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
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.
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
|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
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
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
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
- The nematicidal bacteria, Corynebacterium paurometobolum,
controls Meloidogyne incognita, the root
- 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
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.