Cubans big on organic farming – but they are starving
October 13, 2000
by Dennis T. Avery
THE GAZETTE (MONTREAL) October 10, 2000
Cuba is being honored as the only country trying to feed a modern society with organic farming. Its organic-farming association was awarded an ''alternative Nobel Prize'' last year in the Swedish parliament.
Eco- activists across the First World praise Cuban efforts to control pests with natural predators instead of chemicals. Peter Rosset of the Food First Institute recently called Cuba ''the world's largest and most successful experiment in self-reliant alternative agriculture.''
For Cuban families, all this must have a hollow ring. Cubans are rationed each month to about five pounds of bread, six pounds of rice, one pound of beans and seven eggs. The low yields from Cuba's organic farms mean constant hunger and near- malnutrition.
Most of the world's farm yields are trending upward, but the sugar crop, which used to finance much of Cuba's economy, yields only two- thirds as much as when Fidel Castro came to power 40 years ago. This pattern of agricultural failure can no longer be blamed on Cuba's state farms. In fact, Cuba has shifted about one-fourth of its farmland to a new pattern it calls linking the worker with an area: a team of four workers is given responsibility for production in a restricted area of about 32 acres.
They even get a percentage of the extra profits if they achieve high yields. (Can you say ''family farm?'') But even the new production teams haven't been enough to adequately nourish Cubans.
''As for the population's consumption, the main efforts are being made in the area of rice production,'' Agriculture Minister Alfredo Jordan said recently on Havana radio. ''As for tubers and vegetables, despite an increase in their production, it is still not enough to meet the demand.''
Jordan added, ''Efforts are also being made to cover the population's animal protein needs. This last sector is where most of the difficulties are found and in which recovery is slowest. It is true that agriculture production has increased, but it is still far from covering the population's needs.''
The Cuban minister tells visitors frankly he would love to have higher-yield fertilizers and crop protection chemicals, but Cuba is too broke to buy them.
The collapse of the Soviet Union ended Cuba's financial subsidies from the East Bloc. Cuba can't earn much cash from sugar because European export dumping and pervasive sugar import barriers depress prices.
Despite the organic focus, Cuba's agriculture still uses about $100 million worth of fuel a year, $80 million worth of chemical fertilizers and $30 million worth of pesticides and other high-yield inputs. But it's not enough.
Agricultural failure hasn't made the Cuban government shy, of course. Cuba recently simultaneously hosted the Sustainable Agriculture Networking and Extension project of the UN Development Program and an international organic-farming conference.
''It was especially moving to see the reactions of the foreign visitors as the Cubans showed them the enormous strides they have taken in overcoming the food crisis brought on by the collapse of the socialist bloc in Europe,'' Rosset gushed. ''Last year, Cuba had the highest production totals in its entire history for almost all key food crops.''
Of course in the old days Cuba could afford to import about half of its food, along with all the fertilizer and crop-protection chemicals needed to support the crops it did grow at home. Today, the suppressed economy has little earning power except for tourism and tobacco.
The mayor of Havana told Rosset a recent household survey showed 40 per cent of the food eaten in one of the city's neighborhoods was grown right in the neighbourhood.
It had to be. With farm workers eating up the low yields from their organic fields and government rations inadequate, Havana's residents are desperately serious gardeners.
Of course, that means less time for relaxing, sports or hobbies. They've got to be pulling weeds, squashing bugs and worrying about the mosaic virus in their off hours from the factories.
If Cuba is the world's greatest alternative agriculture success, what's the second best? Ethiopia? Rwanda?
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.