The policy dilemma increased yields or longerterm sustainability

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The main aims of Cuban agriculture in the 1990s - to increase yields and increase sustainability - were somewhat at odds with each other. The state had been planning some sustainable reorientation of production prior to 1989, with, for example, the establishment of the National Food and Nutrition Programme and the experimentation with farmers' markets. However, it was only after the depletion of buffering reserves in the early 1990s that major action was taken. Rather than a shift in collective or political attitude or proactive policy towards sustainability, towards increasing farmer involvement in decision-making or towards using more holistic research and development methodologies, it was the lack of petroleum and the enforced drive for self-sufficiency that acted as the gelling agents to stimulate a concerted move towards localization, diversification, resource streamlining and import substitution that occurred throughout the 1990s.

Policy development on environmental sustainability emanated from the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment (CITMA). For example, Environmental Law 1997, Section 9, Article 132 was devoted to sustainable agriculture and called for a more rationalized use of locally appropriate industrialized and organic inputs and IPM measures (Pérez and Vázquez, 2002, pp136-137). However, MINAG, which was in charge of production and management of resources, had a singular mandate to increase production and did not have the resources to police the upholding of the law.

At the same time, although the term 'sustainable' was used in policy, there was little explicit, shared definition, and institutes had divergent strategies. For example, The National Nutritional Action Plan specified the desired strategy of 'sustainable development combining alternative with industrialized models:

including agroforestry, low input approaches, yet with a focus on intensification' (p68), and rather ambiguously went on to conclude: 'Given the conditions of the country, it should be maintained wherever possible, the application of high external and internal inputs on the basis of intensive practices, in others alternative practices, and ultimately an appropriate combination of the two models.' Meanwhile, the new Agricultural Extension System had 'an overall aim for high yields and low inputs'. MINAG was planning to increase the availability and use of agrochemicals, and its long-term (ten-year) crop production plans aimed for 60 per cent of production to be intensive, on 40 per cent of the land, and the remainder extensive. The ten-year plan for maize production, a relatively low-input crop, is given in Box 8.1.

Box 8.1 The ten-year plan for maize production of MINAG, at 1999

The objective of the plan was to obtain a national average yield of 3t/ha so as to supply the population with the national demand of 50kg/capita/year, plus an additional 300,000t of dry grain for livestock feed. The plan envisaged a three-pronged strategy:

1 'Intensive production': 29 per cent of total maize area sown under high input conditions using 100 per cent hybrids to achieve yields of 4.5t/ha and production of 390,000t, for human and animal consumption.

2 'Sustainable production': 47 per cent of total maize area under sustainable conditions using 70 per cent hybrids and improved varieties, to achieve yields of 3t/ha and production of 470,000t, about half of which was tender maize (premature), largely for human consumption.

3 'Self-provisioning consumption': 22 per cent of total maize area under low-input conditions using 20-30 per cent improved varieties for yields of 1.5t/ha. This included the use of organic inputs only and with no mechanization or irrigation, focusing on marginal soils.

This plan required the tripling of maize cropping area and required the approval of MINAG to utilize land currently being taken out of sugarcane production.

Source: Wright, 2005

The 17 national agricultural research centres had reoriented their programmes toward sustainability, which entailed the promotion of three strategies: biotechnology to obtain high yields; integrated agriculture; and the combined use of biological inputs and agrochemicals (Diaz, 2000). The term 'low input' was ill-defined; one researcher attempted to explain it thus" 'Low input can be without any or with low amounts of inputs. Low inputs means low yields. It is substitution and adding manure. It also means being more precise - to measure exactly what the plant's needs are.' Nevertheless, research models that were referred to as 'low input' or 'integrated' were frequently in complete absence of agro-chemicals (e.g. Castro et al, 2000; López et al, 2000).

Within this, practical initiatives were diverse and promoted different forms of agriculture, yet on balance priority remained on increasing yields and increasing production. Summing up the tension between productivity and sustainability, one researcher described the results of some recent soil fertility trials:

We recently ran trials of a new agrochemical compound fertilizer for potato, which came from Mexico. The formula contains specific minerals, and we found that potatoes yielded very well with this. But to achieve such high yields we exceeded the sustainable limit in terms of dosage, and the potato harvest contained over the legal limit of nitrate levels. Production costs were also higher. But this country's policy is to obtain the highest yields whatever the costs, and we in the research sector are not in charge of what happens with our results. I had wanted to use green manure in the trial as a sustainable comparison, but we were only given short notice to undertake these trials and had no seed available.

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