The current Cuban system of farming was developed in response to crisis. In 1989, with the collapse of the Soviet Union underway, overnight Cuba lost its most vital trading partner, and the source of heavily subsidized petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides it had used to run its large, state-owned farms. Faced with the choice of adapting or starving, guess what happened.


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Agricultural output during the height of communist Cuba had been disappointing, the poor but verdant subtropical country of 11 million relied heavily on imports from the Soviet bloc to fill the gap. At the same time, tentative reformist thought in Cuba against the background of tectonic global power shifts was coalescing around the idea that central planning is not always the only approach to a problem.

The result was the development, out of necessity, of a “post-petroleum agriculture” that sparked something of an agrarian renaissance, as explained in a recently published report on Cuba’s sustainable food systems. The system involves loose public land-use rules, a shift to small farms that form cooperatives, and labor-intensive rather than machine-intensive farming.

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The report, by Greg Watson of the Schumacher Center for New Economics, which is located in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, explains what happened next:

“Agriculture production rebounded, and Cuba achieved the best growth rate of any Latin American country in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Much of this can be attributed to the adoption of decentralized agrarian policies that encouraged individual and cooperative forms of production beginning in the 1990s. Overly bureaucratic state-run farms were replaced with thousands of new small urban and suburban organoponicos, parcelas, and patio gardens, and millions of acres of unused state lands were given to workers for small-scale farming. Decisions concerning resource use and food production strategies were encouraged to be made at the local level,” the report says.

Perhaps most notably, according to the report, Cuban farmers have not used chemical fertilizers, or pesticides for over 25 years. “Emphasis is placed on building healthy soils organically. The goal is to manage soils in ways that rejuvenate them. A combination of techniques is employed, including the use of green manures and ‘the intelligent sequencing of plants,’” the report goes on to explain.

A decade ago, in 2006, Cuba achieved sustainability, according to the World Wildlife Fund, meaning its ecosystem is well set-up for the future. It is the only country in the world to have reached such a distinction. “Cuba has been referred to as the ‘Accidental Eden’ because its ecosystems have flourished during the ‘Special Period.’ The landscapes and oceans host many rare indigenous species and serve as a safe haven for migrating birds and marine animals. Many say this is a direct result of the absence of aggressive tourist programs and polluting industries (no chemical fertilizers or pesticide plants, for example),” the report says.

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If only the picture were so clear. The Special Period refers to about 1991-1995, a time of extreme uncertainty and near-famine when Cuba perhaps was at its most isolated, and the Castro regime was casting about for new partnerships in the continued face of the American embargo. Much about Cuba remains illusory. Others say the array of farms and gardens in and around Havana appear abundant and lush, but that the same cannot be said across the rest of the countryside, which is difficult for visitors to get permission to access.

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Sustainable does not equal abundance, and Cubans suffer through chronic, routine food shortages. Julia Wright, a professor of sustainable agriculture at Coventry University in England, estimates that 40-50 percent of Cuba’s food is imported. She reckons Cuba has never fully stopped importing agrochemicals, getting them from Venezuela, and that Cubans have little experience with or knowledge of modern farming techniques.

It is no secret the Cuban people have suffered economically during the 53-year-long blockade imposed in 1962 by President John F. Kennedy. They are eager to discover the risks and rewards of joining the global marketplace.

Prior to the 1959 revolution, Monsanto, the agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation, maintained a strong presence in Cuba, though it was during a time when American corporations controlled much of Cuba’s economy.

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As relations between the United States and Cuba rapidly normalize, there are already signs that the multinational agri-behemoths, like Monsanto, Cargill, and Archer Daniels Midland, are lobbying for a piece of the action. While the Cuban government has signaled it is proceeding with caution, can they preserve and improve their unique system? What can American farmers and Cuban farmers learn from each other? And will there be the opportunity to share knowledge?

Images via Melody Breaker, Adam Jones, vxla, Francesco Veronesi, Eric Vernier, David Schroeder.