TALKING SHOP: Havana, Cuba
Cuba's 5th conference on organic agriculture features
the fruits of a decade-long focus on organic

Better biological pest controls, nitrogen-fixing bacteria, multi-use plows, new intercropping techniques ... necessity (and high-level government commitment) has inspired dozens of exciting new developments in organic production.

By Don Lotter, Ph.D.

Click here for an analysis of Cuba and how it fares compared to the rest of Latin America.
Coming soon: A slide show tour of Havana's culture and agriculture.

Pictured 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 of government.

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.

Vermicompost: 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:

  1. Organic Agricultural Technologies;
  2. Conservation and Management of Natural Resources;
  3. Ecology, Economics, and Social Aspects of Organic Agriculture; and
  4. 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 ...

Neem versus pests
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.

Raising insect fighters

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.
Intercropping flourishes
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.
Introducing the "multi-plow"
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.
The 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%.
Reducing chemical dependence
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.
Urban 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.
Support 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."
Miscellaneous research reported at the conference
  • Use of a bacteria, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, as a fungal biocontrol in a number of crops, as well as in mushroom production.
  • 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.