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David R. Montgomery

In Haiti, the majority of peasants own their own small farms. So small farms per se are not the answer to stopping erosion. When farms become so small that it is hard to make a living from them, it becomes hard to practice soil conservation. In Cuba, fifty miles from Haiti across the Windward Passage, the collapse of the Soviet Union set up a unique agricultural experiment.

Before the 1959 Cuban revolution, the handful of people who controlled four-fifths of the land operated large export-oriented plantations, mostly growing sugar. Although small subsistence farms were still common on the remaining fifth of the land, Cuba produced less than half its own food.

After the revolution, in line with its vision of socialist progress, the new government continued sponsoring large-scale, industrial monoculture focused on export crops — primarily sugar, which accounted for three-quarters of Cuba’s export income. Cuba’s sugar plantations were the most mechanized agricultural operations in Latin America, more closely resembling those in California’s Central Valley than on Haiti’s hillsides.

Farm equipment, the oil to run them, fertilizers, pesticides, and more than half of Cuba’s food were imported from the island’s socialist trading partners. The end of Soviet support and an ongoing U.S. trade embargo plunged Cuba into a food crisis.

Unable to import food or fertilizer, Cuba saw the calories and protein in the average diet drop by almost a third, from 3,000 calories a day to 1,900 calories between 1989 and 1994.

The Soviet collapse resulted in an almost 90% drop in Cuba’s external trade. Fertilizer and pesticide imports fell by 80% and oil imports fell by 50%. Parts to repair farm machinery were unobtainable. The New York Times editorial page predicted the imminent collapse of Castro’s regime.

Formerly one of the best-fed nations in Latin America, Cuba was not quite at the level of Haiti — but not much above it. Isolated and facing the loss of a meal a day for everyone on the island, Cuban agriculture needed to double food production using half the inputs required by conventional agriculture.

Faced with this dilemma, Cuba began a remarkable agricultural experiment, the first nation-scale test of alternative agriculture. In the mid-1980’s the Cuban government directed state-run research institutions to begin investigating alternative methods to reduce environmental impacts, improve soil fertility, and increase harvests.

Within six months of the Soviet collapse, Cuba began privatizing industrialized state farms; state-run farms were divided among former employees, creating a network of small farms. Government-sponsored farmers’ markets brought peasant farmers higher profits by cutting out intermediaries.

Major government programs encouraged organic agriculture and small-scale farming on vacant city lots. Lacking access to fertilizers and pesticides, the food grown in the new small private farms and thousands of tiny urban market gardens became organic not through choice but through necessity.

Charged with substituting knowledge-intensive agriculture for the embargoed inputs needed for conventional agriculture, the country’s research infrastructure built on experiments in alternative agriculture that had languished under the Soviet system but were available for widespread, and immediate, implementation under the new reality.

Cuba adopted more labor-intensive methods to replace heavy machinery and chemical inputs, but Cuba’s agricultural revolution was not simply a return to traditional farming. Organic farming is not that simple. You cannot just hand someone a hoe and order them to feed the proletariat.

Cuba’s agricultural transformation was based as much on science as was the Soviet era’s high-input mechanized farming. The difference was that the conventional approach was based on applied chemistry, whereas the new approach was based on applied biology — on agroecology.

In a move pretty much the opposite of the green revolution that transformed global agriculture based on increased use of irrigation, oil, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the Cuban government adapted agriculture to local conditions and developed biological methods of fertilization and pest control.

It created a network of more than two hundred local agricultural extension offices around the country to advise farmers on low-input and no-till farming methods, as well as biological pest control.

Cuba stopped exporting sugar and began to grow its own food again. Within a decade, the Cuban diet rebounded to its former level without food imports or the use of agrochemicals. The Cuban experience shows that agroecology can form a viable basis for agriculture without industrial methods or biotechnology. Unintentionally, the U.S. trade embargo turned Cuba into a nation-scale experiment in alternative agriculture.

Some look to the Cuban example as a model for employing locally adapted ecological insight and knowledge instead of standardized mechanization and agrochemistry to feed the world. They see the solution not simply as producing cheap food, but keeping small farms — and therefore farmers — on the land, and even in cities.

Thousands of commercial urban gardens grew up throughout the island, hundreds in Havana alone. Land slated for development was converted to acres of vegetable gardens that supplied markets where local people bought tomatoes, lettuce, potatoes and other crops. By 2004 Havana’s formerly vacant lots produced nearly the city’s entire vegetable supply.

Cuba’s conversion from conventional agriculture to large-scale semi-organic farming demonstrates that such a transformation is possible — in a dictatorship isolated from global market forces. But the results are not entirely enviable — after almost two decades of this inadvertent experiment, meat and milk remain in short supply.

Cuba’s labor-intensive agriculture may not produce basic crops as cheaply as American industrial farming, but the average Cuban diet did recover that lost third meal. Still, it is ironic that in retreating from the socialist agenda, this isolated island became the first modern society to adopt widespread organic and biologically intensive farming.

Cuba’s necessity-driven move toward agricultural self-sufficiency provides a preview of what may come on a larger scale once we burn through the supply of cheap oil that presently drives modern agriculture.

And it is somewhat comforting to know that on at least one island the experiment has already been run without social collapse. Less comforting is the question of whether something similar could be pulled off in a society other than a one-party police state.

After Darwin’s famous sojourn in the Galapagos, the isolated nature of islands strongly influenced biological theory. But it is only in the last several decades that such thinking reached the realm of anthropology. While people may someday migrate into space to colonize other planets, the vast majority of us remain trapped on our planet for the foreseeable future.

Although a global rerun of Haiti, Mangaia, or Easter Island is by no means inevitable, the experiences of societies on islands around the world remind us that Earth is the ultimate island, an oasis in space rendered hospitable by a thin skin of soil that, once lost, rebuilds only over geologic time.

Editor’s Note: This excerpt is adapted from DIRT: THE EROSION OF CIVILIZATIONS by David R. Montgomery. Copyright 2007 University of California Press. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher.

This is the first excerpt of a two-part series. Read Part II here.

Articles by David R. Montgomery

Cuba: An Island in Time

How did Cuba revolutionize its agricultural techniques to become a self-sufficient nation?

March 10, 2008

Disappearing Farmland

How will the loss of farmland affect our lives in the coming future?

March 8, 2008