By Brad Walker, Rivers Director        October 12, 2015

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This article is not pro-communism or pro-Castro. It is about objectively looking at agriculture in Cuba and maybe finding better ways to improve agriculture here.

On December 17, 2014, President Obama made a speech indicating that the U.S. would be opening relationships with Cuba, after nearly 60 years of oppressive sanctions and trade restrictions. He cited the fact that the U.S. has had relationships with both Communist China and Vietnam for decades and it is time to change the existing rigid policy with Cuba.

There is more to Cuba, however, than the American public believes. For more than two decades Cuba has been developing an agriculture system that is almost in complete contrast to the U.S. model. Their experience foreshadows our country’s eventual necessary path to major agricultural change. The Cuban sustainable agro-ecological system is worth serious investigation. They have invested much effort, money, and scientific knowledge into its development; that knowledge is what we should be looking to acquire. Unfortunately, recent comments regarding Cuba by our politicians reflect a conventional view of agriculture and trade.

Many politicians are like moths driven to light whenever trade is mentioned. Their bullet points come straight from corporate America, and the platitudes are too often simplistic and uninformed when it comes to complex international issues.

This is exactly the case regarding the potential opening of trade relations with Cuba. The lack of historical context and depth in the one-sided discussion is predictably disappointing.

U.S. Representative Rodney Davis of Illinois has stated:

“I believe increasing the trade that we already have with the Cuban nation is going to allow America to invest in a Cuban economy that’s going to free the Cuban citizens from the conditions that they live under now.”

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon believes that:

“Given the opportunity to compete, Missouri farmers and ranchers can win against anyone. And we know that the more Missouri goods we sell overseas, the more good jobs we create back at home.”

The industrial agricultural promoters such as Missouri Agriculture Director Richard Fordyce chimed in when offered the opportunity:

“This is a historic opportunity for Missouri to expand our surging agricultural markets and continue to feed, fuel and clothe the globe.”

MCE is supportive of opening relations with Cuba. The current failed Draconian restrictions intended to bring down the Castro regime have served no purpose other than to hurt the Cuban people. The false, unfulfilled promises of NAFTA and other trade agreements quickly come to mind with the recent sound bites of trade “opportunities” in Cuba being offered. However, considering that Cuba’s population is about a million less than the State of Illinois’, it is hard to see Cuba as a large market for our corn and soybeans.

Because a large volume of those exported “goods” would likely be grown in our region and shipped by barges down the Mississippi River, this issue relates directly to the health of the river, which is a primary concern of MCE and the main driver for this article.

Knowledge of Cuba, what their people have been through over the last several decades, and how they have handled the many adversities is important context that needs to be considered. Trade should primarily serve a public benefit and both trading partners should equally benefit. It is doubtful that the trade being promoted above will provide significant public benefit in either the U.S or Cuba.

No one knows what the future holds, but we hope that our government’s efforts in this regard will concentrate upon public benefits for both Cubans and Americans and not upon promoting American-style “free trade” and industrialized agriculture that almost exclusively benefit corporations.

Pre-1989 History

  • 1511 – 1950s Cuba’s long history of land ownership concentration and export crop dependency (sugar cane especially) begins after the Spanish colonization in 1511. This basic system endured into the late 1950s.
  • 1959 Most of the agricultural land was devoted to tobacco, cattle and particularly sugar, of which 50% went to the US.American landowners, including corporations, owned 25% of the land in Cuba (ERS 1998).
  • 1959 Fidel Castro led a revolution, which overthrew the Batista government. Castro immediately began altering the Cuban agricultural system. Two primary objectives were to diversify the Cuban agricultural system away from the sugar-export dependency and to nationalize the land.
  • 1960s The revolution drove many Cubans, especially wealthy ones, to migrate to the US. Cuba decided to follow industrialized agriculture based upon the Soviet Union’s collectivized farm system (Enriquez 2000). In part, this decision by the Cuban government was one of survival. The US trade embargo had significantly reduced Cuban export revenue, curtailing the government’s ability to diversify the agricultural sector. The Soviet Union offered to fill the void by purchasing large quantities of sugar at highly inflated rates (Enriquez 2000).
  • 1961 US instituted the Trade Embargo Act on Cuba, which banned Cuban exports to the US. That embargo remains in effect today (ERS 1998, Oppenheim 2001).
  • 1959 – mid-1980s, Cuba showed improvement in diversification, which reduced Cuba’s dependency upon imported food.
  • By the 1980s Cuba’s movement to industrialized farming, heavily dependent upon hybrid seeds, pesticides and chemical fertilizers, had elevated the country’s agricultural sector to the most mechanized in Latin America (Rosset 2000).

In retrospect, the Cuban revolutionary government had simply modernized the highly concentrated agricultural sector they confiscated in 1959. The major difference was that the state, rather than a small number of wealthy, private landowners, controlled about 80% of the farmland. The privately owned portion of the land was operated by cooperatives and small farmers who were growing 40% of the country’s food.

The Crisis from the Soviet Union Collapse

  • Cuba experienced a mechanization-labor loss cycle on the state-run farms since the revolution. (As the production is increasingly mechanized, fewer people are needed to maintain production. This tends to drive people from rural to urban areas in the search for new employment. Further mechanization is then required to compensate for the compounding labor shortages (Enriquez 2000).)
  • 1989 The bottom began falling out of the Cuban economy after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
  • 1991 Cuba lost or saw a significant reduction in key imported resources including equipment, parts and inputs required for the operation of the industrialized agricultural system (including petroleum, fertilizers and pesticides, and grain).  (Rosset 2000).
  • Cuba lost of a large portion of their imported food supply and of major inputs and resources needed to increase food production.
  • 1992 The Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 tightened the embargo and was intended to finally cause the collapse of the Castro-run Communist government (Sheak 2002).

Cuba’s Forced Transition to Sustainable Agriculture

The Special Period:

The Cuban government considered the combined events of the breakup of the Soviet Union and the increased severity of the US trade embargo equivalent to a war crisis. They termed it the “special period.”

  • Goals: Food security and economic independence.
  • The task of providing the methods and tools necessary for Cuba to move from a petroleum-based industrialized agricultural system to a low-input, alternate agricultural system became the responsibility of the Cuban scientists (Oppenheim 2001, Rosset 2000).
  • The early 1990s were a difficult time for many Cubans due to the loss of petroleum, imported crops and the lucrative sugar market. Food rationing allowed most Cubans access to locally grown foods but items including meat, eggs, bread and milk were nearly non-existent (Meadows 1997). Food rationing still exists today for the products Cuba cannot produce in sufficient volumes.

The Autoconsumo Program:

The program allowed self-provisioning plots on all state-owned farms and Agricultural Production Cooperatives (CPA) to be used by the farm’s workers for subsistence farming.

  • Goal: Allow people to supplement their own food supply.
  • This practice also seemed to increase the wages of workers by the value of the food they produced themselves.
  • 1998 Results: Over 27,000 acres had been assigned to 45,800 “parceleros” or individual farmers (Enrique 2000).

Base Units of Cooperative Production (UBPC):

The second major agricultural change was the reorganization of the state farms into what were called Base Units of Cooperative Production (UBPC).

  • Goal: The government believed that this approach would improve the low productivity typically plaguing the state farms.
  • Allowed the workers of the state farms to take over much of the control of the farms under a collective mode.
  • Workers were provided the land at no cost for an indefinite rental period (Enrique 2000).
  • Autonomy included ownership of the crops that they produced and the ability to determine how to organize their production operations.
  • Government quota obligations for major crops for which they were paid set prices but they also were able to sell all excess production for their own benefit in the new agricultural markets that the government began to allow in the fall of 1994 (Enrique 2000, Rosset 2000).
  • Results: The continuing government obligation to produce low-priced export crops such as sugar cane and citrus fruits affected the progress of some cooperatives (Rosset 2000). The program has largely succeeded in helping to transform the Cuban collectivized agricultural system into a smaller, more locally managed and flexible farming system (Enrique 2000).

Linking People With the Land:

This program involves giving a small team of people, usually four, entire responsibility for the production on a 13.4 hectares parcel. The philosophy supporting this program is that intimate knowledge of land, which would include soil types, the affects of inputs and how to deal with pests, is only obtainable by individuals physically working the same parcel of land for an extended period. This acquired land knowledge would then lead to higher and more sustainable production (Rosset 2000).

Tiro Directo:

“Tiro directo” or “direct throw” involved improving the process of transporting produce to consumers. The old system required private farmers to rely upon Acopio, the state marketing and distribution agency, to come to the farm and pick up the produce. The new system allowed the farmers to take their crops directly to market, ensuring better quality, and they are reimbursed for the cost of transportation by the government.

Agricultural Markets:

Figure 1: Agricultural Market in Havana Source: Newfarm.org – 2003

Another major commercial change in Cuba was the proliferation of agricultural markets, which the government legalized in the fall of 1994. The markets provided a consistent and organized location for farmers to sell their produce directly to the public within a free market system. Benefits to the public have included a more reliable, varied and relatively inexpensive source of produce. Another benefit has been the undercutting of the agricultural portion of the Cuban black market, which has been a real concern of the government since the early 1990s (Enrique 2000).

Urban Farms

Figure 2: Urban Farm in Cuba Source: Noah Friedman-Rudovsky

An additional phenomenon resulting from the food crisis has been organic urban farms and gardens, which have proliferated throughout Cuba. About 383,000 were in use by 2011, covering more than 120,000 acres and annually producing about 1.5 million tons of vegetables. The top producers have yields as high as 40 tons per acre (Rosset 2011). Most gardeners use traditional organic methods including composting to improve poor soil fertility and inter-planting different crops for pest control. The government has wholeheartedly supported the movement by creating the Urban Agricultural Department, whose function is to help new urban gardeners (Van Cleff 2000). It was estimated that by the late 1990s nearly half of the vegetables grown in Cuba came from these urban gardens (Baker 2000).

Adjustments since 2002

Cuba agricultural is in a concurrent dual transformation:

  1. Moving from a highly industrialized, large-scale system focused upon exports to a smaller-scale sustainable system that focuses upon producing food for Cubans. The area that was focused on to accomplish this was the elimination of half of the sugar mills and associated sugar cane land in the area.
  2.  Transitioning the land control from primarily the state to primarily non-governmental entities. By 2011, about 83% of the land was controlled by various forms of non-governmental groups (Nova 2012).

Food importation dependency continues to exist at levels higher than the Cuban government desires (SDO 2012). Reasons include the need to:

  • Repair the damage from decades of industrialized agriculture
  • Re-route inefficient transportation infrastructure developed in the early 20th century for the large sugar cane estates
  • Alter the government’s entrenched mindset of extensive control of production
  • Overcome the impact of hurricanes

In 2008, the government revitalized its goal of increasing domestic food production through a program to transfer more than 5 million acres of idle land to individuals.

  • The focus was to distribute the idle land through the private sector and primarily the Credit and Service Cooperatives (CCS), which are cooperatives made up of peasant farmers. This group of private farmers produces the majority of the country’s food (SDO 2012).
  • The cooperatives themselves are improving conditions from an agricultural, environmental, and well-being prospective through programs such as the Agricultural Innovation Program (Palma 2013).
  • 2012 Nearly 4 million acres had been distributed to about 163,000 farmers (SDO 2012) through what is termed usufruct(Nova 2012).

Guaranteed foreign investment: This was legally established in Cuba in 1995, which has allowed 500 foreign associations to do business in the country. Foreign investment relating to agriculture has been primarily in the production of sugar, but tobacco and citrus fruits have received considerable funding as well (SDO 2012).

Results of Cuban Agro-ecological Transition

Figure 3: Cuba Natural Resources Source: De Blij et all, 2002

Agricultural Production

The land area of Cuba encompasses 27.1 million acres, of which about 15.8 million acres were used for agricultural purposes in 2011, the most recent year available. This is about 1 million acres less than was farmed in 1990. Between 1990 and 2011 the forested area of Cuba was increased by over 2 million acres (FAOSTAT 2015). To help visualize this, the area of land used for agriculture in Illinois is about 30.8 million acres.

Changes in agricultural production include:

  • Reduced emphasis on sugar cane production
  • Reduced use of fertilizers
  • Increased area of land planted in rice, corn and vegetables due to the
  • Yields of rice, sweet potatoes, maize, and especially tomatoes initially dropped due to loss of fertilizer and then increased as soil fertility and new farming methods were developed

Cuba still typically imports significant volumes of corn and soybeans, primarily for animal feed. All of its wheat is imported because the conditions in the Caribbean are poor for growing it (FAOSTAT 2015). Another factor affecting food production is hurricanes that frequently impact the country. In 2008 there were three major hurricanes that severely damaged the country and reduced the country’s GDP by an estimated 20 % and increased food imports to about $2.2 billion (SDO 2012).

Changes in Agrarian Practices

The major industrial-style aspects of Cuban agriculture have been significantly altered as a result of the 1989 crisis. In each of the changes there has been a noticeable movement toward what some people consider more sustainable, organic methods (Sheak 2002).

It is also important to mention that Cuban scientists had been urging a move to a more ecological style of agriculture since at least the early 1980s and were performing research in biological pest control prior to 1989, which gave Cuba a head start when the ‘Special Period” began (Levin 1993).

Improving Soil Fertility:

The major industrial-style aspects of Cuban agriculture have been significantly altered as a result of the 1989 crisis. In each of the changes there has been a noticeable movement toward what some people consider more sustainable, organic methods (Sheak 2002).

It is also important to mention that Cuban scientists had been urging a move to a more ecological style of agriculture since at least the early 1980s and were performing research in biological pest control prior to 1989, which gave Cuba a head start when the “Special Period” began (Levin 1993).

Improving Soil Fertility:

  • Cuban government officials have recognized the essential importance of the country’s soils, terming them “a strategic natural resource” (Snyder 2002).
  • The state-owned farms in Cuba had, as is typical throughout the developed world, relied upon synthetic fertilizers to compensate for the low nutrient content of the soils. Several innovative, natural methods are being used to improve overall soil fertility and organic matter content (Oppenheim 2001).
  • Nitrogen fixing microorganisms: legumes Rhizobium, Azotobacter, and green manure
  • Phosphorus supplement: Bacillus bacteria
  • Organic Supplements: earth worm humus, vermiculture, and composting
  • Fungi: Vesicular Arbuscular Micorrhizae (VAM)

Controlling Pests:

Biological and traditional methods used by peasant farmers are being used throughout the agricultural sector for the control of insects, fungus and weeds resulting in a significant reduction in the use of chemical pesticides.

Mechanization of Farming Operations:

There has been a movement away from mechanized farming methods, particularly tractors, to a more widespread use of draught animals. After the loss of petroleum and tractor parts in 1989, draught animal use increased. By 2000 the number of oxen had more than doubled (Starkey 2003) while thousands of tractors were idled due to lack of fuel (FAOSTAT).Although many people believe that the large-scale use of animals for working farms is antiquated and inefficient, the Cubans have learned to use them in conjunction with tractors and human labor in an efficient assimilation of each mode’s advantages. On small farms tractors are usually too expensive to justify using, so animals are preferred. On larger farms tractors are typically used for tasks that are time dependent, such as planting crops. Animals and people perform the follow-on operations (Starkey 2003). Animals do have several advantages over tractors. These advantages include:

Figure 5: Cuba still uses tractors Source: Javier GaleanoAP, 2008

Animals are less costly than tractors to purchase and use no fossil fuels.

  • Animals can produce useful by-products such as manure, milk, meat and offspring.
  • Animals can work in more confined and hilly areas where tractors are inappropriate or less efficient (FAO)
  • Animals compact the soil less and cause less soil erosion than tractors (Oppenheim 2001).

Tractors however are more powerful and faster than animals, allowing a farmer to do more work per unit of time. Animals also require food and health care.

What are the Social Conditions in Cuba?

There is no doubt that over the last 50 years the Cuban people have suffered from many adversities, both from their own government and the U.S. government’s embargo. The United Nations General Assembly has passed numerous resolutions calling on the U.S. to end the Cuba embargo and some international organizations believe the embargo violates international law regarding human rights.

The movement by President Obama to open relations with Cuba could be a historic change for the good, finally ending what the Cato Institute a decade ago called “Four Decades of Failure“. Although we do not agree with the free market motivation in the Cato Institute’s paper, we generally agree with their assessment of the embargo’s impacts.

A free market obsession mentality unfortunately pervades our politics and economy. By what some politicians and the industrialized agribusiness community say, one might think that the Cuban people are starving, completely backward, and in desperate need of help from our Midwestern corn and soybean farmers, Caterpillar’s tractors, and Detroit’s cars. But is this perception true?

A sustainable society requires more than just adequate food. The United Nations uses the Human Development Index (HDI), among others, as an indicator of a countries general well-being. HDI includes life expectancy, education components, and per capita income metrics to compare countries. Both Cuba and the U.S. are in the “very high human development” category. The major difference between the U.S. and Cuba in their HDI scores is the per capita income component. But income is not necessarily a uniform comparison across nations when major expenses are provided by the government, as you will see below.

Despite the embargo Cuba has attained between 96% and 99% immunization rates (for five major childhood diseases) for 1 year old children. The infant mortality rate is 5%. Health care is provided at no cost. Life expectancy is nearly the same as in the U.S.

Similar results have occurred in education. Adult and youth literacy rates are 100%. Children stay in school on average 15.4 years compared to 16.8 years in the U.S., with 95% of their students finishing school and 98% of those graduates going on to secondary education. The percent of government expenditures spent on education is 18.3% compared to 13.1% in the U.S. Education is also free in Cuba, including college, but recent budget cuts have allocated less for universities, acknowledging that not all students should go to college.

From a health perspective, the general Cuban population has suffered from a lack of access to medicine since the fall of the Soviet Union. Although the U.S. embargo originally allowed medicine and medical equipment to be traded with Cuba for humanitarian purposes, this allowance was undermined in 1992. The Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 modified previous embargo legislations requiring onerous verification requirements and sanctions on assistance to Cuba by other countries. The U.S. reaction to the collapse of the Soviet Union was not to help Cuba through our humanitarianism, which might have convinced their government to open relations during a desperate time. Instead we chose to punish them with a more stringent embargo.

As was described above, the Special Period beginning in 1990 was a very difficult time for Cuba, causing great hardship to the people. In 1980, the average amount of daily calories consumed per person was about 3,000. According to some reports by 1993 it had dipped to 1,500 calories or less. Through major changes to the country’s food production system by 2007 (or earlier) Cubans returned to an adequate diet of about 3,200 calories per the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

But the issue of food needs to be placed into perspective with conditions in the U.S. The importation of food has been common for as long as people have had ships. Historically, agricultural trade was primarily motivated by the inability to grow specific crops such as spices, coffee, pineapples, etc., due to climactic or land constraints. However, times have changed and the U.S. is now importing large volumes of fresh fruits and vegetables, often so that we can have these foods all year long. That is convenient but creates a food import dependency that could become a security issue (see Our Future? – page 20). Per the USDA – Economic Research Service (USDA-ERS), in 2009 the U.S. imported by volume 17.4% of our vegetables, 38.5% of our fruits & nuts, and unsurprisingly 97.2% of our tropical products. The imported share of fruits & nuts and vegetables increased from the 1990 levels by 10% and 14% respectively. Between 2007 and 2013 the volume of imported fruits & nuts increased by nearly 1.8 million tons. During the same period the volume of imported vegetables increased by over 2 million tons. This trend is escalating our food importation dependency.

The U.S. is of course far from starving, at least from an availability of calories standpoint, but we do have food security issues. Both Cuba and the U.S. are classified at the “Less than 5% Food Insecurity level” by FAO. However, about 14% of U.S. households were considered Food Insecure per the USDA-ERS (page 14). In the primary Corn Belt states food insecurity is not significantly less severe than the national average, is even worse in our state, and varies from 10.8% in Minnesota to 16.9% in Missouri.

This totals to over 2.1 million households suffering from food insecurity within the Corn Belt, over half of them in Illinois and Missouri. With an average household size of 2.54 people, that equates to just under 5.5 million people, which is about half of Cuba’s population. So while our government pushes to grow and ship even more Corn Belt animal feed overseas, over two million people in Illinois and Missouri are too often lacking food. Cuba is still unable to produce all of their food (and what country can?), in part due to the impacts of hurricanes. Its current dependency upon food imports varies but ranges from about 16 (Funes 2009) to 40 (SDO 2012) percent, depending upon the year and the definition, but there has been much improvement since 1990. There has also been an inter-dependency developed with Venezuela from imported crude oil and fertilizer that is impacting the portion of land that still uses conventional agricultural methods. Venezuela received in return access to several thousand Cuban doctors. As a result of the adversity Cuba has experienced, the country has developed arguably the most advanced sustainable agriculture system in the world. A Radio Havana Cuba article identified that the “five key factors behind Cuba’s rapid transition to sustainable agriculture (were) strong scientific capacity; farmer literacy; solid agricultural extension; large cooperatives; good soils, water and of course climate.”

The advantages of this system have been discussed in detail above but are summarized below:

  • Creates a more sustainable agricultural system that improves soil fertility through natural means, controls pests with fewer chemicals and provides resilience to adverse weather impacts,
  • Re-engages urban and rural people with food production and the land,
  • Improves local and national food access and security, and
  • Decreases importation dependency

A recent article by the Rocky Mountain Institute reported that Cuba is embarking on a program to increase their national use of renewable energy to 24% by 2030. Several sources of renewable energy are closely tied to agricultural resources. For those interested in investing in Cuba, renewable energy is an area to consider because Cuba is looking for assistance to fund a portion of the program through foreign investment.

Under some difficult constraints the Cuban government has improved conditions within their country for most people, but there is no doubt that the government needs to expand social and economic freedoms within their nation and improve access to fair trade and beneficial investment with other nations.

Who should teach whom?

We have talked about industrialized agriculture in other recent blog articles (1) and (2), so I will not go into detail other than to state that a focus on a highly subsidized, chemical and fossil-fuel dependent, toxic and polluting, corporatized, industrialized monoculture system is inefficient, damaging, and costing us a fortune on many levels. The U.S. Corn Belt needs to become the U.S. Food Belt (replacing, or at least supplementing, the highly vulnerable California Central Valley), which will require a major change to how we do agriculture in this country.

The Cuban sustainable agro-ecological system is worth serious investigation. Their experience foreshadows our country’s eventual necessary path to major agricultural change. They have invested much effort, money, and scientific knowledge into its development; that knowledge is what we should be looking to acquire.

Our transformation to a sustainable agricultural system would not need to mimic Cuba’s but there are many aspects of their system that could be incorporated into ours. It could re-couple the rural with the urban by providing many opportunities for people to re-engage more closely and intimately with the land and our food system, both as producers and consumers. It could lead to the reduction in power and influence of the agribusiness sector upon our lives, while increasing our choices, our security, and our personal knowledge regarding food.

Unfortunately, some Cuban bureaucrats are susceptible to the lure of industrial agriculture and have, during better economic times, dedicated valuable revenue to schemes that promote it rather than expanding the emphasis upon the more cost effective, sustainable agricultural methods that essentially saved the country.

The question then is, are we going to help maintain Cuba’s sustainable agriculture system or simply focus upon manipulating the Cuban government to get as much trade-related money from them as possible while promoting (or paying for) a transformation back to the old failed industrial methods they have largely discarded?

To foster, even promote, the corruption of the Cuban agricultural transformation by U.S. agribusiness concerns is indefensible. Not only would the Cuban people again become dependent upon unsustainable and harmful industrial agriculture, but the U.S. would miss an opportunity to learn how to escape the destructive treadmill our food system has become.


As readers of this blog know, everything is connected. The food that we eat and how we transport it affects human health as well as the health of our rivers, air, and soil. The Rivers Roils blog discusses complex issues that affect the health of our rivers, including political issues that affect our ability to pass environmental legislation or to stop legislation that adversely affects us. Missourians’ ability to learn from Cuba’s experiences with transitioning to sustainable agriculture would certainly have a long-term influence on the health of our rivers. Any increase in the exportation of conventional agriculture products (such as corn and soybeans) to countries opening to international trade, like Cuba, will also have an influence on the health of our rivers. The Rivers Roils blog will continue to inform you on these complex issues that help to reinforce our understanding of the interconnectedness of the environment and people everywhere.

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