The Cuban Agricultural Model

Rolf Otto Niederstrasser
Friday, 31st July 2015

Rolf Otto Niederstrasser explores how Cuba is working hard to reduce food imports and improve sustainable agriculture.

Agriculture has played an enormous role in Cuba's history. Yet, today, it is only 5% of the GDP with a possibility for expansion.1

The participation of small independent farmers working for the government has become a dominant factor in the Cuban model of agriculture. In the agricultural sector, there are some 575,000 farmers who own or lease their private plots, working individually or in service cooperatives, many of whom are prospering from the rise of market-driven agricultural markets.2 Farmers work on government owned land. Most of them have managed to prosper by selling their surplus of food supply in the local market. That has turned some guajiros into a necessary, even prestigious class. They profit from supplying goods desperately needed by the state. The state needs a larger, more diverse domestic food supply to feed a population of over 11 million people.

In the U.S. and other countries, a short-term solution to the problem of food supply has been to rely on large-scale, intensive use of dangerous fertilizers and pesticides. Many recent studies link exposure to pesticides to health risks and disorders in humans. In 2007, roughly 877 million pounds of active ingredients were applied to U.S. cropland.3 The only sure way to reduce exposure to toxic pesticides is to transition to a long-term and sustainable approach to food production. Studies advise a shift away from large-scale, industrial agriculture. Cuba, ahead of this trend, is becoming a successful example of more sustainable agro-ecology.

Agro-ecology uses nature’s complex systems to deal with pests more efficiently, and, for the most part, without undue reliance on chemistry. For example, nitrogen-fixing beans are grown instead of inorganic fertilizer; flowers are used to attract beneficial insects to manage pests; weeds are crowded out with more intensive planting. The result is a sophisticated polyculture. This means many crops are produced simultaneously, instead of just one (Raj Patel, Slate Magazine).

Cuban President Raul Castro has announced a policy of financial support for farmers in rural areas, focusing on new agricultural enterprises.4 Compromises would include more dynamic and flexible tariffs, more people brought in to cultivate more produce for a relatively freer market economy. This model has resulted from a series of negotiations and modifications; Cuba has changed drastically. The government encourages a more open market to improve and regulate supply and demand.

In addition to agricultural innovation, Cuba has necessarily utilized education. They have taught the newer methods of cultivating with fewer pesticides. The UNAH (Agrarian University of Havana) and other universities recruited international students to study agricultural careers. After the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Cuban trade fell 73%; the economy was in tatters.5 Necessity being the Mother of Invention, sustainable agriculture took root: organic farming, urban gardens, smaller farms, animal traction and biological pest control. All these became part of the new Cuban agriculture.

The wider distribution of idle state lands improved production (Decree Law 300). This project distributed 1.2 million acres; a million and a half people benefited. Farmers could grow any crop they wished. Many chose rice, tobacco, fruits and minor livestock. In addition, they could build their houses and barns on the land.

The model consolidated the dominance of non-state producers. A new open market for non-state economic activity was created. Private sector participation increased to include the self-employed. New cooperative forms for all economic sectors and productive services were encouraged. It has become a win-win situation - some socialism, some capitalism.

In terms of agriculture though, Cuba’s dependence on food imports has increased. Hurricane damage (crops in fields lost from winds and flooding, tree damage, and losses of stored food) during the last decade, especially in 2008 with Hurricane Ike, led to an increase by more than 1⁄4 of a billion dollars of U.S. food and agricultural exports to Cuba between 2007 and 2008 to over $700 million (Cuban Agricultural Development and Implications for U.S. Exports by William A. Messina, Jr.).

Today, farmers do not produce sufficient income and food supply has not improved noticeably in the island. Logically, food must continue to be imported in large quantities from the United States and other supplier countries such as Brazil. This could make it more vulnerable and result in high expenditure of foreign currency for food imports (Dr. Armando Nova Gonazales, From the Island).

The Future

In Havana, the news that the U.S. is ready to open a new chapter in its Cuba policy has brought enthusiasm. A newer approach could have some major benefits for both countries. It could enable them to work together on agricultural trade, energy development, even disaster preparation. When such a break-through begins, one that allows the export of agricultural technology, the U.S. could help boost Cuba’s food security. For its part, the U.S. can observe and learn from Cuba's experimental, sustainable agriculture system.

Cuba has been trying to revive its ailing, mainly state-controlled agriculture. New options for the island would therefore be necessary. As part of the new policy on Cuba, President Barack Obama eased the embargo imposed decades ago. Some U.S. firms can now do business with the Caribbean country. The U.S also approved the export of building materials and equipment for private entrepreneurs - such as for the operators of restaurants, hairdressers or agricultural equipment for farmers. The hope is of stabilizing the private sector within the socialist planned economy in Cuba.

Furthermore, U.S. companies are already lining up to export agricultural chemicals and processed foods to Cuba. Soon, foreign investors may begin to arrive in search of opportunities for export agriculture (Julia Wright, Global Research). Cheaper imports, new finance and the development of the agricultural export trade would change the economics of Cuban food production.

On the other hand, Brazil is becoming an increasingly important player in Cuba. They have recently invested in Cuba’s poultry industry, soybean production, they have spent $680 million to refurbish Cuba’s Port Mariel, $400 million in credits for food purchases, and $200 million to improve agriculture (Cuban Agricultural Development and Implications for U.S. Exports by William A. Messina, Jr.).

In contrast to traditional farming the urban and suburban agriculture in Cuba has remained ecological. This form of farming makes an important contribution to ensuring food sovereignty and a contribution to climate protection. The question is can Cuba, in their quest to update their agricultural system, avoid the threat of being dragged into the monocultural over-exploitation of their land as it is the case worldwid? As for now, diplomatic relations have been re-established. Americans and Cubans will win - especially innovative farmers, environmentalists and, most of all, consumers who demand nutritious, affordable, accessible food.

Rolf Otto Niederstrasser is a graduate of Political Science and History at the University of Texas-Pan American with a specialization in Latin America and Cuba. He was a student and tennis player at the National Sport School in Havana. He is a strong advocate for the normalization of US- Cuban relations, speaking on a variety of platforms such as radio, public speeches and TV to end the embargo towards Cuba. He is a guest columnist for the Rio Grande Guardian. Email: Rolf writes for Rio Grande Guardian and blogs at The Diplomat

Further resources

Organoponico - urban agriculture in Havana, Cuba

Flowers and garbage in Cuba

Watch: Living with the land  - building soil with regenerative agriculture


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