So has it worked? That’s up for debate. The Cuban vice minister of the economy and planning ministry reportedly said in February 2007 that 84 percent of the country’s food was imported—not terribly encouraging, if we are looking at Cuba to foretell our agricultural future. But a recent paper by UC-Berkeley’s Miguel A. Altieri and the University of Matanzas’ Fernando R. Funes-Monzote suggests that while the country still imports almost all its wheat (a crop that doesn’t do well in the Caribbean), it now produces the majority of its fresh fruit and vegetables—even much of its meat. In 2007, Cubans produced more food while using one-quarter of the chemicals as they did in 1988.
Agro-ecology is particularly valuable in years when disaster strikes the island. After Hurricane Ike flattened Cuba in 2008, a research team found that both traditional plantain monocultures and agro-ecological farms were devastated. But there were striking differences: Monocultures lost about 75 percent of tree cover, where agro-ecological farms lost 60 percent. On agro-ecological farms, tall plantains—a staple of the Caribbean diet—were often righted by the families working the land. By contrast, on conventional farms, the seasonal labor force arrived on the scene too late to save the plants. When trees were beyond salvage in the polyculture farms, crops lower down in the canopy thrived. By contrast, in the monoculture, the only things that flourished in the gaps between trees were weeds.
About four months after the storm, strongly integrated agro-ecological farms were nearly back to full production. It took conventional farms an additional two months to spring back.
Yet all is not well in the Cuban food system.
For many, especially government officials, choosing agro-ecology wasn’t a red-blooded Communist decision. It was a practical one. They are quite ready for an industrial-agricultural relapse if the occasion arises. Recently, they have had an unlikely enabler: Hugo Chávez. In exchange for the 31,000 Cuban doctors who are treating Venezuelans, Cuba receives 100,000 barrels of oil a day, plus a great deal of chemical fertilizer. As a result, the parts of the country untouched by agro-ecology are starting to spray and sow like it’s the 1980s again.
At odds aren’t just two different farming systems, but two different social approaches. On one hand, in Cuba and around the world, is industrial agriculture. In this top-down, command-and-control model, knowledge, fertilizers, seed, and land are all fed into the black box that is the farm. Wait long enough, and food comes out the other end.
On the other hand, there’s agro-ecology, in which farmers are innovators and educators, soil can be built over generations, and the natural environment can be bent with, rather than broken.
Climate change has already reduced global wheat harvests by 5 percent, and food prices are predicted to double by 2030. Cuba’s example is both instructive and frustrating. Technical innovations in Cuban agriculture point to the kinds of thinking needed to address the future: moving away from monoculture and understanding the value of complex, integrated systems. The trouble is that this also means a change in the mindset of governments and scientists schooled in last century’s agriculture. If that’s a lesson the rest of the world is ready for, Cuban peasant organizing could well light the way to the future, even if their automobiles are stuck in the past.