The Cuban interpretation of organic agriculture

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Although specific individuals - farmers and scientists - had been working with organic principles since the 1970s and 1980s, organic agriculture emerged in Cuba as part of a broader response to the food security crisis, symbolized by the formation of the Cuban Association of Organic Agriculture (ACAO) in 1993. The emergence and achievements of ACAO are described in Box 9.1.

Because of the context within which the organic concept emerged, the concern of the movement was not on the avoidance of agrochemicals or on market returns, but rather on improvements to the production system based on ecological principles, to adjust the prevailing industrialized approach for increased yields. Key interests were the integration of the previously specialized and separate crop and livestock farms, increases in energy, fuel and land use efficiency, and reversal of the degradation of the natural resource base. For example, Monzote et al (2002, p207) described crop-livestock integration thus: 'This concept has implications which go beyond the technological-productive sphere, directly or indirectly influencing the economic, social and cultural conditions of farming families, by reinforcing their ability to sustain themselves.' Because of its basis in research, the Cuban interpretation of organic agriculture was both cutting-edge and pragmatic, and the concept of equilibrium was routinely used. This interpretation conformed with the Latin American agro-ecological school of thought rather than the European certified organic model.1 In contrast, the term 'organic agriculture' held certain negative connotations associated largely with the expense of certification and the higher price of certified organic products. As one rural sector worker put it, 'Organic agriculture is based on

Box 9.1 The Cuban organic movement (ACAO) and its achievements up to 1999

Unlike grassroots organic movements in other countries, ACAO was not farmer-led, but created as a response to the crisis by organically minded individuals involved in agricultural research and training. Through the decade, the movement grew to approximately 800 members nationwide, including farmers, and was instrumental in many pioneering initiatives. It had no juridical status and was dependent on donor funding and on the voluntary input of its members. In 1996, ACAO received the Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development (SARD) Prize for its work and, in 1999, the prestigious Right Livelihood Award, which it accepted on behalf of the nation. Its achievements were impressive under the conditions of the Special Period, and included:

• awareness raising and information diffusion through workshops, field days and other events

• operation of mobile organic libraries around the country

• tri-annual publication of a national magazine Agricultura Organica

• initiation of a pioneering organic research and demonstration project 'Agro-ecological Lighthouses' to evaluate the efficacy of organic approaches

• organization of three national organic conferences

• supporting the establishment of higher education programmes on agro-ecology

• organization for the training of Cuban professionals by foreign organic certification bodies

• development of strong international linkages including with the international organic movement

• establishment of provincial support groups for organic agriculture

• initiating the development of national organic standards

• promotion of farmer-to-farmer, agro-ecological extension methodology with ANAP.

Source: Wright, 2005

bio-inputs and is expensive because of certification, whereas agro-ecology may include the use of agrochemicals if absolutely necessary.' Another explained: 'There is no alternative to sustainable agriculture. Both organic and Green Revolution agriculture are like agribusiness.' Rather, some professionals felt that Cuba exceeded the expectations of organic farming in the west: 'In fact Cuba talks about ecological agriculture which is one step beyond organic agriculture - it has to show sufficient yields to solve the food crisis. The conventional model can't solve the problem, but the agro-ecological model can, through a slow but steady process of increasing yields and quality.'

Orellana et al (1999) carried out an interesting survey in Cuba on organic perspectives, in which the researchers posed three questions to a group of 72 people, largely comprising scientists but also farmers and academic interest groups. Their first question asked whether organic agriculture was based solely on the use of organic inputs. This was affirmed by 60 per cent of respondents, who explained that if the inputs were not organic then it was a fraud. The large minority who disagreed felt that organic agriculture could include the use of chemicals when justified, for economic or ethical reasons. The two underlying factors that, for them, defined organic agriculture were soil fertility and biological productivity. The second question asked whether organic agriculture could feed the needs of a growing population: 54 per cent of respondents agreed that it could. The third question, on whether urban agriculture was grounded in an ecological basis, was affirmed by 78 per cent of respondents. From this the authors concluded that organic agriculture was 'a management system in harmony and dynamism with the agro-ecosystem, which guarantees an integrated protection of foodstuffs with high biological quality'.

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