What Cuba Can Teach Us About Food and Climate Change

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Oct. 26 2014 4:49 AM

What Cuba Can Teach Us About Food and Climate Change

After the Cold War, Cuba faced many of the agricultural challenges that the rest of the world is now anticipating.

Cuban farmers.
Cuban farmers sowing sweet potatoes

Photograph by STR/AFP/Getty Images.

On Thursday, April 12, Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State, will host a live event in Washington, D.C. on the future of food. “Feeding the World While the Earth Cooks” will examine post-climate-change agriculture, the rising demand for meat, and more. Click here for a full agenda and to RSVP.

The Studebakers plying up and down Havana’s boardwalk aren’t the best advertisement for dynamism and innovation. But if you want to see what tomorrow’s fossil-fuel-free, climate-change-resilient, high-tech farming looks like, there are few places on earth like the Republic of Cuba.

Under the Warsaw Pact, Cuba sent rum and sugar to the red side of the Iron Curtain. In exchange, it received food, oil, machinery, and as many petrochemicals as it could shake a stick at. From the Missile Crisis to the twilight of the Soviet Union, Cuba was one of the largest importers of agricultural chemicals in Latin America. But when the Iron Curtain fell, the supply lines were cut, and tractors rusted in the fields.

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Unable to afford the fertilizers and pesticides that 20th-century agriculture had taken for granted, the country faced extreme weather events and a limit to the land and water it could use to grow food. The rest of the world will soon face many of the same problems: In the coming decade, according to the OECD, we’ll see higher fuel and fertilizer costs, more variable climate patterns, and limits to arable land that will drive cereal prices 20 percent higher and hike meat prices by 30 percent—and that’s just the beginning. Policymakers can find inspirational and salutary ideas about how to confront this crisis in Cuba, the reluctant laboratory for 21st-century agriculture.

Cuban officials faced the crisis clumsily. They didn’t know how to transform an economy geared toward sweetening Eastern Europe into one that could feed folk at home. Agronomists had been schooled in the virtues of large-scale industrial collective agriculture. When the “industrial” part became impossible, they insisted on yet more collectivization. The dramatic decline in crop production between 1990 and 1994, during which the average Cuban lost 20 pounds, was known as “the Special Period.” Cubans have a line in comedy as dark as their rum.

Cuban peasants proved more enterprising than the government and demanded change. First, they wanted control over land. The state had owned 79 percent of arable land, and most was run in state cooperatives. Initially the government refused to listen, but the depth of the crisis and the demands of organized farmers created some space for change. Through reform, the government decentralized farm management. The land remains in government hands, but now it is also available with “usufruct” rights to tenants, who can invest in the soil and pass the land onto their children.

But that took the farmers only so far. So some of the country’s agronomists, plant breeders, soil scientists, and hydrologists (Cuba has 2 percent of Latin America’s population but 11 percent of its scientists) found themselves being put to use by Cuban peasants in the fields. Their task: figure out how to farm without the fossil-fuel products upon which the country’s agricultural systems had become dependent.

With no fertilizer, pesticide, or herbicide, and no means to import substitute chemicals, many in the scientific community landed on “agro-ecology.” To understand what agro-ecology is, it helps first to understand why today’s agriculture is called “industrial.” Modern farming turns fields into factories. Inorganic fertilizer adds nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous to the soil; pesticides kill anything that crawls; herbicides nuke anything green and unwanted—all to create an assembly line that spits out a single crop. This is modern monoculture.

Agro-ecology uses nature’s far more complex systems to do the same thing more efficiently and without the chemistry set. Nitrogen-fixing beans are grown instead of inorganic fertilizer; flowers are used to attract beneficial insects to manage pests; weeds are crowded out with more intensive planting. The result is a sophisticated polyculture—that is, it produces many crops simultaneously, instead of just one.

In Cuba, peasants encouraged scientists to adopt this approach. One of their most important ideas, borrowed from elsewhere in Central America, was a model of knowledge diffusion called “Campesino a Campesino”—peasant to peasant. Farmers share their results and ideas with one another and with scientists, which has helped agro-ecological systems spread.

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.

Raj Patel is a fellow at the Institute for Food and Development Policy and author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System.