The belated development of certified organic agriculture

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In late 1999, MINAG made an internal announcement of its intention to produce organically for export, according to one ministry official, 'An order has come from the top to give the Ministry of Agriculture the green light to pursue organic production for export,' and by 2000 MINAG was attempting to institutionalize certified organic agriculture. That this had not occurred earlier in the decade is attributed to several factors. Organic exports could not be considered until national food deficits had been filled. Perhaps more realistically, for much of the Special Period, the agricultural sector had been simply too busy struggling to feed the population to turn to export activities. Another reason for not having developed organic exports was the insufficient organizational capacity and know-how to meet export quality standards, and the insufficient funds to build such capacity. In addition, higher-level personnel had been unconvinced of the benefits of organic agriculture.

Organic export production was included in long-term production plans for certain crops such as sugar and banana. While responsibility for developing organic agriculture lay with the Organic Agriculture Group (GAO) of the Cuban Association of Agricultural and Forestry Technicians (ACTAF), draft national organic standards were produced by MINAG's Department of Quality Control. These standards defined both organic and sustainable production methods, the former depicted as being environmentally friendly and bound by legislation, and the latter focusing on meeting societal needs and with the regulated use of agrochemicals.

As of 2000, Cuba had no permanent, commercial-scale organic farms, although throughout the decade foreign buyers were intermittently certifying the production of specific crops (largely sugar and fruits) in scattered locations, for export through agreements with MINAG and the Ministry of Foreign Trade. This export-driven production was isolated from the rest of the farm upon which it was based, and was only sustained by the interest of the buyer. Certified organic crops being developed were sugar, citrus, banana, coffee, honey, urban horticulture, medicinal plants, coconut, pineapple, cocoa and mango. Box 8.3 describes the experiences with the development of organic citrus.

The learning experiences with organic citrus production exemplified how the so-called 'organic-by-default' production of Cuban agriculture, even in the absence of chemicals, was vastly different from the type of production required to meet organic standards. In parallel with this, MINAG was considering how to reach the domestic tourist market through an own-brand, softer labelling system, which would prohibit the use of agrochemicals but would not require international accreditation. This brand would still prohibit the use of agro-chemicals and attract a premium price. Products could be channelled through the normal tourist supply routes of Frutas Selectas and Citricus Caribe. A few pilot projects were already supplying 'productos sanos', or healthy produce, to national tourist markets, and several Cuban institutes were interested in becoming involved in these projects because of the potential dollar revenue to be earned.

Box 8.3 Experiences with certified organic citrus production

Citrus was the commodity sector where most experience had accrued on certified organic production. This was partly because of the longstanding commercial expertise of the Cuban Citrus Corporation; as it was a major export crop, citrus production and marketing was handled by a specialized commodity corporation rather than through MINAG's Agricultural Enterprises. Citrus being a minor staple of the Cuban diet, there were lower domestic self-sufficiency goals to fulfil before export than for major staples such as banana. The Citrus Corporation itself had a longer vertical structure than other state Enterprises, topped by a greater degree of institutional autonomy. All the required administrative and commercial functions were contained within the Corporation itself rather than located externally in other state organizations. This made it easier to build internal consensus, and to incentivize and cooperate to achieve agreed goals without the challenge of inter-institutional bureaucracy. This, and the Corporation's historically accrued financial and managerial skills, and resources and export experience, gave it a relative advantage for developing an organic export line.

In 2000, the Corporation formed a multidisciplinary, organic group to undertake research and development on the whole production chain from field to market. The formation of this group did not require much change in research orientation, because researchers there had for a long time been working on organic issues - such as bio-pesticides - albeit in a disciplinary fashion. The Special Period acted as a catalyst to pull these disciplines together. With an increase in international demand, some of this team were supported to undergo specific training on organic agriculture, and support and advice was received on an ongoing basis from abroad. The project liaised with other national institutes on specific system components; with the Institute for Pastures and Forages on under-sowing legumes, with the Institute of Mechanization on appropriate equipment such as compost spreaders (which the project was helping to evaluate), with the Institute of Ecology and Systematics on local biodiversity characterisation, and with the Soils Institute for a supply of compost.

The Corporation's approach to organic citrus production was aimed at developing a large-scale and intensive system with high production goals. At 2000, several citrus cropping areas on UBPCs in Havana, Cienfuegos and Ciego de Avila were starting with the conversion process. These UBPCs had been selected on the basis of their extent of diversification, their proximity to industrial centres and their previously low levels of use of agrochemicals. Although the crop itself was cultivated as a monoculture, a whole-farm approach was adopted as far as possible, to create a semi-closed, self-reliant farm system. This meant, for example, that manure was sourced from on-farm livestock, which overcame the increasing difficulty in accessing manure from other sources. Compost was made from the residues of the citrus processing mixed with livestock wastes, and bio-fertilizers and zeolitic organic fertilizers also added. Application of these techniques served not only to eliminate the use of agrochemicals, but also had an appreciable affect on yields and fruit quality, on economic returns, and on the conservation of natural resources. Yet the forecasted economic returns did not internalize the high start-up costs, which included the time and effort required to learn and develop the new techniques and technologies.

Citrus farmers were trained on new technological issues such as vermiculture, compost, legumes, and the use of Rhizobium and Azobacter. The extension approach was described as interactive, through 'a discussion of what is being transferred'. Farmers were apparently receptive to an organic approach owing to its similarities with traditional family farming, and they were noting improvements in plant health. However, given the high start-up costs, farmers were concerned about profitability. Production costs were also high in the first year of conversion, owing to the plantations having received very little care previously. It was anticipated that labour demand would ease off after conversion, and that the high quality and care of production would mean fewer postharvest losses. Nevertheless, production was unlikely to be profitable in the conversion period, and the Citrus Corporation was bearing the losses. The issue of certification had not yet been addressed.

Overall, the project was turning out to be a challenge, as those involved learned that certified organic production was not synonymous with low- or no-input, but that it required building complexity and ensuring quality also of organic inputs and their sources.

There was no certified or non-certified organic production for domestic markets. Even if the purchasing power existed, the state food collection and distribution system challenged product differentiation. However, another possibility being considered by MINAG at the end of the decade was for the agrochemical-free production of selected crops for the Cuban people, at least in small volumes. These products would not require standards and could be distributed through normal channels with minimal price premiums.2

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