Cuba: A Successful Case Study of Sustainable Agriculture


By Peter M. Rosset



Chapter 12, pp. 203-213, in: Hungry for Profit: The Agribusiness Threat to Farmers, Food and the Environment, edited by Fred Magdoff, John Bellamy Foster and Frederick H. Buttel (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000).




Our global food system is in the midst of a multifaceted crisis, with ecological, economic, and social dimensions. To overcome that crisis, political and social changes are needed to allow the widespread development of alternatives.


The current food system is productive—there should be no doubt about that—as per capita food produced in the world has increased by 15 percent over the past thirty-five years. But as that production is in ever fewer hands, and costs ever more in economic and ecological terms, it becomes harder and harder to address the basic problems of hunger and food access in the short term, let alone in a sustainable fashion. In the last twenty years the number of hungry people in the world—excluding China—has risen by 60 million (by contrast, in China the number of hungry people has fallen dramatically).


Ecologically, there are impacts of industrial-style farming on groundwater through pesticide and fertilizer runoff, on biodiversity through the spread of monoculture and a narrowing genetic base, and on the very capacity of agroecosystems to be productive into the future.


Economically, production costs rise as farmers are forced to use ever more expensive machines and farm chemicals, while crop prices continue a several-decade-long downward trend, causing a cost-price squeeze which has led to the loss of untold tens of millions of farmers worldwide to bankruptcies. Socially, we have the concentration of farmland in fewer and fewer hands as low crop prices make farming on a small scale unprofitable (despite higher per acre total productivity of small farms), and agribusiness corporations extend their control over more and more basic commodities.


Clearly the dominant corporate food system is not capable of adequately addressing the needs of people or of the environment. Yet there are substantial obstacles to the widespread adoption of alternatives. The greatest obstacles are presented by political-corporate power and vested interests, yet at times the psychological barrier to believing that the alternatives can work seems almost as difficult to overcome. The oft-repeated challenge is: "Could organic farming (or agroecology, local production, small farms, farming without pesticides) ever really feed the entire population of a country?" Recent Cuban history—the overcoming of a food crisis through self-reliance, small farms and agroecological technology—shows us that the alternatives can indeed feed a nation, and thus provides a crucial case study for the ongoing debate.


A Brief History


Economic development in Cuba was molded by two external forces between the 1959 revolution and the 1989-90 collapses of trading relations with the Soviet bloc. One was the U.S. trade embargo, part of an effort to isolate the island economically and politically. The other was Cuba's entry into the Soviet bloc's international trade alliance with relatively favorable terms of trade. The U.S. embargo essentially forced Cuba to turn to the Soviet bloc, while the terms of trade offered by the latter opened the possibility of more rapid development on the island than in the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean.


Thus Cuba was able to achieve a more complete and rapid modernization than most other developing countries. In the 1980s it ranked number one in the region in the contribution of industry to its economy and it had a more mechanized agricultural sector than any other Latin American country. Nevertheless, some of the same contradictions that modernization produced in other third world countries were apparent in Cuba, with Cuba's development model proving ultimately to be of the dependent type. Agriculture was defined by extensive monocrop production of export crops and a heavy dependence on imported agrichemicals, hybrid seeds, machinery, and petroleum. While industrialization was substantial by regional standards, Cuban industry depended on many imported inputs.


The Cuban economy as a whole was thus characterized by the contradiction between its relative modernity and its function in the Soviet bloc's division of labor as a supplier of raw agricultural commodities and minerals, and a net importer of both manufactured goods and foodstuffs. In contrast to the situation faced by most third world countries, this international division of labor actually brought significant benefits to the Cuban people. Prior to the collapse of the socialist bloc, Cuba had achieved high marks for per capita GNP, nutrition, life expectancy, and women in higher education, and was ranked first in Latin America for the availability of doctors, low infant mortality, housing, secondary school enrollment, and attendance by the population at cultural events.


The Cuban achievements were made possible by a combination of the government's commitment to social equity and the fact that Cuba received far more favorable terms of trade for its exports than did the hemisphere's other developing nations. During the 1980s Cuba received an average price for its sugar exports to the Soviet Union that was 5.4 times higher than the world price. Cuba also was able to obtain Soviet petroleum in return, part of which was re-exported to earn convertible currency. Because of the favorable terms of trade for sugar, its production far outweighed that of food crops. About three times as much land was devoted to sugar in 1989 as was used for food crops, contributing to a pattern of food dependency, with as much as 57 percent of the total calories in the Cuban diet coming from imports.


The revolutionary government had inherited an agricultural production system strongly focused on export crops grown on highly concentrated land. The first agrarian reform of 1959 converted most of the large cattle ranches and sugarcane plantations into state farms. Under the second agrarian reform in 1962, the state took control of 63 percent of all cultivated land.


Even before the revolution, individual peasant producers were a small part of the agricultural scene. The rural economy was dominated by export plantations, and the population as a whole was highly urbanized. That pattern intensified in subsequent years, and by the late 1980s fully 69 percent of the island's population lived in urban areas. As late as 1994 some 80 percent of the nation's agricultural land consisted of large state farms, which roughly correspond to the expropriated plantation holdings of the pre-revolutionary era. Only 20 percent of the agricultural land was in the hands of small farmers, split almost equally among individual holders and cooperatives, yet this 20 percent produced more than 40 percent of domestic food production. The state farm sector and a substantial portion of the cooperatives were highly modernized, with large areas of monocrops worked under heavy mechanization, fertilizer and pesticide use, and large-scale irrigation. This style of farming, originally copied from the advanced capitalist countries by the Soviet Union, was highly dependent on imports of machinery, petroleum, and chemicals. When trade collapsed with the socialist bloc, the degree to which Cuba relied on monocrop agriculture proved to be a major weakness of the revolution.


Onset of the Crisis


When trade relations with the Soviet bloc crumbled in late 1989 and 1990, the situation turned desperate. In 1991 the government declared the "Special Period in Peacetime," which basically put the country on a wartime economy style austerity program. There was an immediate 53 percent reduction in oil imports that not only affected fuel availability for the economy, but also reduced to zero the foreign exchange that Cuba had formerly obtained via the re-export of petroleum. Imports of wheat and other grains for human consumption dropped by more than 50 percent, while other foodstuffs declined even more. Cuban agriculture was faced with a drop of more than 80 percent in the availability of fertilizers and pesticides, and more than 50 percent in fuel and other energy sources produced by petroleum.


Suddenly, a country with an agricultural sector technologically similar to California's found itself almost without chemical inputs, with sharply reduced access to fuel and irrigation, and with a collapse in food imports. In the early 1990s average daily caloric and protein intake by the Cuban population may have been as much as 30 percent below levels in the 1980s. Fortunately, Cuba was not totally unprepared to face the critical situation that arose after 1989. It had, over the years, emphasized the development of human resources, and therefore had a cadre of scientists and researchers who could come forward with innovative ideas to confront the crisis. While Cuba has only 2 percent of the population of Latin America, it has almost 11 percent of the scientists.


Alternative Technologies


In response to this crisis the Cuban government launched a national effort to convert the nation's agricultural sector from high input agriculture to low input, self-reliant farming practices on an unprecedented scale. Because of the drastically reduced availability of chemical inputs, the state hurried to replace them with locally produced, and in most cases biological, substitutes. This has meant biopesticides (microbial products) and natural enemies to combat insect pests, resistant plant varieties, crop rotations and microbial antagonists to combat plant pathogens, and better rotations, and cover cropping to suppress weeds. Synthetic fertilizers have been replaced by biofertilizers, earthworms, compost, other organic fertilizers, natural rock phosphate, animal and green manures, and the integration of grazing animals. In place of tractors, for which fuel, tires, and spare parts were largely unavailable, there has been a sweeping return to animal traction.


Small Farmers Respond to the Crisis


When the collapse of trade and subsequent scarcity of inputs occurred in 1989-90, yields fell drastically throughout the country. The first problem was that of producing without synthetic chemical inputs or tractors. Gradually the national ox herd was built up to provide animal traction as a substitute for tractors, and the production of biopesticides and biofertilizers was rapidly stepped up. Finally, a series of methods like vermicomposting (earthworm composting) of residues and green manuring became widespread. But the impact of these technological changes across sub-sectors of Cuban agriculture was highly variable. The drop-off of yields in the state sector industrial-style farms that average thousands of hectares has been resistant to recovery, with production seriously stagnating well below pre-crisis levels for exports crops. Yet the small farm or peasant sector (20 percent of farmed land) responded rapidly by quickly boosting production above previous levels. How can we explain the difference between the state- and small-farm sectors?


It really was not all that difficult for the small farm sector to effectively produce with fewer inputs. After all, today’s small farmers are the descendants of generations of small farmers, with long family and community traditions of low-input production. They basically did two things: remembered the old techniques—like intercropping and manuring—that their parents and grandparents had used before the advent of modern chemicals, and simultaneously incorporated new biopesticides and biofertilizers into their production practices.


State Farms Incompatible with the Alternative Technologies


The problems of the state sector, on the other hand, were a combination of low worker productivity, a problem pre-dating the Special Period, and the complete inability of these immense and technified management units to adapt to low-input technology. With regard to the productivity problem, planners became aware several years ago that the organization of work on state farms was profoundly alienating in terms of the relationship between the agricultural worker and the land. Large farms of thousands of hectares had their work forces organized into teams that would prepare the soil in one area, move on to plant another, weed still another, and later harvest an altogether different area. Almost never would the same person both plant and harvest the same area. Thus no one ever had to confront the consequences of doing something badly or, conversely, enjoy the fruits of his or her own labor.


In an effort to create a more intimate relationship between farm workers and the land, and to tie financial incentives to productivity, the government began several years ago to experiment with a program called "linking people with the land." This system made small work teams directly responsible for all aspects of production in a given parcel of land, allowing remuneration to be directly linked to productivity. The new system was tried before the Special Period on a number of state farms, and rapidly led to enormous increases in production. Nevertheless it was not widely implemented at the time.


In terms of technology, scale effects are very different for conventional chemical management and for low external input alternatives. Under conventional systems, a single technician can manage several thousand hectares on a "recipe" basis by simply writing out instructions for a particular fertilizer formula or pesticide to be applied with machinery on the entire area. Not so for agroecological farming. Whoever manages the farm must be intimately familiar with the ecological heterogeneity of each individual patch of soil. The farmer must know, for example, where organic matter needs to be added, and where pest and natural enemy refuges and entry points are. This partially explains the inability of the state sector to raise yields with alternative inputs. Like the productivity issue, it can only be effectively addressed through a re-linking of people with the land.


By mid-1993, the state was faced with a complex reality. Imported inputs were largely unavailable, but nevertheless the small farmer sector had effectively adapted to low input production (although a secondary problem was acute in this sector, namely diversion of produce to the black market). The state sector, on the other hand, was proving itself to be an ineffective "white elephant" in the new historical conjuncture, incapable of adjusting. The earlier success of the experimental "linking" program, however, and the success of the peasant sector, suggested a way out. In September 1993 Cuba began radically reorganizing its production in order to create the small-scale management units that are essential for effective organic-style farming. This reorganization has centered on the privatization and cooperativization of the unwieldy state sector.


The process of linking people with the land thus culminated in 1993, when the Cuban government issued a decree terminating the existence of state farms, turning them into Basic Units of Cooperative Production (UBPCs), a form of worker-owned enterprise or cooperative. The 80 percent of all farmland that was once held by the state, including sugarcane plantations, has now essentially been turned over to the workers.


The UBPCs allow collectives of workers to lease state farmlands rent free, in perpetuity. Members elect management teams that determine the division of jobs, what crops will be planted on which parcels, and how much credit will be taken out to pay for the purchase of inputs. Property rights remain in the hands of the state, and the UBPCs must still meet production quotas for their key crops, but the collectives are owners of what they produce. Perhaps most importantly, what they produce in excess of their quotas can now be freely sold on the newly reopened farmers markets. This last reform, made in 1994, offered a price incentive to farmers both to sell their produce through legal channels rather than the black market, and also to make effective use of the new technologies.


The pace of consolidation of the UBPCs has varied greatly in their first years of life. Today one can find a range from those where the only change is that the old manager is now an employee of the workers, to those that truly function as collectives, to some in which the workers are parceling the farms into small plots worked by groups of friends. In almost all cases, the effective size of the management unit has been drastically reduced. It is still too early to tell toward what final variety of structures the UBPCs will evolve. But it is clear that the process of turning previously alienated farm workers into farmers will take some time—it simply cannot be accomplished overnight—and many UBPCs are struggling. Incentives are a nagging problem. Most UBPCs are stuck with state production contracts for export crops like sugar and citrus. These still have fixed, low prices paid by state marketing agencies, in contrast to the much higher prices that can be earned for food crops. Typical UBPCs, not surprisingly then, have low yields in their export crops, but also have lucrative side businesses selling food produced on spare land or between the rows of their citrus or sugarcane.


Food Shortage Overcome


By mid-1995 the food shortage had been overcome, and the vast majority of the population no longer faced drastic reductions of their basic food supply. In the 1996-97 growing season Cuba recorded its highest-ever production levels for ten of the thirteen basic food items in the Cuban diet. The production increases came primarily from small farms, and in the case of eggs and pork, from booming backyard production. The proliferation of urban farmers who produce fresh produce has also been extremely important to the Cuban food supply. The earlier food shortages and the rise in food prices suddenly turned urban agriculture into a very profitable activity for Cubans, and once the government threw its full support behind a nascent urban gardening movement, it exploded to near epic proportions. Formerly vacant lots and backyards in all Cuban cities now sport food crops and farm animals, and fresh produce is sold from private stands throughout urban areas at prices substantially below those prevailing in the farmers markets. There can be no doubt that urban farming, relying almost exclusively on organic techniques, has played a key role in assuring the food security of Cuban families over the past two to three years.


An Alternative Paradigm?


To what extent can we see the outlines of an alternative food system paradigm in this Cuban experience? Or is Cuba just such a unique case in every way that we cannot generalize its experiences into lessons for other countries? The first thing to point out is that contemporary Cuba turned conventional wisdom completely on its head. We are told that small countries cannot feed themselves, that they need imports to cover the deficiency of their local agriculture. Yet Cuba has taken enormous strides toward self-reliance since it lost its key trade relations. We hear that a country can't feed its people without synthetic farm chemicals, yet Cuba is virtually doing so. We are told that we need the efficiency of large-scale corporate or state farms in order to produce enough food, yet we find small farmers and gardeners in the vanguard of Cuba's recovery from a food crisis. In fact, in the absence of subsidized machines and imported chemicals, small farms are more efficient than very large production units. We hear time and again that international food aid is the answer to food shortages—yet Cuba has found an alternative in local production.


Abstracting from that experience, the elements of an alternative paradigm might therefore be:


Agroecological technology instead of chemicals: Cuba has used intercropping, locally produced biopesticdes, compost, and other alternatives to synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. 


Fair Prices for Farmers: Cuban farmers stepped up production in response to higher crop prices. Farmers everywhere lack incentive to produce when prices are kept artificially low, as they often are. Yet when given an incentive, they produce, regardless of the conditions under which that production must take place. 


Redistribution of Land: Small farmers and gardeners have been the most productive of Cuban producers under low-input conditions. Indeed, smaller farms worldwide produce much more per unit area than do large farms. In Cuba redistribution was relatively easy to accomplish because the major part of the land reform had already occurred, in the sense that there were no landlords to resist further change. 


Greater Emphasis on Local Production: People should not have to depend on the vagaries of prices in the world economy, long distance transportation, and super power "goodwill" for their next meal. Locally and regionally produced food offers greater security, as well as synergistic linkages to promote local economic development. Furthermore such production is more ecologically sound, as the energy spent on international transport is wasteful and environmentally unsustainable. By promoting urban farming, cities and their surrounding areas can be made virtually self-sufficient in perishable foods, be beautified, and have greater employment opportunities. Cuba gives us a hint of the underexploited potential of urban farming. 


Cuba in its Special Period has clearly been in a unique situation with respect to not being able to use power machinery in the fields, forcing them to seek alternatives such as animal traction. It is unlikely that either Cuba or any other country at its stage of development would choose to abandon machine agriculture to this extent unless compelled to do so. Yet there are important lessons here for countries struggling to develop. Relatively small-scale farming, even using animals for traction, can be very productive per unit of land, given technical support. And it is next to impossible to have ecologically sound farming at an extremely large scale. Although it is undeniable that for countries wishing to develop industry and at the same time grow most of their own food, some mechanization of agriculture will be needed, it is crucial to recognize—and the Cuban example can help us to understand this–that modest-sized family farms and cooperatives that use reasonably sized equipment can follow ecologically sound practices and have increased labor productivity.


The Cuban experience illustrates that we can feed a nation's population well with a small- or medium-sized farm model based on appropriate ecological technology, and in doing so we can become more self-reliant in food production. Farmers must receive higher returns for their produce, and when they do they will be encouraged to produce. Capital intensive chemical inputs—most of which are unnecessary—be largely dispensed with. The important lessons from Cuba that we can apply elsewhere, then, are agroecology, fair prices, land reform, and local production, including urban agriculture.


Peter M. Rosset is co-director of Food First/The Institute for Food and Development Policy < >. He has a Ph.D. in agricultural ecology and teaches at Stanford University.


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