Traditional Farmer Knowledge Leads Cuba to Organic Revolution

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Humberto RiosAt the peak of Cuba's "Special Period," the time after the Soviet Union's collapse brought the import-reliant island's economy to a halt, President Fidel Castro realized that domestic ingenuity was the only hope for a timely turnaround. As food producers struggled to feed an increasingly famished and angry nation, Castro made a phone call to Humberto Ríos Labrada, a young researcher who was searching for more efficient crop seeds.

Ríos, then a Ph.D. student studying pumpkins, was told, "We need to improve the vitamin A content to feed people." He answered Castro's call by collecting experiences from rural farmers who for several years had already been forced to raise nutritious crops without expensive, fossil fuel-dependent farm inputs. "I did it, but not through the scientific way," he said during an interview hours before accepting a 2010 Goldman Environment Prize in Washington, D.C. last month. "It was through the farmers."

The Goldman award, considered the Nobel Prize for grassroots environmentalists, recognized Ríos for his role in Cuba's rapidly spreading organic farming movement. In the face of economic crisis, thousands of Cuban farmers have boosted their yields in recent years without adding pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. The breakthrough has been due in large part to the use of new seed varieties provided by Ríos through his network of experimental farmers. 

"We started with two to three crops and 25 farmers, and now we are working together with more than 20 crops at the same time with 50,000 farmers," Ríos said. "Varieties of seeds are multiplying all over the place and farmers are incorporating them in the process."

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba lost some 80 percent of its imported resources, including food, machinery, and petrochemical fertilizers. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that calorie intake across Cuba was cut in half-from an average of 2,600 calories per person in the late 1980s to 1,000-1,500 per person by 1993. Across Havana, small-scale organic gardens sprouted on rooftops and backyards; farmers opened kiosks to provide city residents with locally grown crops. In the countryside, livestock and manual labor replaced tractors and organic farming replaced conventional agriculture.

At the time, Ríos was studying ways to boost vitamin A in squash using industrial agricultural models at the Higher Education Institute for Technological Education in Havana. But the institute's director turned down all his budget requests; they no longer had funding for the pesticides, fertilizers, and irrigation systems that were needed to support Ríos' work.

Despondent, Rios traveled to the countryside during his vacation to visit his wife's farming family. While wealthy farmers in Havana fretted about the economic collapse's effect on their business, Ríos found that his in-laws were thriving. "They never dealt with industrial model as such, and they knew how to deal with diversity," he recalls. As he visited several rural farms, Ríos witnessed pre-industrial practices of crop rotation and seed diversification, selecting seeds that would thrive naturally in the crop's particular environment. He soon gathered his students to study the farmers' traditional approach.

After Castro's call, Ríos was brought to the well-regarded National Institute for Agricultural Sciences, where he finished his doctoral studies. Meanwhile, he began exchanging knowledge and best practices with rural farmers to promote seed diversity. In 2000, the International Development Research Center supported Ríos in organizing seed fairs where he collected genetic materials for 92 varieties of maize and 63 types of beans, including commercial and local kinds. Farmers began organizing similar fairs on their own, expanding the reach of Ríos' work from two municipalities to 54 municipalities across nine provinces.

After realizing that farmers could boost yields without applying additional synthetic pesticides, using pest-resistant crops and seeds with natural defenses instead, Ríos turned his attention to boosting local organic farmers' access to city markets. As coordinator of his institute's Program for Local Agricultural Innovation, he is currently developing locally appropriate certification systems.

Many in Cuba do not consider organic farming  a realistic large-scale agriculture strategy, however. Rather than a longterm approach, several government ministries and academic researchers consider the organic farming popularized during the Special Period as a temporary substitute in a time of crisis. Ríos disagrees.

"Sometimes we are thinking that to grow organic food is like an escape from the crisis, not a development alternative. We are fighting to give evidence. This is our battle," Ríos said. "I involve people and they make their own conclusions, but we have so much evidence to show."

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.

For permission to republish this article, please contact Juli Diamond at jdiamond@worldwatch.org.