Regenerative Agriculture in Cuba

Cuba remains an enigma to many people in the United States, still shrouded in the mists of profound cultural and political differences. Due to the trade embargo and the constant standoff between our governments, most Cubans and Americans are unable to trade goods or ideas, or to collaborate on scientific research. However, in the realms of environmental sustainability and organic farming, those of us in the U.S. have much to learn from our Cuban counterparts.

Organic Agriculture in Cuba Compared to the United States

Cuba was recently ranked as the most sustainably developed country in the world, according to the Sustainable Development Index. (The U.S. ranked 160th out of 164 countries in the same study.) Most of the farms in Cuba are organic. A recent collaborative study between researchers from the University of Vermont, Williams College, and Oberlin College in the U.S. and their counterparts at the Centro de Estudios Ambientales de Cienfuegos (Cienfuegos Center for Environmental Studies) in Cuba, showed that Cuban waterways are much cleaner than those in the U.S., partly due to the lack of synthetic fertilizer and pesticide runoff.

Cuba’s transition to organic agriculture began very unexpectedly. With the collapse of its main trading partner, the Soviet Union, beginning in the late 1980’s, Cuba was unable to purchase commercial synthetic pesticides and fertilizers or cheap Russian oil – or even Soviet tractors – thus beginning a national experiment in organic farming. After the extremely difficult “Special Period” that Cuba experienced after the fall of the USSR, unused land was opened up to farmers and many urban farms sprang up in the cities.

[F]armers’ cooperatives and peer-to-peer knowledge sharing schemes were encouraged. When this proved insufficient, all “inefficient state companies” and government-owned farms were dismantled, and farming on some three million hectares of unused state lands was allowed. Yet the area where Cuba’s organic farming revolution has been most applauded is in urban horticulture.There are now 50,000 hectares of otherwise unproductive land used for urban agriculture in Cuba, according to government statistics. Although it is almost impossible to gain accurate figures, some estimate that as much as 60 per cent of the vegetables and fruit consumed in Havana are supplied by local urban farmers.

– “Fidel Castro’s Environmental Legacy and Cuba’s Green Revolution”
Organic or starve: can Cuba's new farming model provide food ...
Cuban small-scale farming: raised beds supplement crop harvests. Photo by Roger Atwood/The Guardian

Agribusiness in the U.S. has gone on an entirely different route in the same period of time. Farms have been consolidating at a rapid speed, as industrial ag companies seek to control – and, of course, profit from – all elements of food production. Small family farms are an endangered species, along with all the insect and bird life that is lost in pursuit of monoculture monopoly.

[M]arket concentration has resulted in considerable corporate market power, to the detriment of America’s farmers. For example, the share of the corn seed market that is controlled by the four largest biotech companies has risen from 50.5 percent in 1988 to 85 percent in 2015. While a wide range of economic forces—from volatile international trade relations to climate change to technological upheaval—put economic pressure on America’s farmers, the impact of monopoly power on farmers can no longer be ignored. Like millions of workers whose wages have been stagnant in recent decades, farmers are quite simply not receiving a fair share of the returns from their labor. With 1 in 5 rural counties dependent on farming, and a rural poverty rate 3.5 percent higher than in urban areas, rural America cannot afford depressed farm earnings.

– “A Fair Deal for Farmers,” study by Center for American Progress

U.S.-based agribusinesses extend beyond the country’s borders, too. For example, Monsanto (owned by Bayer) controls 70% of the seed market in Mexico. Furthermore, the neoliberal counter-reforms leading up to NAFTA reversed Mexican land reform; much of this acreage previously held by small farmers has been bought up by giant multinational corporations. This is devastating to Mexican family farmers, many of whom are being forced off the land after farming there for generations. Without agricultural work in their home country, these Mexican families are forced to migrate to the United States or seek employment at U.S.-controlled factories near the border. Clearly, globalized trade and monopoly does not help farmers in any country.

If the U.S. was as isolated from trade as Cuba is forced to be, would the country be able to support itself, even with all of its abundant resources? I suspect small-scale, organic farming communities would be the first to adapt. Diversified farming operations and a lack of reliance on synthetic chemicals could sustain a vibrant and healthy community.

American Farmland Trust celebrates victories | Morning Ag Clips
Some small U.S. farms, like this one, are preserved by the American Farmland Trust. Photo by Bonnie Moreland

Yet the vast majority of U.S. food production is controlled by massive, industrial-scale farms. The scientific research funded by corporations like Bayer/Monsanto claims that industrial grade chemicals like Roundup are harmless. But if that’s the case, why are those same companies paying $10 billion in damages to people who got cancer from glyphosate (the carcinogenic ingredient in Roundup)? Why is native insect and bird life disappearing at such astonishing speed? Why are waterways so contaminated that it alters the life forms that live within them and creates massive dead zones, like the one at the mouth of the Mississippi River in the Gulf of Mexico, where nothing can grow at all?

The systems of food distribution in the U.S. are even worse than the systems of production. This has become devastatingly clear during the COVID-19 pandemic, but for years before that, milk prices were tanking and farmers struggled to keep their operations going. (Similarly, the Great Depression of the 1930’s was preceded by terrible years for farmers during the so-called “Roaring ’20’s.”) The outrageous phenomena of food deserts and farmers being forced to plow their crops back into the ground somehow co-exist in the United States, a country that wastes between 30-40% of its food supply.

According to modern industrial agribusiness, the “go big or go home” mentality of corn, soybeans, and war-grade chemicals is the only path to “progress” in the agricultural world. Not so fast! Cuban agriculture is proving that there is another way.

[T]he scientists also found much lower levels of phosphorus and nitrogen pollution in Cuban rivers than in the United States where intensive farming and chemical fertilizer use is widespread. The new study shows dissolved nitrogen levels in Cuban rivers running at roughly a quarter to a third of those found in the Mississippi River—where excess nitrogen is a primary engine of the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. “Cuban river waters provide evidence that agriculture need not overload rivers, and thus reservoirs and coastal zones, with nutrients,” writes the 15-person research team.

– “In Cuba, Cleaner Rivers Follow Greener Farming,” report published by University of Vermont

A greater emphasis on farming cooperatives, planned distribution, and communal land use has proven to be effective in Cuban agriculture. The country is far more sustainably developed than it was before the collapse of the USSR and its forced entry into organic agriculture. Furthermore, unlike other Latin American countries with neoliberal economies which have opened their agriculture markets to multinational corporations like Bayer/Monsanto, Cuba’s small-scale farming and food production is still vibrant.

Cuban Agriculture & Farming Economy
A farmer plows the land with oxen in Cuba. The lack of farming technology caused by the collapse of the USSR has created many challenges but also paved the way for innovation.

Land Conservation and Environmental Sustainability

As an island nation, Cuba is exposed to the threats caused by climate change (such as stronger tropical storms, rising sea levels, and erosion) before the mainland U.S. feels those threats. Therefore, the country is taking many steps to ensure ecological sustainability, to reclaim land that was lost to the ocean, and to adapt its agricultural practices to the new challenge.

The road to restoration: Cuba's modern farming revolution | Global ...
Beautiful farmland in Cuba.

Cuba’s environmental plan is called the Tarea Vida, or, roughly translated, the Life Task. Among other measures, it calls for innovative infrastructure, the restoration of lands previously lost to rising sea levels, and the relocation of people who live in threatened coastal areas. Land reclamation projects have already been carried out quite successfully.

The main strategic actions taken to alleviate many of the aforementioned problems include:

• Not to permit the construction of new housing in threatened coastal settlements that are predicted to disappear by permanent flood and the most vulnerable. Reduce population density in low-lying coastal areas.

• Develop constructive concepts in infrastructure, adapted to coastal flooding for low-lying areas.

• Adapt agricultural and livestock activities, particularly those with the greatest impact on food security, to changes in land use as a result of the rise of the sea level and drought.

• Reduce the crop areas to the coasts affected by saline intrusion. Diversify crops, improve soil conditions, introduce and develop varieties resistant to the new temperature scenario.

• Plan in a timely manner the processes of urban reorganization of the threatened settlements and infrastructures, in accordance with the economic conditions of the country.

– Cuba’s “Tarea Vida”

This has led to Cuba being the most sustainably developed country in the world. The United States has no plan resembling the Tarea Vida. (Although the proposed Green New Deal would be a massive step in the right direction, that plan likely isn’t going to be implemented any time soon.) Any such attempt to plan ecological sustainability and regenerative agriculture would inevitably be opposed by Bayer/Monsanto & co.

Yet I’m sure small family farmers, organic producers, conservationists, and environmental activists could readily develop the framework for such a plan. Farmers, who have a deep connection with the earth, and environmental scientists and activists, could form partnerships to explore ways to support both the earth and the nation’s food needs.

Community and Sustainability

Both Latin American culture (which has produced phenomenal results in sustainability, like in Cuba, and environmental protection, like in Costa Rica) and small farm culture are rooted in community. Indigenous American culture, too, relies on the importance of community and preserving the land for the future generations. This communal mindset may seem to stand in the way of technical “progress” as agribusiness sees it, but really it’s one of the essential ingredients of conservation.

Farm communes of the 1960’s and ’70’s, too, emphasized communal life. And while it’s possible to find community in many different places, the collaborative labor of agriculture also provides a connection to the earth. It’s harder to care about something if you’re not directly involved in it. That’s why small-scale farmers, especially organic ones, are on the front lines of environmental restoration work.

Of course, since Cuba is a much smaller country, it is probably easier for environmental scientists to connect with farmers to the benefit of all involved. (After all, environmental sustainability work has much to learn from those who work the land directly.) But I think this type of solidarity between all concerned parties in the U.S. environmental movement is possible, although it may seem more difficult in a country that does not hold solidarity as a key value.

The U.S. is critically important in the global response to climate change and environmental devastation. Yet, as we all know, it determinedly acts as if these threats don’t even exist.

Cuba only produces 0.1% of global fossil fuel emissions. So, no matter how much restorative environmental work the country does, it is overshadowed by the massive carbon emissions of the U.S. – the world’s biggest polluter.

Maybe it will take a crisis to turn the U.S. back towards organic farming, like it did for Cuba. But if that ever does happen, we’ll first need to have a grassroots organization of people dedicated to restorative agriculture. That includes farmers, ranchers, environmental scientists, back-to-the-landers, student activists, you name it. We’re all connected by a common desire to care for the earth. We can learn a lot from Cuba and also from each other.

Two Northern California Organic Valley Farms Implement Riparian ...
Cows graze on an organic farm in the United States. Credit: Organic Valley Cooperative
Organoponicos | Organic Cuban Farming | GeoEx Travel Blog
Organic crops grow on a Cuban farm.

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