The Agriculture in Cuba

Agriculture in Cuba has, like so many other aspects of Cuban society and the island’s economy, had a complex history of difficulties and extremes. When the current government came to power 75% of Cuba’s agricultural land was owned by foreign companies and individuals. The main crop was sugar, which was sold to the United States and Great Britain. A large quota was given to Cuba by North America which paid above world prices in order to support US industry.

After the Revolution, Che Guevara negotiated with the Soviet Union for the export of Cuban sugar and the new Cuban government adopted a series of land reforms which finally resulted in the confiscation of almost all private property in favour of the establishment of large Soviet-style State farms whose creation arose from the notion that the State was the central force and that heavy mechanisation would improve the dignity of human labour. However the end result was both lost production and ‘lost’ workers, for the relegation of peasant farms to nonpreferred status meant their production failed to develop and disaffected agricultural producers and labourers migrated en masse from rural to urban areas. The situation was exacerbated by the availability in large cities of educational and employment opportunities that had up until then been beyond the reach of children of small farmers. This lured the next generation out of the agricultural sector and of rural areas entirely and resulted in a vicious circle of increasing necessity, independent of the ideological preference for, the mechanisation of agricultural production.

After the collapse of COMECON (the economic organisation of Communist States) Cuba’s agricultural system teetered on the verge of collapse. Imports vanished; there were no fertilizers, animal feed, tools, seed, wire, animal vaccines, fuel for farm machinery or irrigation systems, tyres, batteries, spare parts and the few agricultural necessities that were produced on the island dried up due to lack of raw materials, electricity to run factories, vehicles for distribution or petrol with which to operate them.

It has always been difficult to discern which of Cuba’s economic difficulties are results of the United States’ embargo and which are the results of poor economic planning. What is undeniable is that the US embargo has made it far more expensive, sometimes prohibitively so, for Cuba to achieve high production in food and agricultural exports and the American Association for World Health’s study entitled Denial of Food and Medicine: The impact of the U.S. embargo on health and nutrition in Cuba found that the US embargo ‘has dramatically harmed the health and nutrition of large numbers of ordinary Cuban citizens.’ Furthermore, a British study found the U.S. embargo guilty of 7,500 excess deaths per year during the hardest years of the ‘Special Period’ which followed the collapse of the Soviet Bloc.

Then the situation couldn’t have looked gloomier, but in one of the extraordinary bursts of energy with which time and again Fidel Castro’s government has avoided economic and political meltdown, a rapid and innovative espousal of biodiversification saved the day. The technique of Participatory Plant Breeding (PPB), in which researchers work directly with farmers, has steered Cuban national agricultural practice away from high dependency upon unsustainable elements such as expensive technology and imported chemicals to develop a pioneering model of agricultural policy which is likely to play an important part in the success of other developing countries.

Biodiversity is important. If agricultural production rests on too narrow a base – the high-yielding crop varieties upon which much of the world has come to rely – and those varieties are threatened, crisis occurs. In the past, farmers have automatically maintained crop diversity, but the homogeneity of modern agriculture threatens genetic diversity, and thus local and global food supplies. The high-yielding varieties developed by scientists also require considerable maintenance and expensive chemicals and many small farmers can afford neither these nor the expensively-developed seed necessary for their cultivation.

The aim of the Cuban project has been to strengthen the base of agricultural biodiversity by making a greater range of varieties of seed available to farmers, using the latter’s knowledge in a virtuous circle of research and response. This became an urgent priority after the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, for food production in Cuba had to be doubled whilst input was halved, and food exports had also to be kept up in order to earn vital foreign exchange.