WASHINGTON, Dec. 7, 2016 - Neither organic agriculture nor advanced biotechnology will solve Cuba’s food production deficit, a noted expert on the country’s food needs told Washington audiences Tuesday. Former World Food Prize winner Pedro Sanchez, research professor of tropical soils at the University of Florida, says instead that Cuban agriculture needs investment in better-yielding seeds, crop inputs and modern machinery to catch up after a 50-year decline in major crop productivity.
Cuba imports 70-80 percent of its food at a cost of $2 billion a year, he said, including all of its wheat, about a third of its milk and beef, and four-fifths of its poultry. But only 18 percent of its food imports are from the United States. “As a consequence of the embargo, the U.S. has been left out to a large extent,” he told USDA’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture and a seminar at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.
The most significant productivity deficits are due to low yields of staple crops such as maize, rice, black beans and soybeans, he says, with many farmers using the same varieties they had 40 years ago. Sugar, once Cuba’s most important crop, is down sharply. Its current yield of 32.58 tons per hectare is less than half the average of the rest of the world, even lower than Africa’s.
The country lacks seed with good genetic potential but it is unwilling to become dependent on major U.S.-based seed companies because of the pre-revolutionary history of U.S. corporate domination, Sanchez says. Yet he sees the main limitation as money. The Cubans have high natural and human capital, very high social capital, but very low to non-existent manufacturing and financial capital. Foreign investment is limited because of conditions the government imposes, he adds. “The issue of getting better terms for foreign investment is a critical one.”
In contrast with the picture for staples, he says Cuba has “fantastic production of fruits like papaya – about as high yielding as it can be, but all the production goes to tourist hotels.” Sanchez sees some potential on a small scale for production of fruits such as avocado, mango and guava for export to the United States if trade relations are improved.
However, Sanchez does not expect crops of that nature will contribute to overcoming the country’s food security deficit. “Organic is more an ideological thing than economic,” he says, “but it is doing very well with small farms inside the city. Good soils give them an edge for organic. They have good possibilities for organic but it’s labor intensive. Cuba’s not going to be an organic country.” He anticipates instead “a good balance” between organic and conventional production.
Less than 1 percent of harvested cropland is devoted to organic fruits and vegetables, which “will help but will not solve the problem,” he says. “Vegetables and condiments provide the people of Havana fresh green food, but they do not address the issue of food security,” he says.
Likewise, biotechnology holds little potential for addressing the shortfall in staple crops. “They don't need it right now,” he says. “They don’t need to go to top of technology to get there. Unless there is a truly drought-tolerant or nitrogen-fixing trait, there is no need right now to get into controversy.” But he adds, “Although as a scientist I favor GMOs.”
Sanchez says Cuba has enormous potential to increase agricultural production. It has excellent geography, the largest share of fertile soils of any tropical country and the best rainfall regime in the tropics. Yet because of lack of investment nearly 2.5 million acres of high-quality land is not growing anything. “They need credit, inputs, machinery, seeds; that’s what holding them back.”
With a gradual shift toward a market-based economy, farmers are allowed to own their land in some cases and form cooperatives to pool land and share profits. In some cases Sanchez has seen, farmers are making money and have “pretty good housing for a rural tropical area, with electricity, water and sanitation.” However, their machinery is very old. “They have to keep it going with chewing gum or whatever but they have to keep it going. It's amazing the ability of Cubans to improvise,” he adds, like those who maintain 1950s American cars in the cities.
“Probably the most difficult challenge is how do you stimulate and support a new generation of scientists and farmers,” he says. “The countryside has been depopulated. The kids want to get into I-T or be doctors or go to Miami. It’s like here – most of farm population is getting old.”
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