Cuba The Road Not Taken: The Other Cuban Revolution

Organic Farming — Cuba: “The Road Not Taken”: The Other Cuban Revolution

University of Cienfeugos Urban Garden or “Organiponico”Lately, I have been reading Toxic Deception: How the Chemical Industry Manipulates Science, Bends the Law, and Endangers Your Health. This book, written by Dan Fagin and Marianne Lavelle and The Center for Public Integrity, is a clear “snapshot” of how Industry set up its own scientific institutions to counter the gains of the environmental and health and safety movements of the 1970’s. ( Spending hundreds of millions of dollars to defend their chemicals.)

The authors describe the book as “…the story of how the chemical industry has managed to keep so many of its toxic products on the market, even in the face of mounting evidence of their danger and emerging-and safer- alternatives. It is also the story of how the federal agencies that are supposed to be the public’s watchdogs have been deranged by the chemical industry’s pressure tactics, which include junkets and job offers to government regulators, major contributions to politicians, scorched-earth courtroom strategies, and misleading multimillion-dollar advertising and public relations campaign.”

Two of the four toxic chemicals that they use to prove their point are Astrazine and Alachor. Both chemicals are used as pesticides extensively in agriculture. Both chemicals have been banned in other countries because of their association to breast cancer and other female cancers. They have not been banned in the United States due to the economic power political clout of agribusiness and the chemical industry.  (The United States Environmental Protection Agency classifies the herbicide as toxicity class III – slightly toxic.[4] The EPA has described the following effects when exposed to levels above the maximum contaminant level (MCL): slight skin and eye irritation; at lifetime exposure to levels above the MCL: potential damage to liver, kidney, spleen; lining of nose and eyelids; cancer.[5] Since 2006, use of alachlor as a herbicide is banned in the European Union

Atrazine was banned in the European Union (EU) in 2004 because of its persistent groundwater contamination[2] In the United States, however, atrazine is one of the most widely used herbicides, with 76 million pounds of it applied each year.[9] It is probably the most commonly used herbicide in the world, and is used in about 80 countries worldwide.[10] Its endocrine effects, possible carcinogenic effect, and epidemiological connection to low sperm levels in men has led several researchers to call for banning it in the US.[2]

These sprays, dusts, and aerosols are now applied almost universally to farms, gardens, forests, and homes – nonselective chemicals that have the power to kill every insect, the “good” and the “bad,” to still the song of birds and the leaping of fish in the streams, to coat the leaves with a deadly film, and to linger on in soil – all this though the intended target may be only a few weeds or insects. Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life? They should not be called “insecticides,” but “biocides.” — Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, 1962

Pesticides, fertilizers, and other chemicals and mechanization are the basic ingredients of agribusiness in the United States.  The initial thrust into large-scale farming resulted in a large increase in productivity of food.  But industry has gotten on the chemical treadmill where larger and larger capital investments of more and more fertilizers and pesticides are needed to maintain production while water supplies are becoming more and more polluted by these chemicals.  The chemicals not only get into the water supply-they also become part of our food supply.  One by-product of food production is cancer. In fact, prior to the introduction of large-scale chemical farming, one third of all crops were lost to weeds, bacteria, and insects.  Today, after the constant increase in chemical use, one third of all crops are still lost to weeds, bacteria, and insects as they become resistant to the chemicals.

Plenty of Garbage

Thus, the “chemical treadmill” has kept us in the same place at greater costs in capital investment and human lives.  (We do not reproduce fast enough to become resistant to the chemicals.) This model has become one of ever-increasing costs and declining levels of production.

To reverse this process would be to stop large scale farming conducted by agribusiness which requires a one crop, fully mechanized, fully fertilized, and fully pesticided approach to agriculture.  Huge capital investments in farming and industry would be lost.  That is why the toxic chemicals described by Fagin and Lavelle are considered by the government to be a “protected species”.  In the long run, this type of farming is the least efficient even though it is the most profitable.

Recently, agriculture ecologists, who are aware of the “treadmill”, have been advocating a different model for farm production.  This model is based on smaller farms rotating crops and breeding livestock.  This is a natural (organic) method of controlling weeds, insects, and bacteria that feed on farm produce.  Until recently, there have been no large-scale models to demonstrate the alternative form of agriculture.

Unfortunately, the “Socialist Block” model also embarked on the “chemical road” for agricultural production along with “forced collectivizations”.  The Soviet Union was an underdeveloped country with little technological skills that basically copied the science and the agricultural models found in the Industrialized countries.  In the Soviet Union there was no science or mechanism to do otherwise and still feed the population in the context of a civil war and a blockade.  In the case of Cuba, the chemical models of both the United States and the Soviet Union was continued.

The 38-year economic blockade of Cuba hampered the development of the Cuban economy.  To the credit of the Cuban Revolution they did not carry out any forced collectivizations.  They did copy the Soviet model of large chemically dependent state farms.  When the “Socialist Block” stopped all trade with Cuba, the Cuban economy was severely crippled.  They could no longer import the amount of oil, fertilizers, and pesticides to continue large-scale mechanized food production.   They had to move in the direction of the alternative model of agriculture that I previously described.

In response to a huge drop in pesticide and fertilizer imports, Cuban agriculture is being transformed. Cuba is presently undertaking the  largest national conversion from conventional agriculture to large-scale alternative farming in history.

Cuban Science Versus Monsanto

In Issue #1, March 1999, of the Monsanto Monitor, there is an interview with a Cuban geneticist. In this interview, Rebecka Milestad, of the Research School in Ecological Land Use at the Department of Rural Development Studies, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, wrote: “’If Monsanto came to Cuba, we would never sell ourselves to them.

Cuba is more important than money,’ claimed Eduardo, a geneticist at the agricultural university in Havana Province, where I visited him and his      colleagues in January this year.

“Their laboratory facilities are run down and they complain that other research institutes in Cuba receive more resources for genetic engineering research. Yet he still would not work for a company like Monsanto.:

So I asked how Monsanto practice differs from that what he and his fellow researchers do. He replied, ‘they wouldn’t dream of trying to develop herbicide-resistant crops, for example, that are only designed for the big companies to make money. In Cuba, he continued, ‘we only use biotechnology and genetic engineering for the good of our people and our country. And there is no limit to what we can achieve with this technology.’

Cuba has been in the forefront of developing organic farming along with their biotechnology. Due to the blockade, they have been forced to move away from chemical agriculture.

In fact, the Cuban experiment in agriculture should be carefully observed. In my opinion, the results that they have already achieved demonstrate that their approach shows the way to combine science and technology for the benefit of the environment and humanity.

“Butterflies are free, and so are we…” are the words to a song by Leonard Gershe in his play Butterflies are Free. We and the butterflies can only be free if we are safe in our own habitat.

I attended the “Dialogue With Cuba” conference at the University of Berkeley on March 23,1998.  I went to the panel discussion on agriculture in Cuba and saw the film; The Greening of Cuba.  In that film one can see the dramatic transformation that is taking place in agriculture.Normally it takes 3-5 years, after the transition, to begin to achieve the previous levels of productivity.  Cuba had the task of feeding its population while undergoing this transformation.The Greening of Cuba is a documentary on how well the Cubans have met the challenge.  One of the gains of the Cuban Revolution has been the development of education.  Although Cuba has only 2% of the population of Latin America, it has 11% of the PhD’s in Latin America.

Cuban scientists were mobilized — not to protect chemicals as in this country — but to develop the alternative organic model .  In the past few years Cuban scientists and planners have accelerated this process by using sophisticated biotechnology techniques, such as the mass production of naturally occurring local organisms to create biopesticides and biofertilizers.  Among the alternative tactics being used for pest control, the most important are conventional biological controls based on mass releases of parasitic and predatory insects and the use of biopesticides.

Cuba produces numerous formulations of bacterial and fungal diseases that attack insect pests. These are applied to crops in lieu of chemical insecticides. At present, 218 biotechnology centers are located on agricultural cooperatives, where the workers are typically people in their twenties who were born on the cooperative and have received some university-level training. Industrial production of these biopesticides is under way for larger- scale operations aimed at export crops. Many biopesticides are applied to crops in place of chemical insecticides.

Cuba is also one of the world leaders in the use of biofertilizers, including the standard Rhizobium inoculants for leguminous crops, as well as free-living bacteria that make atmospheric nitrogen available for non-legumes, and solubilizing bacteria that liberate phosphorus for uptake by plants.

It is unclear whether the widespread implementation of an alternative model of agricultural development will, in conjunction with other government policies, allow Cuba to emerge from the crisis wrought by the collapse of the socialist bloc. The continued and growing success of the experiment in alternative agricultural currently underway in Cuba is unprecedented, with potentially enormous implications for other countries suffering from the declining sustainability of conventional agricultural production. Hopefully, Cuba will soon be self-sufficient in food production

The movie captures the still living dynamics of the Cuban Revolution and the fighting spirit of the population as they started from scratch to rebuild their farms and introduce urban agriculture.

The Cuban could have followed the road of the Soviet Union and China towards capitalist restoration.  Instead, they chose the road of extending and deepening their socialist revolution.  In the process they had to give control over the development of farming to the scientists and those working the farms.  The success of organic farming is the product of the combined efforts of a people determined to protect their independence from the United States.  The film is a testimony to the capacity of humanity to work socially to solve its problems of survival and to act for the social good of all.  “What a piece of work is humanity!”  Viva Cuba!

The Other Cuban Revolution

An October, 1999 news release from Food First, announced that the  Right Livelihood Award Alternative Nobel Prize Goes to Cuban Group Promoting the Organic Revolution. This group was the Grupo de Agricultura Organica (GAO), the Cuban organic farming association, which has been setting the standard for sustainable agriculture for the world.

In accepting this award, Dr. Fernado Funes-Aguilar, President of GAO said: “This award is truly an honor for Cuba, for GAO, and for all the farmers, researchers, and policy makers who have struggled to make organic farming work in Cuba. We hope that our efforts will demonstrate to other countries that conventional chemically-dependent agriculture is not the only way to feed a country.”

In the press release, Peter Rosset, executive director of Food First, said: “This award shows the enormous potential of sustainable agriculture, which is so under exploited in other countries. The whole world should learn from Cuba.” Dr. Rosset went on to say that “in Cuba, organic is for everyone, not just for those who can afford it.

In past articles I have written on the importance of the Cuban developments in agriculture.  That the chemical dependent agriculture for profit in Capitalist society is making cancer part of our food chain based on an ever-increasing use of pesticides.

This award supports that conclusion.

I have also written that how the Cuban Socialist Revolution has  been a revolution to establish  harmony between science and nature to establish a sustainable economy and environment.

Researchers around the world are now beginning to recognize these achievements of the Cuban Revolution.

If a small socialist country can make these achievements, just think of the potential if the whole world would become a socialist world with science in harmony with nature.

The Cuban developments should be a guide for environmentalists through out the world.

(The accompanying articles by Elizabeth Agnew “The Other Cuban Revolution” and “Alternative Nobel Prize Goes to Cuban Group Promoting the Organic Revolution”, © Institute for Food and Development Policy, demonstrate these dynamics of the Cuban Revolution )


The Other Cuban Revolution  By Elizabeth Agnew (August 1999)

Having survived years of careless exploitation and tumultuous political and social change, Cuba is setting an example to the whole of the western hemisphere with its enlightened environmental policies.

Havana, Cuba: This island has had its share of disasters, delivered by both nature and man, but one of the country’s most consistent strengths lies in its natural resources. Cuba boasts the highest number of plant and endemic species in the West Indies. It is a land of extremes with some of the smallest existing species of wildlife, such as the butterfly bat and the bee hummingbird, as well as the world’s largest shrews.

The socioeconomic development policies in the first half of this century have left Cuba a poor country – like many of its neighbors in Latin America. A few powerful individuals and foreign corporations controlled the country’s wealth, while illiteracy, poverty and lack of medical services contributed to a desperate situation among a large proportion of the population.

In 1959 the island’s natural resources were severely damaged when there was a massive shift from mixed agriculture to sugar cane, leaving natural vegetation in only 14 per cent of the country. Further threats to Cuba’s capacity for long-term sustainability came from poor land-use practices, pollution and over logging, often driven by short-term economic and political demands. This has resulted in deforestation, loss of wetlands and rampant tourism, which is growing at a rate of 30 per cent annually.

The socialist revolution addressed social needs in Cuba, and the one-party regime transformed all aspects of society. One highly significant change was a drive for environmental conservation rare in Latin American countries. This emphasis led the country to take a longer-term view of planning while stressing integrated approaches to sustainable development.

Since the revolution, vegetative cover has increased to just over 17 per cent, and Cuba now has the lowest deforestation rate in Latin America and the lowest human population growth rate.

These statistics are a source of pride and encouragement to Cubans engaged in the conservation struggle. More than 2 per cent of the world’s flora are found in Cuba, and approximately 51 per cent of Cuban flora is endemic. New species are still being discovered in the more remote areas.

Opportunities for success in conservation and sustainable use are probably higher in Cuba than anywhere else in the western hemisphere. This is because Cuba has accepted• sustainable development as an official government policy with the goal of seeking solutions to its needs in both the short and long terms.

“Cubans are not only highly trained and professional, they are extremely motivated to work hard and to co-operate with one another,” says Steven Price, international program director of WWF-Canada.

For more than ten years, the conservation organization WWF has been funding conservation and development projects in Cuba. Its Cuba Program has a five-year conservation plan to restore ecosystems and encourage conservation of the island’s natural treasures. The plan aims to advance the conservation of biological diversity, to promote sustainable use of natural resources while reducing environmental contamination and waste, and ultimately to safeguard essential ecological processes.

Other WWF initiatives include support for the infrastructure of Turquino and Desembarco del Granma National Parks, and projects to band and analyze the habitats of migratory birds as well as to protect parrots and sandhill cranes. WWF is also increasing protection of the Alejandro von Humboldt National Park, and supporting the Cuban National Museum of Natural History.

In addition, the Canadian International Development Agency recently joined WWF on a conservation and development project in the largest and most important wetland in the Caribbean, the Cienaga de Zapata. This 500,000- hectare wetland is home to thousands of migratory species, as well as several endemic birds, such as the bee hummingbird.

WWF plans to increase its conservation investment in Cuba in the coming years. “A modest investment of funds yields a tremendous conservation dividend,” says Steven Price.

(Elizabeth Agnew is Cuba Program Director for WWF, based in Toronto, Canada,

Alternative Nobel Prize Goes to Cuban Group Promoting the Organic Revolution

STOCKHOLM and OAKLAND: The Grupo de Agricultura Organica (GAO), the Cuban organic farming association, which has been at the forefront of the country’s transition from industrial to organic agriculture, was named as winner of a major international prize—the Right Livelihood Award—commonly known as the ‘Alternative Nobel Prize.’

The Grupo de Agricultura Organica is one of four winners of the 1999 Right Livelihood Award, chosen from more than 80 candidates from 40 countries. GAO brings together farmers, farm managers, field experts, researchers, and government officials to develop and promote organic farming methods. Its aim is to convince Cuban farmers and policy-makers that the country’s~ previous high-input farming model was too import-dependent and environmentally damaging to be sustainable, and that the organic alternative has the potential to achieve equally good yields.

“This award is truly an honor for Cuba, for GAO, and for all the farmers, researchers, and policy makers who have struggled to make organic farming work in Cuba,” said Dr. Fernado Funes-Aguilar, President of GAO. “We hope that our efforts will demonstrate to other countries that conventional chemically-dependent agriculture is not the only way to feed a country.”

During the 1990s Cuba overcame a severe food shortage caused by the collapse of its trade relations with the former Soviet-bloc and the on-going U.S. trade embargo. Self-reliant organic farming played a significant role in overcoming the crisis.

GAO was founded in 1993 as the Asociación Cubana de Agricultura Organica (ACAO), but recently changed its name when it was legally incorporated as part of the Cuban Association of Agricultural and Forest Technicians (ACTAF). Over the past five years it has built up an impressive program of lobbying, training courses, workshops, documentation centers, demonstration farms, and exchange visits for farmers, and has held three international conferences.

“I hope this award will awaken the world to the amazing achievements Cuba has made in organic farming and food security”, said Martin Bourque, Sustainable Agriculture Program Director of Food First/The Institute for Food and Development Policy. “Through their hard work, innovation, and scientific excellence, GAO and the whole Cuban agricultural sector have demonstrated that low-input sustainable agriculture can work on a national scale.” Food First has had a scientific and technical exchange program with GAO for several years, and will co-sponsor GAO’s Fourth National Encounter on Organic Agriculture in May of the year 2000.

GAO is the first Cuban winner of the Right Livelihood Award. It shares the prize money of SEK 1,800,000 (approximately USD 225,000) with a Colombian network, Consolidation of the Amazon Region (COAMA), working for indigenous rights and biodiversity, and with Chilean-Spanish lawyer Juan Garces, who is honored for his untiring efforts over many years to bring the former Chilean dictator, General Pinochet, to justice. One of the world’s leading promoters of solar energy, Hermann Scheer, receives an honorary award.

The prizes will be presented at a ceremony in the Swedish Parliament on December 9, the day before the conventional Nobel Prizes. Founded in 1980, the Right Livelihood Award has honored more than 80 outstanding individuals and organizations for work contributing to a better future for the world.

Peter Rosset, executive director of Food First, said: “This award shows the enormous potential of sustainable agriculture, which is so underexploited in other countries. The whole world should learn from Cuba.” Dr. Rosset went on to say that “in Cuba, organic is for everyone, not just for those who can afford it.”

For more information on GAO or Food First, you can contact Food First staff members who are available for comment, and access: