no more boats from the Soviet Union, and people asked, do we need all those chemicals?”
The farm fields around Hershey don’t employ many people, but they sell their produce to local cooperatives so residents can buy them to supplement their meagre monthly rations of state-produced or imported food. In the revolutionary heyday, all this farmland was used to cultivate sugar.
Cuba has never been able to feed itself. It currently imports 60-80% of the food it consumes, at a cost of about $2bn a year. Two-thirds of its corn is imported and a similar amount of its rice, the latter mainly from Vietnam and Brazil. At markets around the country, sacks of rice can be seen piled to the rafters. Cubans love bread, but wheat doesn’t grow well in the tropical climate, so that has to be imported as well — mostly from the United States, which, in an exception to the Cold War-era trade embargo, sells food to Cuba for cash.
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-skeptical agricultural officials who set food priorities in this tightly controlled society.
Urban farming, with its backlot gardens and rooftop chicken coops, took hold in Havana and other Cuban cities in the early 1990s. That movement, also promoted by the government, brought greenery and fresh vegetables to Cuba’s dilapidated inner cities. However, while tourists love to visit them, urban farms have had little impact on Cuba’s overall farm output.
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. Yet he’s not sure his farm could ever gain certification as organic. The land, in Pinar del Río province, was once planted with tobacco, which has a reputation for high reliance on pesticides. Chemical residues from other crops wash in from neighbouring farms with the rain.
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.
Miguel Angel Salcines hopes that former US president Barack Obama’s restoration of diplomatic relations presages the day when Cuba can export high-quality organic crops to American supermarkets, though the tough talk from Obama’s successor Donald Trump may make that a distant prospect. American consumers would welcome the quality and variety of Cuban organics, he says, and Cuba needs the cash. “I would love to export my mint leaves to Miami so they could put them in their mojitos. I’m sure they grow mint there, too, but it’s not the same,” said Salcines, half-jokingly.
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.
The organic farmers among them face the kinds of barriers that organic farmers face everywhere. They get lower yields and hence less money for their crops and livestock. Pimentel gives his pigs strictly organic fodder, but, he said, “even giving them organic feed all their lives, I’m still going to get the same price per kilo as if I’d stuffed them with chemicals.” His smaller-than-average cassava roots and pineapples regularly fetch a lower price from the cooperatives than his neighbours’ chemically-enhanced varieties.
About half the farmers involved in Pial are fully organic, said Miranda. Those that aren’t will fumigate some crops such as garlic and cabbage, but the non-fumigated ones typically form the bulk of their production. More and more are phasing out chemicals – even though, Miranda acknowledged, “their motivation for pursuing organic farming was economic, not environmental, because people could not obtain chemical inputs at any price.”
The gains in organic farming, though tentative and tough to quantify, stand in contrast to the dismal performance of Cuban agriculture overall. New government figures show that efforts to increase food production have made little progress, despite repeated calls from president Raúl Castro to boost production, smooth out inefficiencies, and reduce food imports. Cuba produced 2.4bn eggs last year, for example, nearly unchanged since 2011 and still insufficient to change the monthly ration of five eggs per person.
Farm yields are pathetically low, despite Cuba having possibly the richest soil of any tropical country in the world, said Pedro Sanchez, an agronomist at the University of Florida who was raised on a farm in Cuba and returns regularly. “They’re raising one tonne per acre of corn. It’s ridiculous,” he said.
Cuba’s slow shift toward organic farming owes much of its inspiration and technical knowhow to one family, the Funes clan of Havana. Fernando Funes Aguilar and his wife Marta Monzote, who died in 2007, spoke and wrote passionately about the damage that indiscriminate use of chemical inputs and the sugar monoculture were doing to Cuba’s ecology and food supply. A committed revolutionary who speaks proudly of his service with Cuban forces in Angola, Funes Aguilar nonetheless argued in favour of sustainable farming – industrial-scale compost heaps instead of boatloads of imported fertiliser, rotating crops instead of year-round sugar cane. His warnings won a vindication of sorts with the 1990s collapse.
“The mentality here used to be that the solution to the problem of feeding ourselves was to use more chemical inputs. That had to change for the movement toward agro-ecology to take root,” said Funes Aguilar, 76, in his modest apartment in Havana. He believes organic or nearly-organic farming now accounts for about 20% of Cuba’s total output, up from close to zero only a decade ago. He sees organic farming as not just Cuba’s best hope for avoiding mass starvation again, but a route to gaining its deepest – and repeatedly frustrated – dream of lasting independence.
His son, Fernando Funes Monzote, is a scholar-farmer with a doctorate in agronomy from Wageningen University in the Netherlands. He runs an eight hectare organic farm about 20km west of Havana called Finca Marta, named after his mother. The land was practically abandoned when Funes Monzote started farming here in 2011. After some lean years, the place is booming with crops including corn, avocados, mangoes and radishes. Every few days, the younger Funes loads up his Lada sedan with sacks of arugula, carrots and other produce and sells it to restaurants all over Havana. You need special licenses to sell privately in Cuba, and Funes has them.
“Organic farming is not a mirage, and closing one half of the sugar refineries was the first step toward our food independence,” says the younger Funes, wearing a straw hat and boots as he plants endive seedlings. While his father stresses the sins of Cuba’s agricultural past, seeing sugar dependence as one of the revolution’s wrong turns, the son looks instead at the promise and shortcomings of Cuba’s current, messy organic boom. He rails against farmers who falsely claim to be organic, sprinkling chemicals on crops while passing themselves off as organic to cooperatives and restaurants.
“I don’t think Cuba actually needs to produce more food. It needs to make better use of what it already produces and waste less,” he says.
“It pisses me off when people talk about Cuba as if we’re some organic utopia,” says farmworker Maikel Márquez. When he’s not spreading manure over fields or pruning fruit trees on Funes’s farm, he’s studying agronomy at the National Agriculture University of Havana. He’s part of the first generation of entirely organic Cuban farmers. “People from abroad see us as this paradise of sustainable farming but we’re not. We’re coming out of a very bad model of agriculture, to something better.”
Originally published by The Guardian on October 28, 2017