THE GROWING SUCCESS OF ORGANOPONICOS
organic and sustainable horticulture
Written by Gary Jones
For anyone with even a passing interest in organic food production, Cuba has become synonymous with applied research and ‘sustainability.’ A simple ‘Google’™ of ‘Cuba, Sustainable and Agriculture’ will yield nearly three million result pages. Even narrowing the search down to ‘Cuban organic horticulture’ still results in about 120,000 website references!
Clearly significant volumes have already been written and Cuban agriculture has been much in the spotlight. And not without good reason – Cuba has oodles to offer to those willing to learn. Cuba has been the only nation to ‘de-industrialize,’ i.e., go back to an agriculture-based economy and society.1
In March of last year, a group of delegates from a wide variety of scientific and commercial backgrounds in Canada and Chile visited Cuba with several objectives in mind, namely to:
• Introduce those delegates new to Cuba to the scientific community involved with biological control production.
• Identify some of the sustainable production techniques that have been developed in Cuba since the U.S. embargo.
• Allow delegates the opportunity to gain an understanding of the agriculture extension service and the role of agriculture in the community – and the role of the community in agriculture.
• Continue to develop commercial links for the production of Trichogramma sibiricus in Cuba for possible export to Canada.
To achieve these goals, visits were made to several sites operated by the Cuban Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry for Economic Diversification and other government operated facilities, plus several state and co-operatively owned farms and horticultural units across the central section of the Island.
BACKGROUND TO CUBAN HORTICULTURE
Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean, approximately 43,000 square miles in area, and the western most island of the Greater Antilles group. In actual fact, Cuba is technically not an island, but an archipelago of some 4,000 or so islands and ‘keys,’ the majority of which are, however, extremely small. It is located about only 90 miles south of the southern tip of Florida, situated at the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico on its northwestern shore and the Caribbean lying to its south and east. The population is about 11 million (up to 12.5 million according to some sources), of whom two million live in the capital, Havana. Some 70 per cent live in urban settings. Cuba’s terrain is mostly flat or gently rolling plains, but it has three relatively small mountain ranges of up to 2,000 metres (6,000 feet), primarily in the southeast. The climate, as you would expect, is tropical, moderated by trade winds, with a distinct dry season (November-April) and rainy season (May-October).
The Revolution of 1959 ousted then leader Fulgencio Batista and brought to power Fidel Castro, accompanied by his faithful companions, including Ché Guevara. Cuba developed a significant sugar production industry based on the export of this commodity to its biggest ‘customer,’ the former U.S.S.R. By 1990, this small republic, approximately 1,000 miles from one end to the other, boasted seven bulk sugar terminals, each with a capacity of moving 75,000 tons per day.2 Sugar, in fact, constituted 75 per cent of the total value of Cuba’s exports.3
However, all this changed – and changed quite suddenly – in 1990 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and so went the market for Cuban sugar. Literally overnight, Cuba faced a major home crisis of providing its population with work, income and food (the ships supplying over-priced sugar to China, the U.S.S.R. and East Germany were returning to Cuba laden with rice, wheat and machinery).2 The U.S. jumped on board, so to speak, and more strictly enforced its embargo, virtually cutting off any remaining foreign trade (tobacco, citrus, minerals) that Cuba was enjoying. So began what has become known in Cuba as ‘The Special Period.’
But perhaps the most significant result of this crisis was the sudden and virtually total cessation of oil and oil-based products being available for agriculture. There were no agrochemicals – pesticides or fertilizers – to be used. Something had to give. Or so it was thought. What ‘gave’ was the reliance on large-scale monoculture ‘conventional’ farming and horticulture. The long-term result has been the most successful sustainable (or at least semi-sustainable) food (and ornamentals!) production system in the world.
Today, Cuba is considered a relatively safe country for visitors, and is actively trying to develop tourism as a means of bringing in foreign currency. The local currency is the peso, and this is used by Cubans to purchase goods from ‘peso stores’ – government-operated retail outlets. However, visitors are required to exchange their home currency for Cuban Convertible Currency (CUCs) on arrival at the airport. One CUC is equivalent to about 24 pesos (as of March ’06), and can be used for purchasing goods in the ‘CUC stores.’
Tourism has been seen as a way of surviving financially after the collapse of the socialist state, but there is no tourism infrastructure. This is being addressed with gusto! Tourism also allows people in the industry to have access to more valuable CUCs, as tipping is expected. Such is the magnetism of working in tourism (and being tipped in CUCs) that the demand for English speakers is significant, luring those able away from their original professions. To safeguard against a deficit of essential services, some professionals are not permitted to switch careers (e.g., teachers).
Real estate (housing) is an interesting issue. Approximately 80 per cent of the population own their own home, but it is technically illegal for citizens to buy and sell property. Houses are therefore simply ‘exchanged,’ using a third party to facilitate the trade between other families. To get around the ‘no sale rule,’ there may be ‘deal sweeteners’ – the addition of a car or furniture to encourage those with larger properties to downscale to a smaller property.
FOOD AND WAGES
Everybody born in Cuba is entitled to a ration card each month. This allows them to purchase basic supplies (rice, fruit, vegetables, pork, eggs, chicken and cigarettes!) for minimal payment. Recently, this ration allowance has become insufficient for the average family to last a month (don’t forget that Cuba lost almost 80 per cent of its food supplies in the 1991 Embargo), so these supplies have to be supplemented with food purchased in non-ration stores, using CUCs or equivalent pesos.
Dairy products are in short supply. Consequently, rations are limited: children under age seven get the equivalent of one litre of milk per day; from seven to 15 years of age, they are allowed soya milk only; and adults get no dairy products at all in their allowance.
The minimum salary has recently been increased to approximately 250 pesos per month (at March 2006 this is equivalent to about $13.50 Cdn – hence the desire of locals to obtain CUCs). However, Cuba turns conventional Western values for careers on their heads: doctors, lawyers, dentists are average earners, at about 400 to 500 pesos per month, and police officers and farmers are highly paid at about 900 pesos per month.
Although the average salaries are very low, remember that the political line is that Cubans do not pay for any education even at post-graduate level, and likewise all health care is provided. Cuba, despite having only one per cent of the population of Latin America, is reported to have four per cent of the scientists – ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ as the old saying goes.
Cuba has approximately one million registered urban gardens and city farms. These produce up to about 60 per cent of total Cuban vegetable production. Being local, these farms are also helping to significantly reduce the amount of non-renewable fuels required for getting food to where it is consumed – something to think about in terms of Western consumption of ‘food miles’ and contributions to greenhouse gas emissions.
Because all land is essentially state-owned, farms fall into several categories.
State UBPCs: (Units of Basic Agricultural Production). These are true co-operatives, and workers can purchase the product. They are overseen by the ‘ANAP’ organization.
Private CPSs: (Co-oparativa Producion Agricole). These are considered to be the best farms in Cuba, typically about 1,000 to 2,000 hectares each. They are conventional co-operatives.
Private CCSs: (Co-operativa de Creditos et Servicios). These are so-called Credit and Service co-operatives.
UBPCs provide all the needs for food by state organizations (hospitals, etc.). But here is the rub. After a UBPC has met those required (and contractually agreed ahead of the season) needs, it is free to sell any surplus on the open market (typically local farmers’ markets). The price obtained at these markets is usually higher than prices paid by the state, so as weird as it sounds to Western (subsidized) agricultural markets at least, producers actually achieve a price premium for over-supply.
The farm set-up is complex and difficult to understand fully in a short visit. This is not helped by the fact that visitors cannot simply ‘drop-in’ on any farming or horticultural operation that they may happen to be passing. All visits have to be scheduled and approved ahead of time using the Ministry of Economic Affairs as a facilitator. Any failure not to abide by these rules is considered rude and threatening to national security – imagine, this nation had lost 80 per cent of its food supplies only a few years ago.
AGRICULTURAL EXTENSION SERVICES
Cuba is divided into 13 administrative provinces (14 if you include the City of Havana). Within each, the Ministry of Agriculture operates a series of research and extension offices, together with a network of biological control agent production facilities. These are either at provincial offices or one of the 200 or so Cuban ‘CREEs’ administered by the Plant Protection Research Institute (PPRI). These CREEs are small, locally distributed production laboratories, operated by local people and serving the needs of their local farmers, growers and general public. In addition, the Ministry of Agriculture staff are extensively involved in education, often to the extent of going into schools to perform mini-dramas or sketches based on the fight between beneficial control agents and the insects they prey or parasitize! Truly, education in sustainable agriculture begins at an early age.
There are also a small number of ‘Plant Clinics’ providing diagnosis of plant disorders and offering remedies for those problems. The initial consultation at such clinics is free, but the cures require payment. (See later – Provincial Extension Stations, Vanagas and Iguara).
REFERENCES AND FURTHER INFORMATION
1 Skeffington, Micheline Sheehy, (Feb. 2006) “Organic Fruit and Vegetable Growing as a National Policy: The Cuban Story.” Energy Bulletin / FEASTA.
2 McKibben, Bill, “The Cuba Diet – What will you eat when the Revolution comes?” Harper’s Magazine, April 2005, pp. 61-69.
3 Unknown, “Cuba’s Agricultural Revol-ution: A return to Oxen and Organics.” In “World Resources, Chapter 3, ‘Living in Ecosystems.’”
In the next issue, some details and descriptions of the production of specific biological control agents and examples of the greenhouses industry will be provided.
This trip was partly funded by and inspired by the vision of Dr. Debbie Henderson, LEAF Chair, Institute for Sustainable Horticulture (‘I.S.H.’), Kwantlen University College in British Columbia. Additional funding was provided by the School of Horticulture, Kwantlen. For further information, contact Gary Jones at