Cuba’s Sustainable Framing May be Under Threat
The story of Cuba using sustainable agricultural production techniques is an exciting one. Cuba has for decades, since the collapse of the Soviet bloc in the early 1990’s, adapted and used ecologically safe agricultural practices in producing its own food. This was after experiencing a devastating food crisis that resulted directly from the lack of farm input supplies that used to come from the soviet bloc. This crisis was so severe that Cuba was completely unable to feed its own population as well as resulting in a negative economic growth, loss of GDP and an estimated 80% loss in trade. Indeed FAO then estimated that Cuba had experienced a sharp decline in individual adult calorie consumption to an average of 1250 by 1993 from a high of 2600 calories in the 1980’s.
The story of Cuba’s adopting of sustainable agricultural practices is a sour one. Having been a member of the Soviet bloc and enjoying the economic benefits that came with being associated with the bloc, Cuba’s economic growth and social wellbeing of its citizen were something to behold, fueled by the soviet subsidies and sugar production.
The collapse brought with it an environment, filled with challenges that included, a lack of market, the unavailability of energy in the form of fossil fuels, that were required to power the farming machines, increased inflation, poverty levels and increased food insecurity. The year 1990 marked the highest GDP per Capita growth of $2750 for the country before the collapse of the Soviet bloc and decreased sugar prices globally. A spiral decline was then witnessed. The year 1992 marked the lowest decline that stood at $2057 and it’s estimated to be around 35%. The effects of this decline were felt across the country. This scenario brought with it the need to rethink and change the way things were done. Having predominantly relied on agriculture as the main source of foreign exchange, there was a need for immediate action to prevent a total collapse of the economy.
People were encouraged to go back to rural areas for farming; industrial intensive inputs were substituted with organic inputs and mechanized farming was replaced with animal use. The export-led agricultural farming, characterized mostly by sugar production, was substituted with a farming model geared towards local consumption. With this, the country would ensure food security for its people with decreased foreign exchange. The decline in global sugar prices started from 1991 and spread over a period of 5 years. The country also initiated other wide-ranging reform that included acceptance of the US dollar but was later restricted to individuals holding it and not for business, encouraging foreign investments, opening up tourism and allowing self-employment.
Shift to sustainable farming
Cuba’s shift towards organic farming was largely characterized by the adoption of practices that included the integration of pest control strategies, the introduction of compost use, the practice of crop rotation and increased soil conservation strategies. Further, the use of animals in tilling land instead of using fossil powered machines was witnessed. Urban agriculture was highly promoted by the government. People in urban areas were encouraged to have fields where they could produce food with organic means for local consumption and in a short period of time, the food crisis was dealt with. This form of urban organic farming has come to be known as organoponics. This approach though similar to hydroponics has unique features.
While the hydroponic farming model utilizes chemicals in the water for plant growth support, the organoponics model on the other hand employs the use of organic matter that includes compost and kitchen waste to support plant growth. This form of farming originated from Havanna in Cuba. With this model, the urban population got the opportunity to grow crops on any field within their reach despite its soil condition. In the initial stages of this model, the production output was low but this improved with time as more and more compost was incorporated into the soil. The organoponics garden is bordered with concrete blocks to prevent loss of nutrients that could be caused by soil erosion. Employing other sustainable practices outlined earlier such as the integrated pest control, crop rotation and others in this land, the potential for producing adequate crop yields is immeasurable.
So what’s threatening this sustainable farming model in Cuba? Well, there is a common perspective that one would easily draw. The recent visit by the US President Barrack Obama to Cuba has signified the start of a warming of the relationship between these two nations. With Cuba having highly encouraged and supported small-scale farming systems, the increased pressure that might result driven by the need to have an export led farming model at the expense of local consumption while at the same time meeting the increased food demand by tourism might push many small-scale farmers out of production. This, in turn, might result in the loss of biodiversity of local crops. The drive by the US multinationals agribusiness corporations would in the essence push for economies of scale that would reduce risks to their investment thus pushing farmers to adopt those farming techniques that would result in a maximization of returns.
The knowledge that these Cuban farmers have gained over time, though their own contact could be lost. If the small scale farmers abandon food production, there would be a resultant effect on increased unemployment. This, in turn, would have adverse effects on their livelihood and further make them fall under the forces of poverty The restriction of US food imports in this aspect would be vital. Vast lands in Cuba with the ability to support sustainable farming are still underutilized. This underutilization has made Cuba, still to some degree dependent on food imports. If this uncultivated land can be utilized, Cuba has the potential to produce enough food to feed its population, tourism sector and for export.