"Make human life more rational. Build a just international economic order. Use all science for a more sustainable development that does not contaminate the environment. Pay the ecological debt and not the external debt. Fight hunger, not people." -- Fidel Castro
Cuba is the world's first country to embrace sustainable agriculture as their mode of food production. We often hear about the necessity of "Green Revolution" techniques and technology, i.e. fertilizer, chemicals, industrial size equipment and now genetic manipulation to feed our growing world. Cuba, with a population of more than 11 million, challenges this conventional wisdom.
As a member of the "free world" I recently obtained a license from the US Treasury Department to travel to Cuba on a research mission. To our detriment fewer than 200,000 Americans have visited Cuba in the past 20 years. Cuba could teach us many lessons.
In the 1970s and '80s Cuba was engaged in an industrial farming model that would compare with what we have on American farms today. Large machines farmed large tracts of land with large amounts of chemicals. In 1989, 40% of Cuba's food and 80% of its chemicals and pesticides were imported from the Soviet block. In 1991, the fall of the Soviet block coupled with the US tightening of the trade embargo plunged Cuba into a terrible economic crisis.
The government called this the "The Special Period in Peacetime" and Cubans refer this crisis as "The Special Period". Economic crisis meant that Cuba's oil imports fell by 53%. This reduced to zero the foreign exchange that Cuba had formerly obtained by re-exporting the petroleum. Cuban agriculture saw an immediate drop of 70% of the ag chemicals and pesticides. The industrial farming model quickly ground to a halt. The country was also unable to import food.
Fortunately, Cuba wasn't totally unprepared for the situation that arose. The country will finance any individual's education for as long as they want to go to school. So while Cuba has only 2% of the population in Latin America, the country possesses 11% of the scientists. These folks stepped forward with innovative ideas to confront the crisis.
The state rushed in and offered locally grown and biological alternatives for the herbicides and pesticides. Scarce synthetic fertilizers were supplemented with earthworms, composts, green manure and animal manure. Over the past 10 years tractors have been replaced by 400,000 oxen. The oxen have been bred to pull the new soil saver plow designed by ag engineers to conserve and rejuvenate the soil.
Small farmers were able to make the transition to sustainable and organic production first with the least adjustment. Small farms and gardeners were also the first to begin to fill the production void and have been the most productive. The state had the task of developing methods of transition for the large collective farms. The small family-run entities continue to be the most productive under low-input conditions. Many of the farmers are urban agriculturists whose farms are actually gardens. Everywhere one looks food is being produced. Cuba is producing 400% more food with 90% fewer chemicals!
While the average Cuban earned $10 per month, farmers in Cuba received fair prices. Cuban farmers stepped up production in response to the higher crop prices. One family farm I visited consisted of two brothers and their wives, one mother-in-law, and four teenaged children. The family was reportedly making $100 per month per family member.
What I learned from the Cuban model of sustainable agriculture is that I will amend my thinking. Maybe I need to stop fighting for the family farm. Many folks who consider themselves family farmers are farming and marketing their products in a manner that will only perpetuate the problems that farmers in the United States are experiencing.
I think I need to start promoting the sustainable farm. Policy makers at a national, state and local level have sold out on small farms and small farmers. They need to be educated about the potential catastrophic events that our current system is inviting to our environment, economy and public health. Locally and regionally produced food offers greater security as well as promoting the local economy. The soil, water and air aren't the only natural resources that benefit from sustainable ag practices. The energy spent on petroleum for international transit is incredibly wasteful. The petroleum saved by not using farm chemicals is substantial. Especially when considering that nearly every bit of that chemical input is unnecessary.
Americans may not think that Fidel uses appropriate methods to govern his country, but we need to take a closer look at the way Cuban agriculture has addressed the negative impacts of conventional agriculture.
LaVon Griffieon of Ankeny, Iowa, is a farmwife and co-founder and president of 1000 Friends of Iowa, a group that promotes responsible land use. She is also a Food and Society Policy Fellow, funded through the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.