By Patricia Grogg
HAVANA TIMES, Sept. 10 (IPS) – Cuba must increase its agricultural production under difficult climatic conditions and with soils severely affected by erosion, salinity and other difficulties. Agricultural scientists are being called upon to play a strategic role in confronting this challenge by sometimes leaving their laboratories and heading for the fields.
“To conduct scientific work you have to be at the foot of the tree,” asserted Sergio Rodríguez. The son of a farm worker, for 18 years he has directed a research center that is key in meeting the challenge of assuring the supply of food – despite the adverse climate conditions of Cuba.
He believes what is important is to be prepared to face climatic change, to search for solutions, to combine the intelligence and wisdom of farmers with the theory and knowledge of researchers to confront difficulties well in advance.
To respond to the challenge, “Cuba has the potential for crops species and varieties that will allow making food available under unfavorable climatic conditions,” said Rodríguez, who heads the National Institute of Tropical Food Research, located in the central Cuban province of Villa Clara.
In a phone conversation with IPS, the expert pointed out that tropical agriculture in conditions like those of Cuba has to anticipate the production of food under two completely divergent conditions: intense droughts and hurricanes. Three of these latter occurrences devastated the country’s agricultural production in 2008.
Nor is it a secret that 76 percent of all Cuban agricultural areas are characterized by low productivity, almost 15 percent are affected by high salinity, and nearly 15 percent report low organic matter content, with causes including over worked land, he acknowledged.
“Things are now improving with the use of draft animals, as well as the application of organic and biological materials instead of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. You could say that we are moving toward low input agriculture that is economically sustainable and is less aggressive to the environment,” he highlighted.
To mitigate adverse climatic factors, Rodríguez says the key is in working on agricultural diversification to guarantee a level of food provision following the impact of a hurricane or during a prolonged water shortage. “Such a variety of agricultural products would allow us to satisfy the demands of the consumers,” he added.
Cited as examples were the planting of sweet potatoes and squash, two “creeping” plants through which the impact of wind can be minimized. The same situation exists with malanga (or “tannia”), given its low height and the firm anchoring of its roots, he commented.
“Under intense drought conditions we can turn to yucca and the variety of plantains known as Platano Burro, species that can tolerate severe water shortages. We can respond to any condition when we diversify crops,” he added. Moreover, plant species known as “viandas” (root vegetables and tubers) are specially appreciated by the Cuban public.
According to Rodríguez, the Inivit center stocks those varieties and remains in a constant search for others. “Right now we’re going through a period of high temperatures in our country, so now we have to design plant varieties that are resistant to that situation,” the expert explained.
The research center now maintains a germoplasma bank (a gene reservoir) with 650 varieties of sweet potatoes, 512 yucca, 327 species of banana vianda and fruits, 120 breeds of yams, and 152 types of malanga. “These genetic resources are an asset of the country,” he said.
For the expert, this involves “a living museum that contains enough genes to conduct crossbreeding to obtain new varieties that resist or adapt to specific adverse conditions.” Caring for this genetic wealth is “to preserve biodiversity, which facilitates searching for the most appropriate characteristics in each case,” he insisted.
Taking science to the fields
The chain that links science to the field needs adjustment however, and is the source of dissatisfaction, admitted Rodríguez, who pointed to “agricultural extension centers” as a still pending action. “We’ve advanced, though we still have a lot to do,” he reflected.
Along that path, the institute created the “national viandas group,” composed of researchers who travel to farms all over the country every three months. The aim is to transmit the results of scientific research, assist with technology transfer and to learn about new plant varieties that are being adopted by farmers themselves.
“Because there’s a lot of science in the furrow, we meet with many producers who believe in their cultivation techniques and are willing to share their experiences with others. We’re transferring those achievements, while of course respecting their origins,” said Rodríguez.
The specialist also considers on-going training to be indispensable, explaining that it is not enough to have a fixed knowledge of techniques, plant varieties and resources.
“If we don’t train farmers so they can make efficient use of inputs or sow crops at the right time and in the right place, there will not be an increase in production,” he affirmed.
In that light, he stressed the need “to continue studying and deepening” the issue of agricultural extension practices; that is to say, the process through which new cultivation technologies are introduced to rural communities under sustainable or conservationist conditions.
“It’s not only a problem in Cuba; as there appears to be a wide moat between what exists in research centers and what makes it into the furrow,” he pointed out.
Rodríguez says another issue of supreme importance is having enough quality seeds, without which there cannot be efficient agricultural production. According to official data, national production is able to guarantee seeds for 94 percent of the areas in the country that plant, while at least six percent must be imported, basically for vegetable and potato cultivation.
Rodríguez also calculates that Cuba has the potential to annually produce up to 40 million “in vitro” plants of different types, a hope that that has been cut short due to a lack of resources.
In vitro plants are miniature species that are obtained in a test tube and allow improvements and the reproduction of agricultural seeds.
That possibility, along with 11 bio-factories that Cuba has at its disposal, is a strength that is still not being sufficiently exploited, in the opinion of the doctor of agricultural sciences who has spent more than half of his 62 years dedicated to that sector. “You cannot think of high-performance agriculture if you don’t have quality seeds,” he commented.
Cuban scientists agree that climate change constitutes a threat to the sustainable development of the country. They cite – among other indicators – the increase in the fury of hurricanes, more frequent droughts, greater numbers of tornados, and conditions characterized by intense rain and changes in crop yield patterns.