Cuban Farming Shows the Way to a Greener World

By Natalie Goncharov , NYC FIST

In 1960, the United States imposed a financial blockade against Cuba – barring U.S. businesses from selling goods to or buying them from Cuba.  The U.S. also discouraged other countries from trading with Cuba through threats and intimidation. This diminished the amount of imports Cuba was able to receive. Later, the defeat of the  Soviet Union which led to the collapse of the COMECON (The Economic Organization of Communist States) brought the import of goods to Cuba close to an absolute halt. These historic events had immediate detrimental health effects on Cuban society, forcing the small island nation to become self-sufficient in providing basic needs such as food almost overnight. Productivity in agricultural exports became far more expensive. Unsustainable agricultural practices were wiped out from the island out of necessity. Cubans had to quickly resolve the question of how to feed their own people.

The system of Participatory Plant Breeding, where agricultural scientists work with farmers to determine better methods of growing and breeding various varieties of fruits and vegetables, allowed the Cuba to recreate its agricultural systems and rid of its historical dependency on foreign imports. In fact, Cuba’s new system of plant breeding, necessitated by a lack of modern agricultural products such as chemical fertilizers and gasoline, has led to a substantial increase in organic farming.  Also, Cuba has seen these new methods lead to higher yields and more varieties of agricultural products than were grown with agrochemicals.

Although the door was closed for Cuba to participate in the international economic system, a new door was opened for the creation of a sustainable and reliable local economy. Hard work and sacrifice allowed the Cuban people to set an example for the world on sustainable living practices. With the support of the government, sustainable ecology education increased in schools and in the newly erected small farms and urban gardens. Local innovation replaced imported goods as a key factor in running Cuba’s agricultural system. The majority of the knowledge acquired was derived from farming practices before the 1900s.  By looking to their ancestors and incorporating pre-industrial techniques with local innovation, Cubans were able to increase the productivity of farming.

Sustainable agricultural practices increased bio-diversity while eliminating hazardous imported chemicals. Biodiversity decreased the possibility of a threat to local food supplies through agricultural crises. The inability to import agricultural chemicals forced farmers to create natural forms of pesticides.  Natural pesticides created less crop vulnerability and provided higher yields of production.

Many local small farms and urban gardens were created to replace some of the old machinery and fertilizer-dependant large farms. In the urban environment, lots were turned into farms and rooftops were turned into gardens. The government helped in this process by re-distributing land to farms and cooperatives. Manual labor took over conventional machinery that people were used to.  The labor-intensive work made it hard to compete economically with other Caribbean countries. However, local food supplies were used to serve local needs only – making the process very efficient. Local farming generated sufficient funds for farm workers and made farming a desirable job. Lack of oil for agricultural machinery and cars forced people to make healthier lifestyle decisions such as biking and farming. The food produced started being grown organically.

The question to be asked is whether we, in the Unites States, are ready for such a transition. Would the agricultural industry in this country be capable of transforming as thoroughly and efficiently as Cuba’s farming did should it face a similar loss of resources, such as fossil fuels?  The Cuban farming system is an example to the whole world of what can happen when all of society comes together, from farmers and scientists to students and the government, to solve a basic social problem without any profit interests involved. The people of the U.S. would have to be prepared to turn back the dangerous tide of agribusiness in the United States, which has had an extensively dangerous health and environmental effect on this country. It is a profit-driven industry with little regard to human needs, and it functions under the assumption that there is an unlimited supply of fossil fuels.

In the midst of the global climate change, the elimination of cheap oil globally is creating the beginning of agricultural practices similar to those that Cuba has been long forced to implement. Cuba’s agricultural practice makes it one of the most energy-efficient countries in the world. Implementing these techniques on a national level would help slow down the trend of global climate change. It will take years of research and a huge challenge to create the kind of sustainable agricultural practices that Cuba developed. It would be almost impossible to mimic here in the United States without a fundamental change in the profit-driven system of food production here. For too long, U.S. farmers have been dependant on oil and chemicals to produce crops. Even in small local farms and community gardens across the country, farmers are addicted to these resources. The people of the U.S. are also, in some ways, dependant on the cheap produce that they are able to purchase from large farms, mostly because the U.S. agricultural industry has dominated the industry in such a way that consumers have very little choice in where there food comes from and how it is produced.

If people really took the time to learn where our food comes from and how it is produced, it would be a lot harder to accept and ignore the environmental damage our current system is producing. For too long U.S. agribusiness has concentrated on producing as much yield for as little cost with minimal regard to long term health effects and environmental damage. The Cuban example shows the world that, with planning that is focused on the long-term needs of society and not the quickest profit, we can build a highly efficient, healthy and sustainable agricultural system.  We must come to our senses and learn a thing or two from the Cuban people.

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