Make no mistake, I am absolutely thrilled that President Obama and Raul Castro are embarking on a process to normalize relations between the United States and Cuba. But as one era ends and another begins, let’s not forget that socialist Cuba has been a bastion for the science of agroecology — the study of ecology in farming systems. Sadly, the opening of many socialist states to the West has signaled the demise of alternative agricultural sciences such as agroecology.
Cuba faced a crisis in the early 1990s, following the twin challenges of a U.S. embargo and the collapse of the Soviet Union, long a patron of the Cuban state. The immediate test was how to feed the country with an extremely limited ability to import oil and food (with both dropping by 50 percent) as well as an 80 percent drop in fertilizer and pesticide imports. Cuba’s agricultural economy had long been dominated by export-oriented sugar and tobacco production — an enduring legacy of its colonial plantation economy.
Reorienting the Cuban agricultural landscape toward food production was no small task. In order to facilitate this process, 80 percent of the farmland that was once held by the state, including sugar cane plantations, was turned over to workers. New agroecological farming practices were introduced, and the government plunged head first into an urban agricultural program to boost food production.
Remarkably, by the mid-1990s, because of soaring domestic production, Cuba had as much food as before the collapse of the Soviet Union and caloric intake had returned to normal.
Leading Cuba’s remarkable food production turnaround was a robust cohort of agroecologists trained at Cuban universities.
Unlike modern American agriculture — long characterized by its energy-intensive approach that involves mechanization, hybrid seeds, inorganic fertilizers and pesticides — Cuban scientists needed to find a way to boost production without increasing fossil-fuel consumption. They did this through the careful study of ecological interactions in farm fields (that is, agroecology). By using plant associations — such as legumes to fix nitrogen for grain crops, the intensive production of compost and the use of biopesticides — Cuban scientists demonstrated that agroecology was as or more effective at increasing crop production than conventional methods.
Cuban scientists also inspired academics and activists in the United States to explore similar alternatives. For example, Will Smith of Growing Power in Milwaukee has developed similar techniques to foster urban agriculture in his city.
Cuba is not the first state to actively explore and support agroecology. For example, up until the early 1960s, Indian scientists (inspired by Gandhi’s self-help philosophy) were encouraged to come up with cheaper, indigenous alternatives to expensive, imported ones. Similarly, before China’s opening to the West in the 1970s it had an active research agenda for agroecological agriculture. Unfortunately, in both cases, the science of alternative agriculture came to a grinding halt as relations tightened with the West — and with the United States, in particular.
In India during the 1960s, then-Prime Minister Nehru was persuaded by U.S. advisers that his country needed to industrialize its agriculture via a Green Revolution if it were to feed its people and develop manufacturing. American philanthropies such as the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations launched intensive agriculture programs in India during this time, and U.S. connections to the Indian scientific agricultural community tightened.
Similarly, China’s opening up to the world in the early 1970s made a key difference in the approach it would eventually emphasize for increasing agricultural productivity. From that point forward, a Green Revolution strategy for increasing agricultural productivity trumped an agroecological one. The first business deal signed after President Richard Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972 was an order for 13 of the world’s largest, most modern, American-designed nitrogen fertilizer plants. More purchases of such plants followed, and China became the world’s largest producer of nitrogenous fertilizers. China would also import hybrid-seed technology from the United States, which it emulated and eventually produced locally.
As Cuba normalizes its relations with the United States, tighter connections with the U.S. scientific community and investment are likely to follow. Rather than following the path of India or China, Cuba ought to be wary of the triumphalist U.S. agricultural narrative. Our energy-intensive approach to food production is not only a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, but soil erosion, water waste and limited agro-biodoversity are also major issues.
A more positive outcome would be an equitable exchange of ideas between the U.S. and Cuban scientific communities. U.S. agriculture would certainly benefit from a more robust set of alternatives, and American scientists could learn a lot from their Cuban counterparts.
William G. Moseley is professor and chair of geography at Macalester College in St. Paul. His latest book is “An Introduction to Human-Environment Geography: Local Dynamics and Global Processes.” On Twitter: @WilliamGMoseley