The Paradox of Cuban Agriculture: Agroecological Reflections Based on a Recent Visit to Cuba

The Paradox of Cuban Agriculture: Agroecological Reflections Based on a Recent Visit to Cuba

By Miguel A Altieri

The world, and especially Latin America, still observe with admiration and pride the levels of production and areas dedicated to urban and organic agriculture in Cuba, levels never reached in other countries, as well as the advances in agroecological research and extension, without However, in many circles today there is talk of the "paradox of Cuban agriculture": How in a country with so much practical experience in agroecology, high level of scientific knowledge and grassroots social organization, where peasant agriculture occupies 25% of the arable land and produces a substantial quantity of viands, grains, fruits, small animals, etc. And with more than 350,000 urban farmers supplying more than 80% of the vegetables consumed in the big cities, it still imports 65% of the food?

Throughout the world it is well known that despite the difficulties of the special period, particularly the fall in imports of key inputs for agriculture such as oil, fertilizers, pesticides, tractors, spare parts, etc., Cuba and especially the sector farmer, was able to face the challenge of producing a large part of the food with at least half of the agrochemical inputs and limited access to fuel. This achievement was possible thanks to a series of decentralizing agrarian policies of cooperative and individual forms of production, a solid research system, the diffusion of urban agriculture and organic agriculture with a massive development of biological inputs, opening of markets farmers, and strong organizations that support farmers such as ANAP, ACPA and ACTAF, among others. At the beginning of the special period, the emphasis was heavily on a strategy to replace chemical inputs with biological ones, to reduce the use of inputs or because these were not available and to reduce the production costs of conventional models. This low-input approach established the basis for the development and staging of aggreocological strategies for farm diversification, animal integration, recycling, biological control, etc. that thousands of farmers already practice on the island.

The world, and especially Latin America, still observe with admiration and pride the levels of production and areas dedicated to urban and organic agriculture in Cuba, levels never reached in other countries, as well as the advances in agroecological research and extension, without However, in many circles today there is talk of the "paradox of Cuban agriculture": How in a country with so much practical experience in agroecology, high level of scientific knowledge and grassroots social organization, where peasant agriculture occupies 25% of the arable land and produces a substantial quantity of viands, grains, fruits, small animals, etc. And with more than 350,000 urban farmers supplying more than 80% of the vegetables consumed in the big cities, it still imports 65% of the food? How in a country whose advances in biological pest control are revered throughout the world, is a variety of transgenic Bt maize about to be released for the control of fall armyworm, a pest easily regulated in agroecological systems by predators, parasites and entomopathogens?

In fact, one of the top critics of Cuban agriculture Dennis Avery of the Center for Global Food Issues at the Hudson Institute has just published an article (Cubans starve on a diet of lies – http: // / 02 / cubans-starve-on-diet-of-lies-by-dennis-t-avery /) of wide disclosure in which he affirms that a Cuban Minister asserted that Cuba imports 84% ​​of its food. Avery has used this information to promote a smear campaign against all the authors who have studied and reported on the heroic achievements of the Cuban people in agriculture, accusing them of lying communists.

If it is true, Cuba imports food like many other countries (the USA imported more than $ 70 billion dollars in 2007) but only 50% of the grains and their products (mainly legumes and cereals) that are used in the basic food basket in addition to some amounts of chicken and powdered milk. Given the circumstances imposed by the embargo, the special period and a series of hurricanes, the policy of importing food has paradoxically constituted a way to make a transition to more sustainable systems without lamenting famine. It is clear that until now the political decision-makers in Cuba consider conventional agriculture as the most viable and safest model to increase agricultural productivity and achieve food security. In fact, many of the resources from international cooperation (a large proportion from Venezuela) are reserved for “protected agricultural areas” or “enhanced” where potatoes, rice, soybeans, beans, and vegetables are intensively produced. Millions of dollars are invested in pivot irrigation systems, machinery and other technologies of industrial agriculture, a model that can seduce by the increases in production in the short term, but which disappoints when considering the costs that this production generates in the long term . These protected areas, however, do not reach 10% of the cultivated area that belongs to the Ministry of Agriculture. Comparatively few resources are devoted to low-input technologies that would support around 80% of the lands that are in private hands, or in various forms of cooperatives (UBPC, CPA and CCS). Obviously, the agroecological potential of the small and medium farm sector has yet to be realized. Cuba has also invested millions of dollars in biotechnological research and development for agriculture. On the one hand, Cuban biotechnology is free from the controls that the multinationals that exist in other countries have, apparently it has a good biosafety system and well-directed
Biotechnology could focus on problems for which there are no agroecological alternatives, such as in the case of some cases of viral diseases of certain crops such as tomato, bomb fruit, etc.

Possessing these advantages, what is questionable is that the Cuban Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology has embarked on the development of transgenics such as Bt corn or herbicide resistant events. The BT FR-Bt maize event against the maize moth has already been introduced in an area of ​​no more than one hectare in 8 Cuban provinces. This pest that attacks the bud of corn is harmful in young plants, however its attack is dramatically reduced when the corn is intercropped with beans or other crops or when habitat management is carried out that conditions early in the season a high diversity and abundance of predators and parasites in the agroecosystem. In Cuba there are also CREEs that manufacture entomopathogens, many of them like BT, which in the form of a microbial insecticide is effective against moths. Furthermore, it is known that lepidopterans rapidly develop resistance to Bt events, and that Bt maize can have negative effects on the micro and mesofauna of the soil via the accumulation of active toxins adhered to humic acids or clays, and against pollinators and some natural enemies, which suffer mortality when feeding on transgenic pollen, prey that ingested the toxin or when sucking sap from transgenic plants, as in the case of predators such as Geocoris and Orius. The issue of contamination via pollen with transgenes of local varieties of corn also deserves a rigorous investigation.

The global financial crisis and the obvious consequences for Cuba of the increased cost of energy and imported food, reaffirms the need to position agriculture as a strategic sector for the future of the island. President Raúl Castro himself has insisted on the need to diversify agriculture, increase decentralization and emphasize self-sufficiency within a framework of import substitution. This new awareness of the direction of agriculture in Cuba is key, but it needs to be concretized in practical actions, since the rest of humanity is rapidly becoming aware that the capitalist industrial model of oil-dependent agriculture already it does not work to supply the necessary food. Inflationary oil prices inevitably increase production costs and food prices have escalated to the point that a dollar today buys 30% less food than a year ago. A person in Nigeria spends 73% of their income on food, in Vietnam 65% and in Indonesia 50%. This situation worsens rapidly as agricultural land is used for biofuels and as climate change reduces yields due to droughts or floods. Expanding agricultural lands to biofuels or transgenic crops that already reach more than 140 million hectares globally, will exacerbate the ecological impacts of monocultures and will not solve the food problem, since all these crops are dedicated to feed cars or livestock for the wealthier classes .

Furthermore, industrial agriculture contributes today with more than 1/3 of global greenhouse gas emissions, especially methane and nitrous oxides. Continuing with this degrading system, as promoted by a neoliberal economic system, is not a viable option and it is also ecologically dishonest by not reflecting the environmental externalities that intensive production implies.

The immediate challenge for our generation is to transform industrial agriculture and initiate a transition of food systems away from oil and expensive, high-input technologies.

Cuba is ahead of the rest of the world in taking this urgent and vital step. No less than 60% of their arable land is in the hands of private farmers or cooperatives who already use diversified systems, biological inputs, animal traction, and are minimally dependent on external inputs so that they better manage production by saving scarce resources. The UBPCs that control 42% of the arable land constitute fertile ground for a massive process of agroecological conversion.

There are more than 100,000 requests for land by people interested in returning to the countryside to produce, with 40,000 families who have already accessed land handed over. Urban agriculture has consolidated: 383,000 urban farmers producing 1,460,000 tons of vegetables on 50 thousand hectares and the potential for expansion and reaching a production of 20 kg / m2 / year is at hand. Cuba also has 2% of the Latin American population but 11% of scientists; The island has more than 140,000 high-level professionals and mid-level technicians in agriculture, an impressive number of research centers-stations, universities, plus the institutional apparatuses associated with MINAG and MINAZ, along with ANAP, ACTAF and their networks. What, then, are the obstacles on the one hand and the challenges on the other, so that once and for all the island takes a qualitative leap and makes the agroecological conversion towards sustainable agriculture a reality?

It is clear that an alternative paradigm of agricultural development is needed, one that fosters forms of ecological, sustainable and socially just agriculture. Redesigning the food system towards more equitable and viable forms for farmers and consumers will require radical changes in the political and economic guidelines that determine what, how, where and for whom it is produced. The concept of food sovereignty should be transformed into a key agrarian policy, since it constitutes the only viable alternative to a food system that depends on imports of both food and expensive foreign inputs and technology. Many of the requirements of food sovereignty, such as the implementation of local production-consumption circuits, and organized actions to achieve access to land, water, agro-biodiversity, etc., for rural communities are fulfilled in Cuba, for which reason the The island is ahead of many other countries, however some additional actions will be necessary:

• The three sovereignties: food sovereignty or the right of Cuba to define its own model of agricultural development to satisfy the food needs of the population within the limits imposed by the national and global economy, energy scarcity and climate change They cannot be conceived without the development of productive sovereignty and energy sovereignty simultaneously on the island (Figure 1).

Figure 1 - Agroecology, sovereignty and resilience.

Elements of the three sovereignties are already present in many small and medium farms where farmers not only produce 70-100% of food for family consumption (for example, Finca de José Antonio Casimiro, CCS Reinerio Reina, Sancti Spíritus and others ) or the members of the cooperatives and their families (Finca San Juan, municipality of San Juan), but instead produce surpluses that they sell in the market, obtaining quite reasonable income. In fact, there are at least 100,000 families affiliated to ANAP that achieve productivity levels per hectare capable of feeding between 5-15 people.

They achieve all this with indigenous technologies (vermicompost, efficient organisms, etc.), diversified production systems (polycultures, rotations, animal integration, agroforestry and silvopastoral systems, etc.) and generating their own energy sources (human-animal labor , biogas, windmills, etc.). These achievements are important since the productions are obtained with a minimum fraction of inputs and other resources and at a cost per unit of currency much lower than the import of food or its industrialized production.

Many farmers use a strategy of adapting the genetic and biological potential of arable plants and animal species to the ecological conditions of the farm, rather than modifying the farm to meet the needs of crops and animals. This saves a lot of energy and resources. This strategy needs to be carried out at the municipal or regional levels to plan the use of the land in order to achieve the three sovereignties. For example, in the “Indio Hatuey” Pasture and Forage Station, the production of Jartropha curcas is being explored for the production of biodiesel in combination with annual crops (cassava, sweet potato, beans, etc.), which allows not sacrificing land that can be used for food production. Other researchers propose dedicating 100 hectares to sugar cane in large areas whose function is to produce the biofuel necessary to produce food crops on 1000 hectares.

Agroecology provides the scientific and methodological bases to integrate into diversified designs both small, medium and large scales (including plantations of citrus, coconut, sugar cane, potato, rice, etc.) so that enough food and energy are produced, favoring recycling and the use of local inputs and self-regenerating technologies.

• Strategic inter-institutional alliances: Although there are a large number of institutes carrying out research and extension projects in agroecology, it is clear that there is dispersion and sometimes little coordination of efforts. The creation of strategic alliances is essential to carry out projects to systematize experiences, test technologies or scale-up successful agroecological systems. A more inclusive approach to agroecology needs to be developed to connect the various lines of research, extension and training now operating in a very isolated way. Instead of generating specific knowledge on isolated constraints (pests, nutrient deficiencies, etc.), a methodology must be generated that connects the different levels of knowledge at the level of the entire agroecosystem. With the agroecological approach, you can quickly move from input substitution to farm redesign, so that diversified systems prevent or resist problems, instead of always trying to cure problems caused by poor design from the start. It would be optimal for alliances between centers to establish specific areas (2-5 hectares) or agroecological lighthouses in UBPC with diversified designs in which a holistic analysis of productive, edaphological, entomological, energy, etc. behavior is made. of the lighthouses with the rest of the systems managed in the UBPC. From these comparisons emerge the basic ecological principles that explain why the tested designs are more optimal, and these principles are applied to the rest of the UBPC area or neighboring cooperatives by means of a participatory research method or using diagnostic and extension methods. horizontal from farmer to farmer led by ANAP.

• Permeating the extension and research agenda with an agroecological base: Although emphasizing that farmers adopt as many agroecological practices as possible on their farms is important, this does not guarantee that a system has a solid agroecological base or is more sustainable. Many of these agroecological practices are nothing more than input substitution practices, which follow the same paradigm of conventional agriculture in which the objective is to overcome the limiting factor, although this time it is carried out with alternative and non-agrochemical inputs. This type of management ignores the fact that the limiting factor (a pest, a nutritional deficiency, etc.) is nothing more than a symptom that an ecological process is not working correctly and that the addition of what is missing does little to optimize the irregular process.

Obviously, the substitution of inputs has lost its agroecological potential, since it does not go to the root of the problem, but to the symptom. Being dazzled by an alternative practice that increases production or other agronomic attributes (for example, biopreparations based on efficient organisms) are very important innovations that should be promoted, but without neglecting the key pillars of agroecological conversion such as diversification over time and in the space and the biological activation of the soil.

The key is to identify a set of agroecological management practices that are mutually adaptive and that together lead to higher performance from the agroecosystem. The observed effects on agroecosystem behavior cannot be explained by the additive effects of individual practices. In other words, each production system represents a distinctive group of management practices that determine specific ecological interactions, so that what explains the success of the system is not the set of practices, but the ecological processes promoted by those practices.

In the case that one wants to convert a farm to agroecological management, it is not enough to copy the management practices used in successful neighboring organic farms, but rather it must be ensured that the ecological interactions that explain the operation of neighboring farms , also occur in the system to be converted.

This reinforces the fact that agroecological designs are site specific, and what may be replicated elsewhere is not the techniques, but rather the ecological interactions and synergies that govern sustainability. There is no point in transferring technologies or practices from one place to another if they are not capable of replicating the ecological interactions associated with those practices.

The agri-food potential of small and medium-scale agriculture

Although many researchers and politicians think that small family farms are backward and unproductive, much research in various countries shows that they are much more productive than large farms if the total production is considered rather than the yields of each crop or animal species. Whole farm systems in which small-scale farmers produce grains, fruits, vegetables, forage, and animal products provide additional yields to those produced in large-scale monoculture systems. This inverse relationship between farm size and total production can be attributed to the more efficient use of land, water, biodiversity and other agricultural resources by small farmers. Studies in Cuba support these claims; Comparisons between various types of farms revealed that the total energy output per unit of farm area was 4–6 times higher in mixed farms (crops-livestock) than in specialized dairy farms, and milk production was double in farms. mixed than in specialized ones. In silvopastoral systems, up to 40 tons of dry matter / hectare can be produced with a gain of 800 g / animal / day in the rainy season and 400 in the dry season and between 3,000-3,500 liters / ha / year without the use of concentrates. .

If all the peasant farms (which control 25% of the land) and all the UBPCs that control 42% of the land were strengthened with this type of diversified agroecological designs, Cuba could not only produce all the food necessary to feed the more than 11 million inhabitants, if not it would be able to supply the tourist industry and meet agro-export quotas to generate foreign exchange. All this production would be complemented by urban agriculture, which already reaches astonishing levels of production, and above all, if successful experiences such as the UBPC Vivero Organopónico Alamar are staggered. Channeling well-endowed and articulated efforts for agroecological research, extension, and dissemination in an area of ​​no more than 1.5 million hectares is all that would be needed to achieve the three sovereignties.

Resilience to climate change

All these efforts should be framed within a concept of resilience, focused on the development of agricultural systems that are more resistant to climate change and with the capacity to recover after the events that the models predict will become increasingly frequent and more violent in countries receiving the change. climate like Cuba. The island has already suffered three hurricanes in a row last year and circumstantial evidence indicates that more diversified systems were less affected than unprotected monocultures. As already mentioned, thousands of Cuban peasants have developed agricultural systems adapted to local conditions, which has allowed them to generate the continuous production necessary to survive, in many cases with surpluses for sale, despite marginal land endowments, variability climate and low use of external inputs. Part of this performance is related to the constant innovation of farmers and the high levels of agrobiodiversity exhibited by their agroecosystems. Observations during the last two decades of agricultural performance after extreme climatic events have revealed that resilience to climatic disasters is closely related to the biodiversity levels of farms Diversification
is, therefore, an important strategy for the management of production risk in small agricultural systems, since diversity is of great importance for the stability of farmers, allowing crops to reach acceptable levels of productivity even under conditions of environmental stress.

In general, diversified agroecosystems are less vulnerable to catastrophic loss because the wide variety of crops and different spatial and temporal arrangements exhibit compensation in case of loss. Understand how hundreds of farmers in many rural areas have adapted or resisted the Extreme weather events is a key source of knowledge for the development of systems that are resilient to climate change, a reality that already affects Cuba.

Studies carried out in other areas of the world already affected by climate change reveal that some of the adaptation strategies include:

• Use of locally adapted varieties / species showing more appropriate adaptations to climate and hibernation requirements and / or increased resistance to heat and drought,

• Enhancing the organic matter content of soils through the application of manure, green manures, cover crops, etc. thus increasing the moisture retention capacity.

• Wider use of water “harvesting” technologies, soil moisture conservation through mulching), and more efficient use of irrigation water.

• Water management to prevent flooding, erosion, and nutrient leaching when rainfall increases.

• Use of diversification strategies such as intercropping, agroforestry, etc.) and animal integration.

• Prevention of pests, diseases and weed infestations that may modify their biologies through management practices that promote biological regulation mechanisms and others (antagonisms, allelopathy, etc.) and the development and use of varieties and species resistant to pests and diseases.

• Use of natural indicators for weather forecasting to reduce risks in production.

The challenge now is how to quickly mobilize this knowledge so that it can be applied in restoring already affected areas or preparing rural areas predicted to be hit by climate change. For this horizontal transfer to occur quickly, emphasis must be placed on directly involving farmers in the extension of innovations through well-organized farmer-to-farmer networks. The focus should be on the consolidation of local research and the development of capacities to solve problems. Organizing people around projects to promote agricultural resilience to climate change should make effective use of local skills and knowledge supported by more formal agroecological research, as this provides a platform for higher learning and levels of local organization, improving thus the possibilities of community empowerment and self-sufficient development strategies in the face of climate variability.


In Cuba there is an immense wealth of agroecological knowledge. The development of this agroecological development approach has been proposed by the conglomerate of researchers, professors, technicians and farmers protected under ACTAF, ACPA and ANAP. This heritage is based on the knowledge and experience within the agricultural communities that constitute successful beacons of the application of agroecology, in synergy with hundreds of investigations, thus forming the basis of a technological strategy that overcomes the limitations that result from the approaches that depend heavily on capital, agrochemicals and machinery. Capitalizing to the maximum on the power of agroecology, productivity is achieved at a relatively low cost and with returns on investment in research several times greater than other approaches such as transgenic biotechnology that requires high investments of infrastructure, equipment, personnel, etc. .

The political will expressed in writings and speeches by the highest authorities of Cuba on the need to prioritize agriculture and self-sufficiency should become a reality with the concrete support of resources necessary to promote productive and energy initiatives that aim to achieve the three sovereignties at the municipal level. . There are particular opportunities for institutional innovation with the potential to create collaborative synergies between ANAP, ACPA, ACTAF and the research and extension centers in several pilot municipalities. It is necessary to reorient current extension systems and have personnel to systematize successful experiences and to disseminate agroecological principles that will take particular technological forms in each region according to specific environmental and socioeconomic conditions. The farmer-to-farmer methodology supported by researchers plays a key role in this process. This means moving away from top-down instruction to facilitate learning for farmers, researchers, and extension workers together. The other opportunity is to involve researchers and teachers in a more strategic way in the experimentation and evaluation processes, since this will reinforce the generation of the scientific bases necessary for conversion, and will also enrich the agroecological theory necessary to better train generations. future professionals, technicians and farmer-experimenters.

El continuo debate entre los varios actores en el ámbito rural sobre el futuro de la agricultura en Cuba permitirá definir los caminos más convenientes y soberanos destinados a afianzar los objetivos y logros de la Revolución. Solo el debate constructivo y la acción concreta podrán terminar con la paradoja de la agricultura cubana.

Miguel A Altieri – Universidad de California, Berkeley – Sociedad Cientifica Latinoamericana de Agroecología

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* Del 8 al 14 de marzo, 2009 gracias a la cooperación de ACTAF y la hospitalidad de varias personas e instituciones, pude realizar junto al Dr. Fernando Funes una gira por varias provincias y ciudades de Cuba, que incluyo visitas a fincas, centros de investigación y discusiones muy productivas con un sinnúmero de agricultores, investigadores, profesores, etc. A todos ellos mis más profundos agradecimientos y mis mayores expresiones de solidaridad.

Video: Cuba Vacation Travel Guide. Expedia (May 2021).