IN 2006, the World Wildlife Fund identified Cuba as the only country in the world to achieve sustainable development. This was, in large part, due to the country’s involuntary adoption and ultimate promotion of agroecology — farming practices that dramatically reduce or eliminate the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides. In some cases, those substances have been found to be harmful to humans and the environment.
Cuba’s preeminent role in sustainable agriculture was a result of the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the immediate disinvestment in its Soviet-subsidized petroleum-based agriculture infrastructure. Cubans were faced with the choice of finding ways to grow food without chemical fertilizers and pesticides, or starving. Sustainable agriculture became the only option for feeding themselves.
Now Cuba is opening its doors to American commerce for the first time in over a half century. US businesses from every sector imaginable are eager to tap this new international market, a mere 45-minute flight out of Miami. There are many farming interests with designs on Cuba, waiting for it to open up to US markets and considering ways to dramatically increase production by re-introducing widespread industrial agribusiness and “modern” biotechnology practices. Sadly, and unbeknownst to the majority of Americans, a beacon pointing the way to healthy, sustainable farming systems could be swallowed up and lost in the process.
The results of Cuba’s agroecology survival strategy are difficult to measure. Some estimate that as much as 60 percent of the vegetables and fruit consumed in Havana are supplied by indigenous urban farmers. Others say that’s an exaggeration. But there is little argument that Cuba is home to the most valuable demonstration of chemical-free farming in the world. Much of what has been debated for decades regarding the efficacy and economic viability of the wide-scale adoption of organic farming methods has been field-tested in Cuba since the collapse of Russia in 1989.