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Cuba’s sustainable agriculture plan points the way

Environmental columnist Frances Lamberts is taking a brief hiatus from writing. She has selected some of her favorite columns to republish. This one ran October 10, 2006.

German agriculture specialist Heinz Erven imported Tennessee-wiggler earthworms when, in 1948, he converted his fields on the outskirts of Remagen to an organic farm free of synthetic-chemical inputs. The gardens, orchards, meadows and open woodlands of his “Paradise,” which I visited a decade ago, rely on intercropping, his horses’ manure and the wigglers’ humus to assure soil fertility. Diversity of woody and herbaceous host plants and artificial homes for natural predators keep pest species under control.
In the center of Havana, Cuba, the earthworms that cultivate humus soil for urban farms come from California, as a recent feature article in “Zeit” noted. Havana’s apparently quite productive commercial gardeners employ the earthworms, along with various ecological farming methods to grow more than two-thirds of the vegetables consumed in this city of 2 million people. “Corn, yucca and beans grow side by side here,” the reporter said, and “neat rows in the vegetable beds overflow with tomatoes, peppers, mangoes, pineapple and papaya, with carrots, beets, chard and cabbages, lettuce and radishes. Harvest comes three times a year in these fields.”
Whereas Erven’s switch to ecological farming methods had stemmed from a belief that modern industrial agriculture “cannot outdo nature” in productivity and will be counterproductive when it violates her methods, Cuba’s was forced upon it through outside developments. During its alliance with communist, Soviet-block countries, its agriculture had been export oriented. Farmers produced monoculture, sugar and citrus crops for which, in return, Cuba received food, oil, medications and agricultural chemicals from the allied countries. The demise of the communist empire left Cuba isolated and lacking these vital goods.
In a response that proved highly successful, Fidel Castro promoted food self-sufficiency through local production. City governments mapped their open-land and some brownfield areas, turning them over for the entrepreneurial development of urban and suburban farms. Departing from communist economic practice, the farms, and small, intensive backyard gardens as well, could follow market principles of freely selling their produce and crops. Born of necessity, the island’s new, ecological farming plan followed the motto “Work within our own means and domestic wealth.” Local production would also obviate much of the costly and oil-dependent transport of food.
This prompt and foresighted move in response to foreign political-economic developments averted a food crisis in Cuba. It also, apparently, within the short span of less than two decades, made the country a model of sustainable agriculture, so recognized by the World Food Organization in 2002 and being emulated in other major cities, Karachi, Hong Kong, Shanghai among them. One notes that every Cuban child has entitlement to a liter of milk every day, free from the state, and that malnourishment affects less than 2.5 percent of the country‘s population.
Whatever its other policies, hand it to Cuba on smart, sustainable agriculture. Its policy of maintaining farmland, supporting small farms and growing food where it is most needed, in and near cities, and of an agriculture system minimally dependent on the corporate chemical, oil and transportation industries we might learn from to our profit.