above--not just in the lab: State-of-the-art
biologically based products are available at low cost to Cuban
gardeners and farmers. Biofertilizers for the fixation of nitrogen
and for solubilizing of phosphorus; mycorrhysal inoculants,
disease control inoculants such as Trichoderma and
Bacillus, as well as microbial and parasitoid organisms
for insect biocontrol are available.
POSTED July 11, 2003: After the ending of subsidies
from the Soviet Union in 1989, combined with the tightening of the
U.S. trade embargo, Cuba was hurting and people were hungry. Output
from the Cuban agricultural system, dependent on chemical inputs,
subsidized petroleum and Soviet machinery, slowed to a trickle.
Cuba, led by Fidel Castro, went into what they called the "Special
Period." One of the Special Period initiatives was to develop
a nearly completely local and biologically-based food production
system. Since then, Cuba has developed the world's most comprehensive
modern organic agricultural system and has helped to answer the
question "Could organic farming feed the world."
Thirty years of focusing on comprehensive education for all of its
people was Cuba's ace-in-the-hole when faced with the transition
away from a subsidized economy. Cuba has 12% of Latin America's
scientists, while having only 2% of its population. Research on
all aspects of agroecology were developed; - composting, microbiology,
inoculants, biological control, soil fertility, agroforestry. Cuba's
support for organic food production goes all the way to the top
Farms all over Cuba now use agroecological methods - plant-plant,
plant-animal, plant-microbe synergisms; reliance on biodiversity
for ecological balance within the crop field; and the use of organic
matter as the basis of soil fertility. Farmer participation in research
and extension is high, and the technology being developed, such
as the rearing of parasitic wasps for use in biological control,
is accessible to farmers and lay people. Structural changes have
been made to the land tenure and food distribution system to provide
incentives. Prices for food were set relatively high and farmers
earned, and still earn, very good money. Farmers are some of the
wealthiest people in Cuba now.
Over half a million tons of worm castings are used per
year in Cuban agriculture. According to reports from both
Cuba and the U.S., worm castings have many beneficial
properties for plants beyond those of ordinary compost.
The Fifth Conference on Organic Agriculture, held in Havana in
May 2003, featured the progress Cuba has made in research, extension,
and education in organic and ecological agriculture. The conference
had four main topics:
- Organic Agricultural Technologies;
- Conservation and Management of Natural Resources;
- Ecology, Economics, and Social Aspects of Organic Agriculture;
- Farmer Participatory Research, Extension, and Training.
There were several dozen Americans at the conference, mostly belonging
to two delegations. One delegation was led by Peter Rosset of Food
First and the Institute for Food and Development Policy. I asked
Peter what stood out for him at this conference. "What has
most impressed me is the remarkable progress Cuba has made in agriculture
and food production since the difficult days of the early 1990's.
For instance, about 90% of Havana's food supply is produced in and
around Havana, which is a remarkable accomplishment."
Here are some highlights of the conference
|Some 40 species of plants from 25 families
have been identified by Cuban researchers as having potential
for control of a variety of pests. Currently the most actively
used is neem (Azedirachta indica). Cuba now has a million
neem trees and is using its extracts, with its human-safe insecticidal
ingredient, azadirachtin, for both crop pest management and
veterinary parasiticide use. Over 25 species of insect, mite,
and nematode pests are being managed with neem. Four neem processing
plants with a capacity of 200 tons per year each are being built.
Neem can be grown and used on the farm with simple technology,
a process that is supported by extension services. Seed is simply
ground into powder and mixed at a rate of 25 grams of powder
per liter of water, then applied at 300-600 liters per hectare.
Other species being used in biocontrol are Solanum mammosum
and marigold (Tagetes patula). Plantations and processing
centers are being developed for some of these botanicals.
|Nearly 300 Centers for the Production of
Entomophages and Entomopathogens (known as CREES) have been
developed. These are laboratories where biological control organisms
used in controlling insect pests are raised - fungal species
such as Bacillus thuringiensis, Beauvaria bassiana,
Metarhizium anisopliae, Verticillium lecanii,
Trichoderma harzianum, Paecilomyces lilacinus,
as well as a dozen insect species including the parasitic wasps,
Trichogramma and Encarsia.
|In addition to the production and use of
biopesticides and natural enemies, research on the development
of cultural practices, resistant crop varieties, and synthetic
chemical controls are strongly supported in Cuba. Intercropping
is of particular interest. Common intercrops are cassava with
one of either maize, bush bean, tomato, or cowpea; maize with
either peanut, bush bean, sweet potato, and banana with beans,
peanut, or a number vegetable crops. There are a number vegetable
crops grown in polycultures. The best Land Equivalent Ratio
(LER) scores, which measures the increase in economic output
of polycultures over single crops, are from cucumber/radish,
string bean/radish, cassava/tomato/maize.
|One of the presentations that was most talked
about by the U.S. guests at the conference was that of a farmer
who developed an adjustable multiple-use plow for use by draft
animals. The "multi-plow" can be used for plowing,
harrowing, ridging, and tilling, and can be adapted for sowing,
covering, hilling, and other operations. Cuba has a half million
draft oxen and over a quarter million draft horses. Around 80%
of the small, private producers use draft animals. Animal traction
agriculture was promoted as a Special Period strategy after
the loss of subsidized petroleum and Soviet tractors in 1989.
Between 1990 and 1997 the number of animal draft implements
in Cuba grew from 160,000 to 375,000, and the number of blacksmith
shops grew from 500 to 2,800. The manure from these animals
provides composts for use on crops.
growth of nitrogen-fixing bacteria
|The free-living, nitrogen-fixing bacteria
Azotobacter chroococcum, isolated from Cuban soils,
is used extensively in Cuba to provide N to crops. Applied at
10*8 [10 to the 8th] CFU per gram of soil, up to 50% of crop
N needs are said by researchers to be supplied by this organism,
as well as supplying biologically active substances such as
auxins, cytokinen, and giberellin. Research shows that treated
tomato soil yielded 30-40% better seedling survival, 30% taller
seedlings, 20% more leaves, 40% greater stem diameter, and 52%
more biomass, and an overall yield increase of 25%.
|No chemicals are used in 68% of Cuban corn,
96% of cassava, 72% of coffee, and 40% of bananas. Between 1998
and 2001, chemicals were reduced by 60% in potatoes, 89% in
tomatoes, 28% in onion, and 43% in tobacco.
farming on the rise
|Urban agriculture, in which market garden
crops are grown intensively in what the Cubans call organoponicos,
long cement planting troughs, has grown rapidly and is one of
the most remarkable developments of Cuban agriculture. Organoponicos
provide on the average 215 grams of vegetables per day to Cuban
city dwellers. Yields have more than quintupled from 4 to 24
kilograms per meter squared between 1994 and 1999, and currently
around a million tons of food per year is produced in the organoponicos.
from the top
|I asked Dr. Chris Feise, director of the
Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington
State University, which had a group within the Food First delegation,
what his impressions were of the conference. "What impresses
me is that scientists and extensionists in Cuba have support
all the way to the top of government for doing research on organic
and sustainable agriculture. In the U.S. land grant university
system, to do research in organic agriculture means that we
are always fighting a rear guard action because of the conventional
agriculture biases at all levels of the university and government.
This greatly reduces our research productivity."
research reported at the conference
- Use of a bacteria, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, as
a fungal biocontrol in a number of crops, as well as in
- Inoculants made from worm castings stimulate plant growth
and vigor. The California Red worm (Eisenia foetida)
is used in Cuban vermiculture. Over half a million tons
of worm castings are used per year in Cuban agriculture.
- Extracts of the pinon florido plant, Gliricidia sepium,
were effective as an herbicide against monocots.
- The nematicidal bacteria, Corynebacterium paurometobolum,
controls Meloidogyne incognita, the root knot nematode.
- In areas where soils are low in phosphorus, common in
the tropics, inoculants using P solubilizing bacteria Pseudomonas
fluorescens have been shown to decrease P fertilizer
needs by 75%.
- Combinations of mycorrhyzal and bacterial inoculants (Glomus
spp. and Pseudomonas spp. stimulate crop growth
and yield better than any single one of the inoculants
- For control of the white grub (various species of soil
borne larvae that consume and destroy crop roots; see my
article on Mayan
agriculture in Guatemala) the entomopathic nematodes
Steinernema, Heterohabditis,and Metarhizium,
when applied in certain paired combinations, performed as
well as the pesticide commonly used for these pests.
- Extracts of Sesbania, an N-fixing green manure
crop from China, has an insecticidal effect and controls
major insect pests of rice. It is also effective in controlling
weeds in certain crops because of its allelopathic activity.
- Extracts of Digitaria and Piper are
used for control of bacterial pathogens.