Cuba is such a funny case: according to this article, agroecological farming principles are the norm, more than half of its farms use organic production methods, and it is a leader in urban agriculture – but yet, most of these developments are less the result of a coordinated policy shift than a survival mechanism that stemmed from pure necessity, but has had astonishingly successful results.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba suffered a huge shock with the loss of trade relations and important agricultural imports: all of a sudden, fertilizer, pesticides, petroleum, tractors, and even spare parts became inaccessible or unaffordable for Cuban farmers, leading food production to a near collapse in the interim.
However, this new situation was impressively managed through a combination of policy decisions (most importantly, decentralization, land distribution, the creation of small farming cooperatives and research investments) and the initiative of individual peasants (the attribution of merit is disputed; this article says that it was individual peasants that pushed for both land reform and agroecological research, so they might be the main change-makers after all). After vegetable production levels fell in the early 1990s, in 2007 they were well above 1988 levels (+145%!), and with a 72% decrease in the use of agrochemicals. Similar developments are visible in bean and root vegetable production.
In addition, urban farming took off at a rapid rate; today, there are 383,000 urban farms, covering 50,000 hectares of otherwise unused land and producing more than 1.5 million tons of vegetables. Urban farms now supply 70 percent or more of all the fresh vegetables consumed in cities such as Havana and Villa Clara.
This leads proponents of agroecological and sustainable farming to herald Cuba as a real-life example on how different farming is possible. In the article above, Miguel Altieri and his Cuban co-author emphasize that Cuba’s import dependency is decreasing, that they supply enough food to their people (the latest FAO figures state that food supply in 2009 was around 3,258 kcal/capita/day) and that there is a lot of room for progress, especially in using the campesino-to-campesino (farmer to farmer) knowledge-sharing tool to educate Cuban farmers further about the benefits of agroecological farming.
Yet, it is difficult to evaluate whether this shift to low-input, high-labor farming was necessarily the goal of either governments or the people; Altieri’s article speaks of “some leaders” that wish a shift back to large-scale, industrial-style, monoculture agricultural production, and of heavy debates over whether genetically engineered crops fit into the government’s agricultural production plan or whether they were “diverting the focus from agroecological farming that had been strategically adopted as a policy in Cuba“.
Even more drastically, this New York Times article lays out that the agricultural sector was one of the sectors that was liberalized most under Raul Castro, and that “increasing efficiency and food production to replace imports that cost Cuba hundreds of millions of dollars a year [was seen as] a matter ‘of national security.’.” That article laments the fact that many industrial ag inputs are missing, that tractors are in disrepair and transportation between fields and markets were inadequate, and speaks of a loss in productivity even as prices jumped by nearly 20 percent in 2011 alone.
Thus, it seems that the country is caught between a modestly successful system that arose from necessity and through its modesty coexists in relative harmony with the environment, and the urge to “modernize”, industrialize and catch up to its more advanced neighbors. In this way, it seems to experience a throwback to the past, more precisely the 1950s, where many US and European farmers stood before the same choices to alleviate the burden of their chores through the adoption of industrial methods at the expense of the health of their farms.
On the other hand, this article stipulates that Cuba is a harbinger of the future of agriculture, characterized by resource scarcity and extreme climatic conditions that only resilient, agroecological systems can handle. I also liked its conclusion, where the author stated that “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.“
In this way, Cuba seems at a crossroad in multiple senses; and its choices will be extremely interesting to watch both for the sake of its own development as for the potential future of many other countries.
Bonus: This NYTimes slideshow gives a glimpse at Cuban agriculture and what it identified as its problems; its title is “Cuban Agriculture Struggles Under Creaky Infrastructure.”