Cuba Caught At Agricultural Crossroads

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Earth Island Journal, Havana, Cuba

Industrial Ag interests push back against nearly two decades of successful peasant-led agro-ecological farming

At a small experimental farm 15 miles southeast of Fidel Castro’s suburban residence on the outskirts of Havana, Dr. Fernando Funes-Monzote, a renowned agronomist and new farmer, is for the first time paying his workers based on total sales rather than a predetermined salary.

Dr. Fernando Funes-Monzote aims to demonstrate that farms based on biodiversity and intensive management can thrive in a rapidly changing economy.

“Everybody is a little nervous, but this is necessary to prove that this type of farm can be sustained,” he says. 

Funes’ farm, eight hectares of land that he has owned since 2012, is a living testament to his faith in small-scale production. His project, called La Finca Marta, aims to demonstrate that farms based on biodiversity and intensive management can thrive in a rapidly changing economy, producing high quality products without the need for transgenic crops or mechanization.

Funes exudes an electric energy, pulling weeds as he walks around the farm, calling out the scientific name of pollinating insects and pointing out new seedlings of his 35 crop species that have been dispersed by the wind. The farm is a melting pot of agroecological techniques.  Near a worm compost bin, a small herd of goats are clearing the undergrowth of a coconut orchard, fertilizing the paddock at the same time. Twenty beehives produce eight different types of honey that change in flavor and color depending on the availability of carefully managed wild flowers. Next to an open-air library featuring agronomy texts, two dense beds of mint are nearly ready to be sold to restaurants that market ‘organic’ mojitos in the Capital. A few turkeys underneath a portable wire netting are being given a trial run to see if they will provide targeted pest relief and soil improvement. 

Funes’ effort to start a new farm is driven in part by the socialist state’s piecemeal efforts to liberalize its economy. With Raul Castro to step down in 2018 and the US embargo weakening, Cuba has taken baby steps away from the Marxist ideal, ceding state control to a variety of private sectors like transportation, food milling and processing, real estate, and, most notably, agricultural production.

“My goal with this project is to learn the cycles of economics, including micro cycles of supply and demand of restaurants and families,” says the 42-year-old professor turned farmer.

Products like honey, milk, and frozen mangos from Funes’ farm fetch a premium price from Havana’s growing middle class and tourist industry, partly because, until recently, direct sale to consumers outside of licensed farmer’s markets was prohibited. Most agricultural produce in Cuba is delivered to the state, which then processes it and either rations or sells the goods to the general population. Many are still unfamiliar with the change in regulations allowing for direct sales. Not long ago, police questioned Funes while he was transporting milk to sell to his neighbors.

Funes believes that some privatization of the agricultural sector is necessary for small farms like his to succeed. Reforms like legalizing direct sales and the emergence of private food transportation cooperatives allow small-scale farmers to distribute and sell their products without first going through the state agricultural bureaucracy. “The state really can’t handle the complexity of relations that make up agroecological production,” he says, referring to the continuing clash between small farm operations and the large unwieldy state-run agricultural sector.  He estimates that about half the produce in Cuba is wasted as it moves through the state processing and distribution centers.

Funes is a staunch and tireless defender of the small producer. He has published over 100 academic articles on agroecological farming systems and recently ran the Havana marathon with sign on his chest that said “I support ecological agriculture.” His work suggests the historical resilience of the Cuban peasant sector holds unique promise for Cuba’s emerging economy. 

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Funes tends beehives on his eight-hectare farm which is a melting pot of agroecological techniques.

Cuba’s history of agricultural development is indeed exceptional, morphing from a once -model industrial Green Revolution country of the late 1970s to a world-class example of low-input small-scale farming.

Until the late 1980s, Cuba was one of the largest importers of agricultural chemicals in Latin America. The island nation used to receive food, oil, petrochemicals and machinery from the former Soviet bloc in exchange for its rum and sugar as part of a trade deal under the 1955 Warsaw Pact. During this period the island nation devoted 30 percent of its land to sugarcane crops and maintained the most tractors per person per unit area in all of Latin America.  But the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 plus nearly three decades of an aggressive trade embargo by the United States meant that the inputs an industrialized agriculture system depends on — like pesticides and petroleum — largely vanished and the industrial food system ground to a halt.

During this period of political and economic crisis (roughly between 1990 to 1994), dubbed the “Special Period in Peace Time,” the nation saw a steep decline in crop production. Cuba had the worst growth in per capita food production in all of Latin America and the Caribbean during this period.

But, prompted in part by its peasant population, the Cuban government very quickly reorganized its agriculture by decentralizing farm management and distributing land among farmers. The state owns about 85 percent of the island’s agricultural land, most of which was run in state cooperatives. This land still remains in government hands, but now, according to government records, 75 percent of it has been given out with “usufruct” rights (the legal right of using and enjoying the fruits or profits of something belonging to another) to tenants farmers who can farm the land and sell its produce and also pass their land use right on to their children.

From these initiatives, a new food system emerged, driven in part by a small-scale agroecological movement, presenting a most unlikely challenge to the dogma of large-scale agriculture.

“Through the mid-1990s some 78,000 farms were given in usufruct to individuals and legal entities. More than 100,000 farms have now been distributed, covering more than 1 million hectares in total,” states a 2012 paper that Funes co-wrote with UC-Berkeley agroecology professor Miguel A. Altieri. The paper notes that, “perhaps the most important changes that led to the recovery of food sovereignty in Cuba occurred in the peasant sector which in 2006, controlling only 25 percent of the agricultural land, produced over 65 percent of the country’s food.” There was a huge growth in urban agriculture too — the country now as about 383,000 urban farms, covering 50,000 hectares of otherwise unused land. These farms produce more than 1.5 million tons of vegetables a year.

Yet, while the new privatization of the agricultural sector opens the door for small-scale farmers like Funes to operate in an emerging market of local, value-added products, it also provides space for a more industrial vision of agriculture — one that believes that the peasant led movement of the ’90s is no longer needed in an improving economy.

At a midsummer debate held by the Cuban Academy of Science in downtown Havana, this dream of “maximizing” agricultural outputs in Cuba via industrial means was glaringly apparent. Over 40 scientists from many major disciplines of the life sciences gathered at the Fernando Ortíz Library, drinking shots of sweetened espresso and fanning themselves to stave off the heat. The first three presenters all represented the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB), a government supported research powerhouse that has been one of the few highly productive sectors of the Cuban economy over the last few decades.

Carlos Borroto, Deputy Director, summarized the position of the CIGB by describing the need to produce more food for a growing urban population whilst boosting the economy. “Five percent of Cubans now produce food for 100 percent of the population and while our meat consumption used to be 15 kilograms per capita it is now risen to 60,” he said. He then pointed to a graph depicting how profits and corn yields increased dramatically in Argentina and Brazil after the adoption of genetically enhanced varieties while the application of petrochemicals decreased. “High yields, low costs, that is what you call sustainability,” he said.

According to a source familiar with government’s agricultural policy who wished not to be named, recent high level delegations visiting Brazil’s agricultural sector (that is based heavily on transgenic crops and industrialization) is evidence that Cuba is considering this “sustainable intensification” as a model of agricultural development.

In fact, the development of transgenic crops is already underway in Cuba. Trial production of tobacco plants designed to produce human monoclonal antibodies, pest resistant maize, and glyphosate resistant soy have all been underway since 2006 as part of the government’s interest in creating their own lines of superior adapted varieties of crops.

Funes, who participated in the debate, offered a passionate defense of the unique Cuban success of smallholder agriculture. He produced reams of evidence showing that transgenic crop yields were exaggerated, that concerns over their health were far from settled, and that their use would only encourage the emergence of super resistant pests and weeds. Funes’ concern over bio-engineered crops ultimately rests on the type of agriculture they require; the kind that’s heavily reliant on technocratic expertise and highly mechanized production.

“The question is not whether we should adopt transgenic crops or not,” he said during the debate. “The question is if we opt for systems of local agriculture or for one that is based on only the large scale?”

At this stage, it remains unclear whether Cuba’s moves towards economic liberalization will support the small-scale agroecological model of Cuba’s past or one that is dominated by the need to increase yields with mechanization and biotechnology.

“I think the government has a huge pressure to produce food and they will do whatever it takes, including transgenic crops,” says Cary Cruz, program director of sustainable development at theAntonio Nunéz Foundation for Nature and Humanity. The foundation has been working on supporting the small-scale producers since its inception, but remains skeptical of the wavering government support of small farmers.

The move to liberalize the economy, at least publically, has been cautious — a balance between the desire to develop and the socialist origins and goals of a modern Cuban state. At a session in congress televised to the public, Marino Murillo, Cuba’s minister of economy and planning, explained that privatization of agricultural land can only go so far. “If we allow this land to be privatized then this will lead again to a latifundio,” he said, referring to the historical system of concentrated property ownership that was cast off with the Castro revolution.

Back at La Finca Marta, Funes carts a wheelbarrow of coconuts to the central highway, where he will attempt to sell them to passing motorists before the sundown. He needs to make a few more sales to meet his target for the day.     

“Look at my hands,” he says showing innumerous callouses on his palms.  “My brother thinks I am crazy to do this, to start a farm and become a farmer.” He says he persists because he believes that the low-input model of farming is not just applicable in times of hardship or for subsistence, but should become a productive sector in the economy. “If you want to investigate something you have to live it,” he says.

But at this point is it unclear whether a liberalizing Cuba will support Funes’ vision or an alternate vision of industrial agriculture.