Science - June 2, 2005

Cuba, a shining example

Ecological agriculture is a good way to go in the tropics. The Cuban experience shows that it can improve food security where input levels are low, says Dr Julia Wright. Cuba can be an example for other regions.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, Cuba lost much of its food aid, petrol supplies and agricultural inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides. This was a dramatic blow to the industrialised Cuban agriculture that depended heavily on inputs it received from the Communist bloc. The sector was forced to go over to small-scale farming, with a focus on ecological agriculture, where the main priority was feeding its own people. The socialist government was successful in doing this, says Julia Wright, who devoted her PhD research to examining the transformation of Cuban agriculture.

‘But Cuba did not become the organic paradise some people believe it to be,’ says Wright. The lack of petrol led to the use of oxen instead of machinery, but not all farmers stopped using agro-chemicals completely. Another result of the petrol shortage was that knowledge on agriculture and seeds, which previously had been centrally organised, no longer reached the farmers simply because there was no petrol for the extension officers’ cars. As a result of this, local knowledge and local seed management became more important in the redevelopment of the agricultural sector. Under industrialised agriculture many farmers had little ecological knowledge, says Wright. This improved in the early nineties, as did soil fertility management for example. Yields of staple crops doubled between 1994 and 1999, and wages tripled.

The Cuban success in changing the course of agriculture could provide a lesson for other regions, Wright believes. Where the prices of agrochemical inputs are relatively high and labour is cheap, ecological agriculture forms a good alternative to high-input agriculture, she says. Also, the Cuban experience shows that it is possible to distribute the little food there is in an equitable way. Her enthusiasm for Cuba is not a political plea for socialism, says Wright, as a capitalist country could use the same strategy.

Julia Wright received her PhD on 20 May 2005. Her promotors were Professor emeritus Niels Röling and Professor Eric Goewie.