Cuba to Decide between Organic and GMO Farming

By Pilar Montes

An organico farm operation in the eastern Cuban province of Holguín. Photo: Agustin Borrego

HAVANA TIMES — If there’s any sector that’s really opening up its relations between Cuba and the US, it’s agriculture. Hundreds of business executives, government officials and experts have traveled between the two countries and it seems that a “gold rush” is being unleashed, even though those interested on both sides of the Florida Strait aren’t bringing shovels or excavators with them.

On the one hand, US business people and farmers are looking to buy organic food produced on the island, while others are interested in selling genetically modified seeds and grains.

It was a great surprise for the US visitors to find a rare oasis of organic farming in Cuba. This oasis was created out of political and geographic need as well as the disappearance of the Soviet bloc, its main source of capital before 1990 and which accounted for 80% of its exports.

This transition from extensive to intensive farming practices is still far from providing enough fresh produce to feed Cuba’s own population let alone for exports, which indicate the statistics on the failure to meet production plans year after year.

The Caribbean nation is looking for suppliers of machinery and foodstuffs from their nearest market, even though the dollar amount of imports from the US has dropped considerably compared to 2007 and 2008. The details of the economic embargo on Cuba still limit this kind of trade as purchasing conditions are unfavorable to the island. However, there are some people who are always one step ahead of the game, such as the company Cleber that wants to invest in assembling small tractors at Cuba’s Mariel Free Trade Zone.

Genetically modified corn.

A Democrat from Maine, Representative Chellie Pingree told The New York Times that “the Cubans are not enthusiastic about a Burger King on every corner or Monsanto being here.”

In reality, Cubans trust their biotechnology research scientists more than the seeds Monsanto, Dupont or any other large GMO manufacturer might provide them. In 2011, some GM crop experiments were carried out on the island, even though many unofficial sources assured us that Havana had refused to use GM crops.

The CEO of the Cuban Ministry of Agriculture company that produces seeds, Manuel Rodriguez, quoted by the German DPA news agency and published in Havana Times, affirmed the fact that “the policy of the country thus far (until June 2015, which was when this report was published) is to not negotiate with anyone who produces GMO seeds.”

Another official who accompanied Rodriguez, Rogelio Pupo, also said that the use of such crops was not being considered for “biosecurity” reasons.

One of Cuba’s fiercest advocates for the environment, the Antonio Nunez Jimenez Foundation, has voiced their position against the use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) for agricultural purposes.

In its report published on the subject, the Jimenez Foundation pointed out that “it’s necessary to highlight our country’s predisposition to increasing agricultural production for human consumption using organic and sustainable farming practices which have already shown their potential and have taken our farming model to a much smaller scale, as an alternative to more conventional farming methods.”

According to a report published by the international organization “People in Need” in collaboration with Cuban environmentalists, it’s also true that the island doesn’t currently have any legislation that bans GMO production, use and consumption, or which outright rejects this kind of farming.

Cuba still imports between 60 and 80% of the food it needs to feed its inhabitants. The State, which up until recently was the major stakeholder of our land, now only owns 29% and has decided to hand out portions of land to private owners in usufruct, as well as to small farmers and cooperatives which are more efficient than state-owned companies.

What visitors from the US reported

Congress woman Chellie Pingree. Photo:

Last May, a Democrat from Maine, Representative Chellie Pingree led a coalition of organic industry leaders, chefs and investors on a five-day trip to Cuba, their main objective being to encourage Cuban officials to resist the enticements of larger, more conventional American food and farming interests and to persuade Cubans to protect and extend the small-scale organic practices on the island that are already a part of their daily life.

According to the US Agriculture Coalition for Cuba, their dream is to help Cuba stay loyal to a sustainable style of agriculture that rejects chemicals and GMOs. Their motives are clear: to feed a keen US market which is able to pay a bonus for organic produce.

The fears of the Coalition, which has members from both the organic and conventional or GMO camps, were put to rest with opinions such as that of Devry Boughner Vorwerk, a former Cargill executive who is now the group’s director. “The key point here is that there is room enough for everyone.”

According to Doug Schroeder, a soybean farmer from Illinois, his state ships about $20 million worth of corn and soy to Cuba every year, even under the complex set of rules governing trade between the two countries.  If the United States lifts its economic embargo on Cuba, that figure could jump to $220 million, he said.

Furthermore, the Coalition’s delegation didn’t go home with empty hands, as the group, which has 100 or so members including large corporations such as Butterball and Cargill, managed to sign an agreement with the Cuban Agricultural Business Group to reestablish the island as a market for US food products.

From Havana to Washington

A Cuban delegation led by Minister of Agriculture, Gustavo Rodriguez Rollero, recently accepted an invitation from his US counterpart, Tom Vilsack, so as to strengthen ties and to continue negotiations started in Havana.

In early June, the US Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, took Minister Rollero on a tour of Iowa, where they visited both an organic farm as well as DuPont Pioneer’s offices, the US’ largest producer of hybrid and genetically modified seeds.

Iowa farmer Aaron Lehman (left) explains his operation and conversion to organic production to Cuban Agriculture Minister Gustavo Rodriguez Rollero (center) and U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack during a tour of Lehman’s farm Friday. (DTN photo by Chris Clayton)

According to Cuban press reports issued on June 4, relating to Rollero’s visit, both parties agreed on the importance of increasing cooperation efforts, through exchanges and joint research, so they can be applied in practice to develop Cuba’s agricultural practices.

Recently, The New York Times wrote that business executives and also officials from the Obama administration recognized the fact that GM crops could be a lucrative venture in Cuba, however, it would threaten the potential of Cuba’s thousands of hectares of land which have been dedicated exclusively to organic farming.

They don’t believe that the trade embargo will end any time soon either, because efforts taken to lift restrictions are moving very slowly in Congress and will now also fall behind on the agenda as their priority right now are the General Elections which will take place in November.

Award-winning essays which have been published in Cuban scientific journals also reflect an anti-GMO position. With Cuban ecologists and the people who aware of the dangers they face, as the country’s custodians, it all comes down to whether plans for accepting GMOs in Cuba are stopped. The final decision is still to be made.

15 thoughts on “Cuba to Decide between Organic and GMO Farming

  • America will destroy Cuba’s Agricultural independence with it’s patented GMO seed infestation further crippling Cuba’s economy an advancing it’s cold war effert to destroy Cuba as we know it!

  • Cuba beware! The US would love to sell GMO corn and soybeans to Cuba. But the main genetic modification of both of these crops is to make them resistant to the weed killer made by the Monsanto corporation. There is no nutritional benefit to their GMO seeds nor are they drought resistant or impervious to certain insects. The herbicide they sell contains glyphosate, which was declared by the WHO to be a probable carcinogen. It gets absorbed into the plant and most Americans now carry traces of it in their blood. It also adversely affects animals and fish and its long term impact on human health is not known. There are benefits to some genetic crops but not the ones that rely on herbicides. We are struggling in the US just to get labels on food so we can choose not to buy those foods. But they are so abundant that it may be too late for all except those who eat only organic. Just say no to the GMO!

  • I have been away from the internet a while and am catching up on my work, so I can’t respond to all the issues you raise, but as a first take, the loss of coffee smallholders in Las Terrazas seems important. I’d like to know when the loss happened, and also to whom they sold before they disappeared. Throughout Central America, coffee is efficiently produced by smallholders, but things get difficult once the coffee is moved into the distribution network. Coffee producer cooperatives in Chiapas, for example, have been consistently sabotaged. One could say the sabotage was done by the government but in the instances I know best, the government sabotage was initiated by distributors who did not want competition in their regions, and who were well-heeled enough to bribe the politicians.

    Just what is or is not a pipe dream figure for employment in agriculture is an open question. Our <2-percent figure is the historical result of the path we followed in a part of the world with immense expanses of fertile land and few physical transportation barriers. And when folks lost their farms, cities offered them jobs. Remember Henry Ford? One can decide to reduce rural populations to promote more highly capitalized agriculture. The U.S. has supported this idea all over the world, which has led to a big portion of the growth in the undernourished and starving that you mention. But for a country to follow this model today without helping, heck, even noticing or thinking about, the diasporas of the displaced rural populations it would produce is, to me, evil. Evil is a combination of ignorance, indifference and fear, the latter of something unknown but sensed, that the one who fears most likely had a hand in creating.

    Even in our agricultural system risks build. On top of the normal capital investment risks we have risks due to monoculture, which are latent in the soil quality and the potential action of weeds and pests. In terms of risk reduction alone, I'd invite the next generation to view our current approach to agriculture with skepticism, and with immense curiosity as to how else they could proceed. Much of the latter risk is driven by deference to urban demand. A hotel wants strawberries on its menu year-round. Fine. But just because the hotel wants them, it doesn't mean it's a good idea to provide them given the resources necessary to make year-round strawberries happen. Urbanites' needs do not trump others' needs. Civilizations thrived despite the seasonalities built into their food consumption. The idea that a future civilization could not see itself doing so suggests to me a culture that has lost know how. And here I'm talking about the U.S.

    Your Gordon Robinson story strikes me as both sad and possibly true. The reason I say this is because it reflects the cronyism we see all over the world but especially in Latin America. Yes, I know that in Cuba such stories will be wrapped around Party affiliation, but other countries without parties have similar and possibly more egregious examples of this problem. Shall I not think about Mexico when I read your account of Mr. Robinson?

    Which leads me to my final quick observation. For every Che-type comment that demonstrates a degree of blindness to reality, we also have comments by business people along the lines of how much they worship competition. Right. I've taught in business schools for a quarter century. The last thing a business person wants is competition. For the Amish, by the way, the most important sin is pride in the form of putting oneself before one's community. I think they would have approved of Che's remark.

  • An interesting response Richard. I have not suggested that increasing sugar production in Cuba would be sensible, there are other alternative processes for sugar cane -as evidenced by the substantially increasing levels of production in Brazil to produce ethanol.

    The area of Las Terrazas in Cuba had at one time fifty seven small coffee producers, today there are none.

    Vegetable production of necessity has to be done on a fairly large scale as the challenge of continuity and guarantee of supply is demanded by the marketplace. It is likely that my knowledge of the subject is on par with your evident knowledge of teaching. My knowledge of teaching is limited to having taught post-graduate students one afternoon per week by request, sitting on a couple of school boards and having a very well qualified wife employed in the profession. I have in consequence every respect for those who teach.

    High production agriculture is very efficient. You say that agricultural technology is designed to “destroy jobs” and i take issue with that. The ever increasing demands upon the industry are no different from those in others, for example how many Mom and Pop stores are replaced by one supermarket and the cash flow of one checkout in that supermarket? How many hours of labour does it take to produce one car compared with thirty years ago? Does Luddite thinking raise its head?

    Would it be desirable to have the Florida orange industry de-mechanize to provide jobs hand picking and processing oranges into juice? Where would the labour come from and would the market then be prepared to pay the substantially increased costs?

    The concept of returning to the western world countries employing between 5 and 15% of total labour in agriculture may be an attractive pipe dream, but is not matched by reality. In most of them it is now below 2% and food production has continued to rise to meet the requirements of increasing populations.

    In a world in which millions are under-nourished or starving, it make no sense to have productive agricultural land lying fallow and even less to be allowing it to revert to bush. Indeed doing so is in my view criminal. The current agricultural incompetence demonstrated in Cuba is no less criminal just because it is a communist regime. They have had fifty seven long years to get their house in order, their failure has been the subject of endless discussions at the political level – congresses, so-called ‘parliaments’ visits by those octogenarian ‘leaders’ to deteriorating facilities, all has inevitably lead to ever-decreasing production.

    Cuba has plenty of PCC members with children raised to seek positions of power within the communist hierarchy. Indeed in these very pages Mr. Gordon Robinson (sometimes writing under the alternative of “cubakingone”) has proudly described how two of his children in Cuba have ambition to become respectively President and Minister of Finance – and that they have the tutelage of Second Vice-President Ventura to aid their ambitions. What will be the beneficial consequences of such youth taking over?

    In Cuba as a totalitarian state, students are not subject to the competitive challenges faced by those whom you teach. Do not forget that phrase used by Dr. Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara de Serna Lynch for it is part of the Castro regime objectives:

    “Youth should learn to think and act as a mass. It is criminal to think as an individual.”

  • Google Raj Patel. He’s some kind of agricultural systems writer, kind of like the fellow who wrote The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Well, he’s a better thinker than that author but he really could have used a better editor for his book. Arguments are a bit circular and long-winded in spot.

    A bit sad to read that I won’t be having any significant new thoughts myself, but then again, that’s why we teachers teach. The responsibility for new thoughts rests with our kids.

    Coffee, many perishable vegetables and, well, I’m not sure what more are demonstrably more efficiently produced by small holders. Other crops could be produced efficiently but it likely would take a generation of different inventions to do, as most agricultural inventions that happened on our watch were for large industrial operations. I suppose it’s possible that good lands lie fallow for pernicious reasons, but it could also be that they’re just awaiting inventive ways to be employed given present conditions. Granted I know little about agriculture but I do know something about capital investments and markets. If someone approached me today with a request for capital, and I learned they wanted it to start a sugar production and processing operation, I would be skeptical. There is no decent profit margin in an industrial agricultural commodity for a firm that does not occupy an oligopolistic position in its market segment. How is Cuban sugar supposed to compete with U.S. high-fructose corn syrup in today’s globalized ag market? Looking at a similar project from a government perspective, I’d want the investment to produce jobs. Again, modern U.S.-type agricultural technology is designed to destroy jobs, so I wouldn’t invest in a U.S.-type agricultural industrial proposal because it wouldn’t meet my country’s needs. That land needs to be used but it’s very much an open question as to how to use it. You and I by definition will not have new ideas so it’s up to the kids to figure it out. Have faith in them and let them make their own mistakes.

    I’m aware (but not viscerally since I haven’t lived in country with a 20th-century centrally planned system) of the problems of daily life. It’s too bad that Marx focused on production and pretty much ignored reproduction. Both of these aspects of human life can be commodified. Those in power in Cuba, like anywhere, benefit from assumptions no longer seen but just embedded in a system that benefits them. This is normal, not evil. What’s evil is not taking responsibility for putting the next generation in a position to govern. Let’s see what the kids come up with and help them as best we can. Industrial sugar is an old idea that happened on our watch. It’s dangerous to assume it will be a remedy for the ills they will see and resolve when they take over.

  • If you read my contributions you may correctly conclude that “I ain’t no chicken.”
    My analysis of the reasons for the hundreds of thousands of acres of good fertile land reverting to bush is that following the virtual collapse of the main mono-culture sugar cane crop, the land was not utilized for alternative profitable, productive and much needed crops, but allowed to revert.
    Next, when so-called agricultural policies dictate a limit of about four acres of land per “farmer”, it is clearly impossible to carve up and build homes for “farmers” on the large tracts of land being permitted to deteriorate. Cuba requires the introduction of efficient farm scale operations. That is opposed by communist practice which may sound good in theory but is disastrous in practice.
    I am not an academic but a practitioner well acquainted with the agricultural industry. I know the food-chain from production to consumption.
    Regarding the fertility of the land which you may doubt, it was productive for generations. We might agree about whether it was good for Cuba to have its agriculture controlled by US interests, but it was productive, being the largest producer of sugar-cane in the world and a major fruit producer with little food being imported. That is however indicative of levels of fertility .
    You refer to complex systems and that applies to the agricultural industry which is not a way of life but a means of food production.
    My thinking is like most peoples, based upon a combination of knowledge and experience. Regarding Cuba in particular, as my home is in Cuba and as i spend the majority of my time there, I know both through Cuban relatives – of which I have a lot, friends and those I meet when doing the daily shopping the reality of life for Cubans and the consequences of the power and control which is imposed upon them. I endeavor to address and to some small degree represent their views in these pages.
    With only some 6% of Cubans actually being members of the Communist Party of Cuba – and many of them joining to obtain better working positions, it is folly even for the most ardent sympathizer or supporter of communism to suggest that the people of Cuba seek to become a mass rather than retaining individuality.
    You may or may not be aware of the hoardings in Cuba maintained by the Propaganda Department of the PCC which endeavor to promote “Los Ideas” with pictures of Fidel, Raul and other octogenarians as background. However as you have students, indicating your professional role in life, you may be aware that theoretical physicists around the world, are generally in agreement that any new ideas they may have usually have occurred prior to the age of thirty five. They with their obviously high IQ”s are exceptional and in the general world both academic and commercial, the odd new idea may occur almost throughout life. But when it is only the ideas stemming from the aged that are pursued, society is in trouble as evidenced in today’s Cuba.
    Fortunately for all, it is not a requirement in contributing to these pages, to be necessarily in agreement with others. You may note for example that one described as CErmle has a deep desire to bring my views to the attention of the Cuban internal spying service the CDR and for me to be removed. But then, he doesn’t know Cuba.
    Finally, was Mr. Patel a practitioner or a theoretician?

  • ‘There is no chance of the supposedly fertile octogenarian minds of the Castro regime coming up with a new development model. The only way to achieve that is to let commercial activity to develop without the hindrances inherent in the communist or so-called socialismo system of State control from the cradle to the grave.’

    I don’t know how old you are. I am not an octogenarian but I am getting close to retirement. I like the details you’re offering as they do point to questions that need answers. The most important question would be why fertile land (if it is indeed fertile) is reverting to bush. Your summary observations of what an appropriate solution would be lead me to suspect that you have not diagnosed the cause of those infertile lands. Rather you seem happy to rush to a concluding recommendation that strikes me as oh so familiar.

    Well, as I said it won’t be long before I retire. My students are among those who will take over and manage the complex systems that will support us. That also means that they’ll inherit the problems our generation did not see clearly enough to solve. Among those is food. Stuffed and Starved, by Raj Patel, is a book whose title alone suggests to me that the next generation is going to need better answers than the one I quote from you, which so guided the thinking and actions of our generation.

    I’ve just begun to look at Havana Times. Maybe I’ll stop. If your comment represents the thinking of those who founded this platform I wish you all the best, but I don’t think I support your agenda.

  • Let me try to answer your questions. Firstly, the land that formerly produced sugar is reverting to bush.
    You ask what could be done with that land and the answer is that it could be used to grow for example potatoes, vegetables, sweetcorn, fruit and maize.
    Whereas I agree that sugarcane is not a very profitable crop, in Cuba the infrastructure necessary to convert it into sugar was already in place and Cuba was at one time the largest producer of sugar in the world. That along with the very high volume of fruit which they also produced serves to illustrate that there is much fertile land.
    Well over 20% of the Cuban population is described as rural.
    I used Viazul to indicate that it is possible for even the casual visiting tourist to see hundreds of thousands of acres going to waste. If one hires a car and travels not only the highways, but the by-ways, even larger areas of land reverting to bush can be seen.
    The US agricultural industry’s distribution systems are in good order and efficient. i have in these pages actually named US agricultural businesses as examples.
    There is no chance of the supposedly fertile octogenarian minds of the Castro regime coming up with a new development model. The only way to achieve that is to let commercial activity to develop without the hindrances inherent in the communist or so-called socialismo system of State control from the cradle to the grave.
    As an aside, firstly you are correct in thinking that racism does also lurk below the surface, and secondly the concept of disposable income has no place in the average Cubans life, their lives are about how to survive tomorrow and how to feed and clothe their children. As I have previously written, the requirements for Cubans seeking to have a quiet life are:

    “Don’t challenge the system, accept it, stay mute and exist.”

  • My impression came from import percentages presented in the article, plus recollections of that time after the end of the Soviet relationship when there was widespread hunger in Cuba.

    Regarding your sugar figures, my first question is, what is being done with that land? To me, refusing to invest a country’s limited land resources in a cheap commodity crop is smart. That sugar processing facilities are now unused doesn’t strike me as a bad thing. How much sugar does Cuba need? What could be done with that land instead? How about growing great food, feeding your population and then inviting visitors to consume the little surplus you might have? Beats loading stuff onto railroad cars to ship into markets whose prices, sooner or later, will bankrupt you.

    Certainly the countries I mentioned do not have the kind of expertise you may recognize as expertise. Some communities in those countries are experiencing hunger now. But what they are doing (not Honduras, as it follows your model of expertise with sugar and bananas), is developing local agricultural economies and systems. They don’t have enough but what they do have is resilient, and its theirs.

    As for your mention of abandoned land, that’s a good question. I have driven a lot through abandoned henequen plantations in Yucatan and Quintana Roo. Hard to tell what was going on in Cuba if all I did were travel through the countryside on a Viazul. My first guess is that the agroecological sector in Cuba is experiencing similar problems to similar sectors in the U.S. Distribution systems are painstaking to build. The question here is, what’s the next step after farmers’ markets? That question leads me to wonder about the amount of disposable income among the urban Cubans, which I suspect is not a lot, and that speculation leads me to a final one, which is, what do urban Cubans think about rural Cuba? In rest of the developed world, urban people tend not to think about rural people at all. When they do, they briefly conclude that some big firm should produce larges amounts of cheap corn, sugar, and the like, to make city life easier. Rural people are displaced in the process, and they then migrate to cities, or abroad. Often these rural people don’t have right skin color or even speak the city’s language, so prospects for them and their children are poor. Someone needs to come up with a new development model.

  • The production of sugar cane by far Cuba’s largest single crop, has dropped by 85% since 1990. Factories that formerly processed sugar lie deserted and the machinery has been gutted. How big an improvement is that? Where do you gain the impression that agricultural production has increased? Why does Cuba now have to import 80% of its food? Why is the area of land reverting fro agricultural production to bush increasing – you can view it merely by taking a Viazul from Havana to Cienfuegos or to Vinales or to Varadero.?
    Do you really consider that there is the agricultural expertise in the countries you name to enable Cuba to rise up again to being an agriculturally progressive country?

  • It’s not entirely clear from the figures presented in this article but Cuban agriculture apparently has improved since the early 1990s. More impressively, the improvement has come with a reduction in dependence on costly, foreign petroleum inputs. What is the value in Cuba’s now dropping its agricultural efforts and depending on U.S. agribusiness for its needs? I rather see promise in exchange relationships between Cuba and community agriculture in Chiapas, Oaxaca, Guatemala, and maybe one day, Honduras.

  • It is horrendous to see Cuba’s regime is looking at how to export more food rather than how to ensure food security for the Cuban people. Cuba’s “organic” farming came out of necessity: lack of fertilizers. It contributed to the agricultural debacle (Cuba still imports 70-80% of the food its people consume).
    Cuba’s government’s first priority should be food security through imports substitution. Wise and ecologically sounds use of fertilizers will have to be part of that. “Bio-hunger” with increased cash for the elite is not a solution for the Cuban people.

  • In my opinion and I’m an outsider is how sad and unreal it is that Cuba doesn’t produce for its population a bountiful harvest yearly. It is a sad commentary as to the failure of the so called revolution.

  • As an addendum, the steer grazing in the background of the photograph of Congress woman Chellie Pingree is a belted Galloway a breed from South-west Scotland.

  • Discussion about the relative merits of ‘organic’ on the one hand and GMO on the other are merely semantics. The reality is that so-called ‘farmers’ with 4 acres apiece are incapable of producing any real volume of food for the urban population of Cuba.
    The American farmers quite understandably are eager to sell more basic foodstuffs to Cuba with its drastic shortage of home production although hundreds of thousands of acres of formerly productive land are reverting to bush, with a few scrub cattle wandering aimlessly about.
    The farming businesses which could not only stop Cuba’s ever declining levels of production, but increase it on a commercial scale, are not allowed to operate in Cuba by the restrictive regulations of the communist regime.
    Nine years ago, along with other knowledgeable agriculturalists from different countries, we visited a couple of Cuban agricultural co-operatives. Although trying hard, the production levels were not impressive and employees spoke of the difficulties of trying to obtain all the necessary requirements to increase production. Nothing has happened.
    If the Cuban regime were to invite for example Tanimura and Antle from the US or G. Shropshire’s (G’s) of the UK to develop commercial scale operations without interference by the regime, much could be achieved, but there are always those limitations imposed upon foreign companies of only employing Cubans indirectly and not rewarding better employees appropriately without being charged with “corruption”.
    The consequence is that Cuban agriculture will continue to decline and importation of food will continue to increase – resulting in US farmers licking their lips in anticipation of an expanding market.

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