Cuba: a clue to our future? Let’s hope.

On a recent trip to Cuba, sustainable ag advocate Brian Snyder sees evidence of an institutional commitment to sustainable farming that we in the U.S. can only dream of

By Brian Snyder, Executive Director, Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture


Customers at a
bustling Havana farmers market.
Most booths are managed by intermediaries who are contracted directly by farmers to market their products. Tomatoes displayed here for 5 pesos/pound (around 20 cents/lb U.S.) are considered expensive.

I know that the world is weak
And must soon fall to the ground,
And, then, midst the quiet profound
The gentle brook will speak.

José Martí, 1891

Posted April 2, 2003: Our air-conditioned bus was a haven of comfort, in a land where few of the “comforts of home” as we know them exist. The well-cushioned seats reclined to allow for an occasional and much needed nap along the route, but instead I usually sat leaning forward, my attention riveted out the window.

The contrasts of metropolitan Havana are difficult to describe without pictures, many pictures really. Most residential buildings remain in sorry shape, even as those structures more important for drawing tourists (hotels, museums, historic landmarks, etc.) undergo thorough restorations everywhere.

"America," urban farmer extraordinaire: Below you'll find more photos of America's extraordinary Havana farm operation.

There is much poverty in Cuba, for sure, but there are also signs of promise that kept my eyes glued to the oncoming landscape outside the bus. For amid the substantial ruins of a society that has faced tremendous adversity, there is agriculture—agriculture everywhere—agriculture that the high priests of corporate agribusiness have told us can never be possible in our own country.

As part of what has been called the “largest ever fact-finding delegation destined for Cuba,” I was joined by Penn State IPM specialist and PASA board member Lyn Garling and Tim Bowser, executive director of the FoodRoutes Network (www.foodroutes.org), as part of a dynamic group of about ninety food and farming specialists from all over the United States, Latin America, and the Caribbean on a study tour of Cuban agriculture. The trip was organized by the California-based Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy (www.foodfirst.org), and took place over a two-week period bridging February and March of this year.

Why sustainable ag has become a guiding principle in Cuba

To put it bluntly, I think most if not all of us on the trip were stunned to find out how central the concept of sustainable agriculture has become in Cuban society, and likely were equally stunned afterward in returning to face the reality of our situation in this country. It is worth noting, however, that not all of Cuba’s success in this regard has been by design; historical consequence has played a significant role.

Following the Revolution that was complete at the beginning of 1959, Cuba was pushed into a mostly exclusive trading relationship with the Soviet Union and other socialist countries by the U.S. trade embargo, now more than forty years old. Despite the embargo, or “blockade,” as it is called in Cuba, this arrangement worked pretty well for the growing Cuban economy for about thirty years, until the collapse of the Soviet Union beginning in 1989. Cuban exports during this period were mostly sugar, tobacco, and nickel, which they traded for fuel, food, medicine, and the necessary equipment and supplies to support large-scale conventional agriculture.

Container on-farm stand: "America's" curbside farm stand, fashioned from an old railroad car. Note the apartment building in the background -- food is produced and marketed very close to where it will be consumed.

The seeds of agricultural change, however, were present throughout the thirty years following the Revolution. We were reminded on the trip that agrarian reform had always been a priority of the Cuban socialist regime, and many of us were left with our jaws hanging open to hear the story that in 1963, Fidel Castro attended graduation ceremonies at the Universidad Agraria de la Habana (Agrarian University of Havana) and personally handed each graduate a copy of a newly published book called Silent Spring by Rachel Carson.

"Cuban officials put it this way: ‘Sustainable agriculture has become an integral part of our national defense . . . a war of the people,’ and ‘Our soils are a strategic natural resource.’ Now, how long will we wait here in the U.S. before we hear such statements from our own officials?"

From the beginning, the Revolution had sought to guarantee adequate food for every man, woman, and child in Cuba as a birthright, and the desire had been to supply as much of this food as possible through production using fewer chemicals on smaller farms or farm cooperatives located close to where people actually live.

The large industrialized and foreign-owned farms that previously exported for the profit of absentee corporate owners were nationalized, and the priorities of production changed. Exports continued, but were considered mostly a necessary evil to obtain the goods not immediately available within the confines of this island nation.

But with the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba was plunged into a

Sustainable Ag in Cuba Defined

The following list of current initiatives was presented to the Food First delegation by Luis García, an agronomist who is Director of The Center for the Study of Sustainable Agriculture at the Agrarian University of Havana. Entitled “The Cuban Model for Sustainable Agriculture,” the list reflects challenges facing Cuba’s farmers since the beginning of the current economic crisis, but serves also as a pretty good menu of priorities for sustainable farmers anywhere.

Integrated Pest Management
Organic fertilizers and biofertilizers
Soil conservation and recuperation
Animal traction and alternative energy
Inter cropping and crop rotation
Mixing crops and animal production
Alternative mechanization
Urban Agriculture and community participation
Alternative Veterinary Medicine
Adjusting to local conditions
Reversing rural migration to cities
Increasing cooperative use of land
Improving agrarian research
Changing agrarian education


desperate food crisis almost overnight, which dramatically quickened the pace of agricultural reform. The United States, perhaps sensing an opportunity to bring about a new capitalist counterrevolution, tightened the embargo with legislation in 1992 (Torricelli) and again in 1996 (Helms-Burton), making things even worse for the Cuban people.

Throughout our travels, speaker after speaker emphasized with considerable emotion the impact of the historical one-two punch of Soviet trade evaporation and U.S. legislation, but somehow each person avoided sounding bitter in retrospect. Instead, they expressed pride in what they have achieved in the face of overwhelming circumstances.

Lacking the feed concentrates, fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals that used to come through trade, the people of this society, with the support of their government and universities, launched a massive campaign to make widespread, diversified, and well-distributed organic agriculture a reality. The results are amazing, if not yet complete, and provide convincing testimony to the enduring power of the revolutionary spirit still apparent in Cuban culture.

The rise of urban farming

One major strategy to ease the crisis was to implement urban agriculture, with folks farming their backyards, or bringing new life to abandoned lots or defunct manufacturing sites. Because of free-market incentives established by the government in response to the crisis, there is now enough organic produce grown within the city limits of Havana to feed each of the city’s 2.5 million residents a minimum of 300 grams (about 10 ounces) of fruits and vegetables each day.

Horses & trained oxen replace tractors: A helper at "Chucho's" farm deals with a problem familiar to all produce farmers ... lettuce that has bolted. Though works horses are somewhat rare in Cuba, the country now has nearly half a million trained oxen, which provide power in place of the fuel-hungry tractors of the past.

Some of the urban farmers we met had left very stable professional careers to engage in agriculture for the first time. For instance, we met “Chucho,” a former veterinarian who had originally switched to farming in order to keep his children fed. As he put it, “When we realized we only had one egg per day to split between two kids, we decided to make the change before it was too late.” He and his wife, a former chemist, now operate two farms, making considerably more money than they did in their former careers.

Another strategy has been to divide the large, state-owned farms into smaller cooperatives, or Basic Units of Cooperative Production (UBPC), as they are called. Our group visited one that employed fifty-five farmers farming a total of about eight acres, with each of the farmers earning approximately four times the national average monthly wage. They achieve this despite the fact that such farms must first provide, as part of their social obligation, food for local schools, hospitals, and nursing homes before selling on the open market.

The key to the success of urban agriculture in Cuba is that the farms are located in the same neighborhoods as their customers. For instance, another farmer we met, named “America,” grows on a lot adjacent to her house with help from her neighbors. After meeting her social obligation, she sells produce from a refurbished railroad car that now serves as a curbside farm stand. Such stands in and around Havana often attract hundreds, and even thousands of customers each day.

Lettuce beds: Part of "America's" urban farm in Havana, with raised beds and a modern irrigation system provided by the Cuban government. Individual farms like this usually operate through a cooperative and, after providing fresh food for local schools and hospitals, are able to sell at curbside stands.

Another key has been the reinvention and rejuvenation of university Extension services. Throughout the country, extensionists, as they are called, adhere strictly to a model of “popular education” that is described as “emancipatory” in nature. By this model, the teacher is never considered more important than students, but both learn and share in the process together.

The principle goal of Extension services in Cuba is to integrate new technology in support of traditional production systems. Farmers are thought to be the best judge of what to produce and how it should be done. As one extenstionist put it, “What the farmer would not eat, the farmer should not grow.”

Success in achieving sustainability of Cuban livestock production lags behind that achieved with vegetables and fruit. It is impressive, though, that pork and poultry production, now occurring in more diversified systems on small farms, have reached levels that existed before the crisis, when most all animals were raised in conventional confinement facilities. And university research conducted in Cuba, using sustainability indicators they have developed, has concluded that a 20-cow dairy provides the maximum level of efficiency.

The innovative spirit is alive and well in Cuba

Pride without prejudice: A Cuban fruit farmer and his wife, who hosted a group from the delegation for a visit at their home. Everywhere it was clear how proud these folks are of what they had achieved, and how glad they were to receive us. Departing comments were often mingled with tears.

Throughout the tour, on every stop and around every corner, we found evidence of an innovative spirit that was reminiscent of many sustainably run operations in Pennsylvania and elsewhere in the United States. But in contrast to the common attitude in our own homeland, the success of such innovation is seen by Cubans as critical to the future security of their country.

As an example, and in light of the crisis faced since 1989, two different Cuban officials made the following comments: “Sustainable agriculture has become an integral part of our national defense . . . a ‘war’ of the people,” and “Our soils are a strategic natural resource.” These are the words of leaders who knew keenly that mass starvation might very well be the alternative.

The Cuban farmers we met along the way beamed with pride as they told of what they had achieved against overwhelming odds. Starting with the aim to feed their own families, they now feed their communities and, for the most part, their society.

Few, if any advocates for sustainable agriculture in our own country would wish to swap our government or economic circumstances with those found in Cuba. But it sure doesn’t hurt to see an example of how we might utilize the principles of sustainability in the United States to avoid our own Special Period in the future.

For More Information

Sustainable Agriculture and Resistance, edited by Fernando Funes, Luis Garcia, Martin Bourgue, Nilda Perez and Peter Rosset, published in English by Food First Books, 2002. Available from Amazon.com.

The Greening of Cuba, a Food First video directed by Jaime Kibben. Order from LPC Group at 1-800-343-4499, or visit the book store on the Food First site (www.foodfirst.org).

Intensive vs. Extensive Agriculture

Of the many interesting perspectives gained from listening to farmers and other agricultural specialists in Cuba, one of the most intriguing was the concept of “extensive agriculture.”

Cubans use the term “intensive” to describe industrialized systems of agriculture that are very familiar to us in the United States, like confined livestock feeding operations and mono-cultural cropping practices that depend heavily on chemical inputs.

But in describing the alternative, Cubans talk about “extensive” systems that consist of vast networks of sustainably run, smaller plots of ground that emphasize cooperative labor, local marketing, farm-based enterprises and a farm’s inherent responsibility to the social fabric of its community.

In contrast to intensive agriculture, extensive agriculture represents an altogether different philosophical orientation. Cubans use the word “extensive” to emphasize how big their plans for establishing sustainable food and farming systems really are.

Brian Snyder is the Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA). If any person or group is interested in hosting a more detailed presentation, including slides, of PASA’s participation in the Food First delegation to Cuba, please contact Brian directly at brian@pasafarming.org.