THE GLOBAL CITIZEN: Cuba Invents a New Agriculture

It's hard to believe anything we hear about Cuba. Some people, especially those in official positions, want us to believe that Cuba does no right, others that it does no wrong. I'm hearing fascinating stories from folks who have visited there, folks who are biased too in various ways -- who isn't? If even half of what they say is true, amazing things are happening in Cuba.This much is certain: the fall of the Soviet Union was a terrible blow for Cuba. In 1990 Cuba had the highest average life expectancy in Latin America, the lowest infant mortality rate, the highest percent of teachers and doctors, the third highest literacy rate, and the second highest grain yields and calorie intake per person. No Cuban went hungry. But these impressive results were achieved through a dreadful dependency.In exchange for tropical produce, mainly sugar, the Soviet Union provided oil, tractors, fertilizer, pesticides, animal feed, and more than half the food consumed by the Cuban population. Cuban farms were owned by the government and worked as large-scale, chemical-intensive monocultures. Sixty percent of the cropland was in sugar, which provided 75 percent of the country's export earnings.In 1990, when trade with the socialist bloc collapsed, trade with most capitalist countries was still embargoed. Suddenly Cuba lost half its food supply and most of the fuel, fertilizer, feed, and pesticides it used to produce the other half.The situation was desperate, but food distribution was kept fairly equal through rationing. There were almost no eggs, cooking oil, bread, meat, or milk, but people could live on rice, beans, fish, plantains, taro, potatoes and cassava. Everyone felt deprived, but there were few signs of malnutrition.Cuba has only two percent of Latin America's population but eleven percent of its scientists. Already before the crisis, some scientists had been working on natural ways to control pests and build soil nutrients. Their methods were not in wide use in Cuban fields, but they had been tested in Cuban research centers.There was also an existing pest monitoring system. All over Cuba local research stations planted test crops and checked them for pests, diseases, and resistance to pesticides. Weather measurements were taken to predict pest outbreaks. At any sign of trouble, farmers were warned.In the old days the farmers responded to warnings with pesticides. Now, I am told, they respond with bugs. If the sugarcane borer shows up, they release swarms of a fly called Lixophaga that parasitizes the borer. To control destructive caterpillars, they release Trichogramma, a tiny wasp that feeds on caterpillar eggs. Farmers also have at hand an array of bacteria, fungi, and viruses that infect insects --such as Beauvaria bassiana, which kills banana weevil.These biological weapons are produced at 218 centers located at coops and state farms. The centers are small, high-tech factories, which breed natural enemies of crop pests. Workers there are educated sons and daughters of local farmers.Cuba's scientists are discovering new biocontrols. They are isolating nematodes that kill harmful bugs and soil microbes that counteract plant diseases. They learned from farmers how to use a predatory ant to control sweet potato weevil. They are multiplying virus-free seedlings through tissue culture and testing crop rotations to control weeds. Local farmers told them that when weeds get out of hand, plant sweet potato, which grows so densely it shades out everything else.This cooperative effort between researchers and farmers is building an increasingly effective natural pest control system. But pests are not the only problem in Cuban agriculture.The old, heavy Soviet tractors can't run without petroleum. So the Cubans are breeding oxen and inventing ingenious farm implements for them to pull.The oxen provide manure for the soil. Plowed-under legumes are also used to build up soil nutrients, along with composted municipal garbage and humus from industrial-scale earthworm farms. Cuban scientists have discovered free-living bacteria that fix nitrogen or release phosphorus into the soil -- living fertilizer factories.The new farming techniques require more labor than the old machine-intensive ways. That's a problem in highly urbanized Cuba. However, the oil shortage is causing unemployment in cities, so the government is encouraging people to move back to the land. All new housing construction is taking place in rural areas. Young folks are both honored and paid for working on farms for stints ranging from two weeks to two years.Community gardens are appearing on vacant urban land. Within Havana there are said to be 5,000 gardens producing 45,000 tons of vegetables a year. Farmers' markets, once forbidden, are now thriving. State farms are being broken up and given to rural coops (though most of the land is still in sugar for export).Numerous sources are saying that times are still hard, but improving. Food output has risen, but it hasn't doubled, so the diet isn't as rich as it once was. Without chemicals there is less sickness among agricultural workers. The soil is getting better, but after decades of chemical fertilizers, it has a long way to go before its humus and self-sustaining microbes are restored.If you have a negative bias toward Cuba, you could say that it still has a precarious food supply. If you have a positive bias, you could say that Cuba, suddenly deprived of half its food and most of its agricultural inputs, has not only maintained but increased its food supply in a way that creates jobs and improves the environment.Of course that conclusion would challenge two biases -- one that Cuba can do nothing right and the other that chemicals are needed to grow food.

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