Cubans Revolutionize Organic Farming

Cubans made the most of the break up of the Soviet Union. Losing their source of pesticides and fertilizers, they're growing some of the cleanest produce in the world.

by Robert E. Sullivan – Earth Times News Service

The Cuban revolutionary threat is back. In an innocuous, unmarked building in the Miramar suburb of Havana technicians from Fidel Castro's communist government are training cadres from all over Latin America.

The ideology of the new movement is being exported, along with equipment, to nearby Venezuela, Colombia, Jamaica, other Latin American countries, and this time, as far as Europe.

Americans, so far, have been protected by the embargo from the product of the Cuban revolution: clean food.

Cuba has begun to export its biological pesticides and herbicides, but the US embargo prevents Americans from benefiting.

The food is clean — largely free of chemical fertilizers and poisonous pesticides and herbicides — because since the break up of the Soviet Union, Cuba can't afford them.

Necessity in this case being the mother of nature, Cuba may be producing the most chemical free, organic, clean produce in the world. According to the way they tell it, Cubans are getting so good at this organic business that agronomists from all over Latin America come to study at the Institute for Crop Protection (INISAV), a low-profile centre housed in the quiet residential section of Miramar. Trained at INISAV and sent out again to the world to agitate, have been agronomists from Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Spain, Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Jamaica. At least six other countries have signed up, but the discrete directors at INISAV won't reveal their nationalities because, they say, the trainees think their home countries will suffer retaliation from the United States.

The institute has developed a line of completely biological herbicides and pesticides marketed throughout the island under the brand name Biasav.

This year, Cuba. Next, the world. Exports of Biasav have begun, not to the US, of course, but to most of the above countries and others. And in Cuba, almost 100,000 small-to-medium-sized urban gardens have sprung up to provide an ever increasing percentage of the country's vegetable needs. The entire produce of these gardens is 100 percent organic, simply because of a central dictate: no pesticides are allowed inside any city limits. Period. The Castro government is committed to clean food.

What happened?
Ask any 10 Cuban agronomists–they have 140 PhDs in the Agriculture Ministry alone, plus 10,000 graduate agronomic engineers–why has Cuba gone organic, and you'll get the same answer 10 times: it is safer for the campesinos (the workers in the field); safer for the workers who consume, and safer for the workers' families.

It is, after all a socialist country. "Agriculture of the humble, by the humble and for the humble," says one government functionary.

But all 10 will say the real incentive was the loss of Soviet support.

When the Soviets were supplying chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, and tractor driven equipment to apply them, "We used to spray the crops every six days," says INISAV engineer Esperanza Rijo-Camacho, "whether they needed it or not."

"Luckily, and I choose my words carefully, luckily, the roof caved in 1989," says Mavis Alvarez of the Cuban Small Farmers' Association (ANAP), which has decided to go as organic as possible because the system is sustainable. "It made us pay attention to that which was already there–more-rational methods."

Harmony with the land
"We like to call it 'ecological agriculture,'" Alvarez says. "It is a much wider concept, which involves harmony with the land, and the environment … If we don't save our natural resources, we are without a basis for development.

"The campesino in the land is much more able to cooperate with the environment than large-scale farms."

And in Cuba the small farmer is no small potatoes. "We have about 250,000 members, and with their families that averages out to about a million people working the land," says Alvarez, "and we are not a non-governmental organization. We are part of the revolution and support it.

"The state is committed to ecological farming."

"Yes, it is," says Juan Jose Leon-Vega, the Director of External Relations for the Agriculture Ministry. "I don't believe many people know how big organic farming in Cuba really is."

How big? About 1,500,000 hectares (3.7 million acres) totally biological, he says, of a total of about 2,500,000 (6.2 million) non-sugar hectares of farmland. The rest, because of shortages, get precious few artificial fertilizers, and with some exceptions, such as rice, virtually no chemical pesticides or herbicides.

"This is true," says LeonVega, "For two reasons. First is the disappearance, within one year, of Soviet aid, including millions of tons of fertilizers, insecticides and pesticides, all our tractors, and more importantly, the oil to run them.

"The second is the blockade. It now costs about $800,000 to $1,000,000 per shipment of anything, not even counting the contents."

One big result of the double trouble was the 1993 decision to break up the big state-owned farms and give the land to the campesinos. When Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, about 20 percent of the land was put in the private hands of campesinos, who farmed it, and 80 percent held by the state in the form of huge Soviet-style farms.

"We have," Leon-Vega says, "the most organic agriculture production in the world." How can he be so sure? It is a socialist country: the ministry imports 100 percent of the chemical fertilizers–less than one-sixth of pre-Soviet levels–and all the chemical pesticides and herbicides, an even smaller amount.

"And," says Leon-Vega, "We decide who gets it."

Two hypothetical questions for the minister:

1. What would happen if he got an unlimited supply of cheap chemicals?

"First of all, we are not completely organic. It is a dream, but we can never be 100 percent organic. But we would still go ahead with biological agriculture. That is the basic philosophy."

2. What would happen if the blockade disappeared?

"The day the market opens, Cuba will be the most important source for America of organic products. Americans want clean food. We grow the cleanest food on the continent. No other country on the continent has the capacity, the possibilities, and the initiative. Also, we are close."

In the countryside is evidence of a socialist system working with private landowners. When the system decides to go organic, the campesinos have little choice. They go organic too. But they get a lot of help, especially along the line of biological pest control.

Cuban private farmers can either go it alone, in which case they rent tractors and buy seeds, fertilizers, and pest sprays from the credit service companies set up by the government, or they join forces in a cooperative, which buys, collectively, its tractors, seeds, and pest repellents from the government. The pest repellents are biological. But even better: they are local.

The Crop Protection Institute has some 222 local Centers for the Reproduction of Entomophages and Entomopathogens (CREEs), which produce extremely inexpensive biological agents made up of bugs who eat pesky bugs, viruses that combat bad viruses, larvae that kill other pests, and all manner of natural weapons to combat what campesinos universally call "the plague," be it animal, virus, or fungus.

When farmer Cirrillo Rodrequez, 65, has a problem, seven technically trained members of the local government committee are available to talk to him. Even if he doesn't have a problem, the agronomic engineers show up anyway, saying something akin to: we're from the government, and we're here to help you. And help they do. They know the signs indicating which "plague" is hitting his rice, corn, root crops, pigs, chickens, and vegetables, and what biological products can be applied to help. He gets the sprays from the local CREE.

As fertilizer Rodriquez gets rotted leftover vegetation from industrial sugar and tobacco production. In the dry season he rents a tractor to take from a nearby low-lying swamp dead vegetation similar to peat moss that provides humus for the soil.

"That is a traditional method that campesinos have used for generations," says Miguel Dominguez, a provincial agronomic engineer, "but what we do now is explain how and why it works: basically we are recovering the topsoil and humus eroded into the swamp from the mountain side. We are recycling.

"Other soil conservation methods are not traditional," he says. "For instance, we give any campesino who asks any trees he wants, free, to help in soil conservation. We also guide them on which are the best, and how to care for them."

As for Rodriquez himself, what is the difference since 1989?

"It is pretty much the same as in my grandfather's day, except now and again we get a tractor."

If the country guy is unlikely to get many chemicals, his city cousin is entirely without. Castro's government has banned the use of any chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides within the borders of any Cuban municipality, to protect the workers, their families, and the water they drink.

This is not an inconsiderable factor. According to Minister Leon-Vega, there are exactly 2,600 large-scale organic gardens in cities throughout the island, 3,600 smaller, intensive gardens, and 93,948 little parcels run by families for their own use, and every single mother's son of them is an organic farmer.

"We sell them their seeds, and their fertilizer and their pest controls, and it is all organic."

The result, by and large, is clean food for Cubans. Marty Bourque of Food First, an Oakland California think-tank specializing in food policy worldwide, agrees: "Because of the drastic reduction of pesticides and fertilizers overall in Cuba, it has to be much cleaner than any other country, in general terms. In the large-scale production of such things as sugar, rice, and potatoes, they use very little insecticide, and only where they absolutely have to, and then only on the areas that absolutely need it.

"The food is not labelled organic, or certified organic, it just is organic. And it is not a two-tier market with organic food only for those who can afford it. It is organic food for everyone."

* Taken from Earth Times News Service, reprinted with permission. Copyright 2000 The Earth Times All rights reserved. Contact: www.earthtimes.org

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[From WS December 2000/January 2001]

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