After the Cold War, Cuba faced many of the agricultural challenges that the rest of the world is now anticipating.
By Raj Patel January 1, 2016
The Studebakers plying up and down Havana’s boardwalk aren’t the best advertisement for dynamism and innovation. But if you want to see what tomorrow’s fossil-fuel-free, climate-change-resilient, high-tech farming looks like, there are few places on earth like the Republic of Cuba.
Under the Warsaw Pact, Cuba sent rum and sugar to the red side of the Iron Curtain. In exchange, it received food, oil, machinery, and as many petrochemicals as it could shake a stick at. From the Missile Crisis to the twilight of the Soviet Union, Cuba was one of the largest importers of agricultural chemicals in Latin America. But when the Iron Curtain fell, the supply lines were cut, and tractors rusted in the fields.
Unable to afford the fertilizers and pesticides that 20th-century
agriculture had taken for granted, the country faced extreme weather events and a limit to the land and water it could use to grow food. The rest of the world will soon face many of the same problems: In the coming decade, according to the OECD, we’ll see higher fuel and fertilizer costs, more variable climate patterns, and limits to arable land that will drive cereal prices 20 percent higher and hike meat prices by 30 percent—and that’s just the beginning. Policymakers can find inspirational and salutary ideas about how to confront this crisis in Cuba, the reluctant laboratory for 21st-century agriculture.
Cuban officials faced the crisis clumsily. They didn’t know how to transform an economy geared toward sweetening Eastern Europe into one that could feed folk at home. Agronomists had been schooled in the virtues of large-scale industrial collective agriculture. When the “industrial” part became impossible, they insisted on yet more collectivization. The dramatic decline in crop production between 1990 and 1994, during which the average Cuban lost 20 pounds, was known as “the Special Period.” Cubans have a line in comedy as dark as their rum.