By Pilar Montes
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.
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
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.
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.