Cuba has some of the best soil I’ve ever seen. I’d love to farm in ground that good.
I just wouldn’t want to live on that oppressed island.
Cuba may be blessed with rich soil, but Communism has condemned its farmers to abject poverty. They lack the tools they need to grow what they must.
This summer, however, the Cuban government appears to have given its farmers a big boost: opening the door and allowing access to GM crops.
This could change everything about Cuban agriculture, benefitting both Cuban farmers and consumers.
On July 23, Cuba announced the establishment of a national commission on the use of GMOs, with a goal of encouraging farmers to take up a technology that they’ve largely resisted.
This is significant because longtime dictator Fidel Castro, who ruled the island with an iron fist until his death nearly four years ago, despised GMOs. As a committed Marxist, he associated them with the two things he hated most: the United States and capitalism. He railed against them and said that Cuban agriculture should focus on organic methods of production.
This was bad advice. There is a market for organic foods, especially in wealthy countries, but organic farming is no way to feed a nation. That’s especially true in a nation with a developing economy.
Yet almost no farmers dared to question Castro. Under a Communist government, people learn to obey.
At the same time, you can’t ignore reality forever, and the problems of Cuban agriculture have been obvious to anybody who looks. I saw them firsthand on a trip to Cuba about 20 years ago, as part of a U.S. trade delegation. In the open-air markets of Havana, I saw rotting tomatoes on display and for sale. On the farms outside the city, where the soil is so impressive, I saw broken-down tractors, fuel shortages, and land that had failed to come close to its potential. (I wrote about the visit here.)
Statistics vary, but most of them report that Cuban farmers produce less than half of the food that their fellow citizens need. The rest is imported: rice from Argentina and Vietnam, wheat from Canada, and chicken and soybean oil from the United States.
There’s nothing wrong with imported food. The exchange of goods and services across borders increases prosperity everywhere, and international trade is the cornerstone of global food security.
Even so, as a fellow farmer, it’s sad to see a nation scramble to make up for the shortcomings of a command-and-control economic system that has prevented its farmers from flourishing. They lack so much of what we take for granted in the United States: safe technologies based on sound science, a robust infrastructure, a market economy, and more.
And then things got worse because of the Covid-19 pandemic. One forecast predicts that Cuba’s economy will shrink by 10 percent this year and even more next year. In the developed world, we’ve dealt with some shortages but mostly they’ve posed only minor inconveniences. We made jokes about how it was tough to buy toilet paper for a few weeks. In Cuba, though, the shortages could involve basic supplies. The threat of hunger and malnutrition always looms.
This may be the real reason why Cuba’s government now has had second thoughts about GM technology: It simply needs more food. It also knows that in the 21st century, food production depends on using the best science to grow the most food on the least land.
It remains to be seen how quickly Cuban farmers shift to GM crops. All it takes is a few who are willing to give this technology a try, and once other farmers see how these early adopters thrive by controlling weeds and pests and increase what they grow, they’ll want to enjoy the same advantages.
Havana has indicated that it will start with GM corn (maize) and soybeans, which are widely used throughout the Americas, and then possibly look at sugarcane varieties that have yet to be developed.
If-Cuba genuinely embraces GM crops, its excellent soil finally may start to meet its potential-making everybody in Cuba a little better off.