Cuba – An Unlikely Model for Organic Farming

May 12th, 2010 | Simcha Weinstein | 1 Comment »

Going organic is typically thought of as a choice. Farms choose to become organic; retailers decide that organic is best for their customers and their business; and consumers select the products that best fit their lifestyle. In Cuba, it became necessary for them to think beyond the farm, or the store; they needed to think and act as a country. Simply put, the U.S. trade embargo of Cuba, plus the collapse of the Soviet market, meant that the country found it virtually impossible to import the chemicals and machinery necessary to practice modern, intensive agriculture. Instead, it has turned to farming much of its land organically – with results that overturn the myths about the ‘inefficiency’ of organic farming.

The driving force in these changes has been economic crisis. Since the 1989 collapse of trading relations with the former Soviet bloc, imports of agro-chemicals have dropped by more than 80 percent. Tractors are idle for lack of spare parts and petroleum, and the government is searching desperately for ways to provide incentives so that farmers will up their food production in the face of these difficulties. Yet in the midst of crisis, something is happening with positive implications that reach far beyond Cuban shores.”

Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuban agriculture was based on large scale, monoculture farming, much like we would see in the Central valley of California. More than 90% of the fertilizers and pesticides that they used to grow their food were imported. When the trade relations with the Soviet Union collapsed pesticides and fertilizers virtually disappeared, and the availability of petroleum for agriculture dropped by half. As a result of this crisis, Cuba has been undergoing a conversion from modern conventional agriculture to organic farming.

During the 1990’s after the Soviet collapse, the U.S. tightened its existing trade embargo, making it nearly impossible for Cuba to rely on any help from other countries. As their oil imports diminished, Cuba had to reduce many of their agricultural costs, including transportation, refrigeration and storage. They did this by moving farming production closer to the cities. Urban organic agriculture became the method of farming in Cuba. Urban agriculture used to play a major role in feeding urban populations until the rise of the industrial revolution, when farming moved almost exclusively to the countryside. By 1998, Urban farming was beginning to take hold in Cuba, with over 8,000 “Urban Gardens” being farmed by over 30,000 people, using over 30% of the islands land mass.

With petrochemicals disappearing in Cuba, integrated pest management has begun to replace chemicals; farmer co-ops are replacing large monoculture farms; and rather than people fleeing the cities, the urban population remains strong.

Out of necessity is born innovation. Cuba rarely hears its praises sung, but I think it’s time; hats off to a job well done.