Case Studies, Systems Thinking

Cuba’s journey to becoming a global leader in organic agriculture

Humberto Ríos Labrada realized the importance of learning from smallholder farmers at an early age. It was the beginning of the 1990s, and the young Cuban was a doctoral student at university. At the time, his studies focused solely on food produced using agrochemicals. That’s when Ríos Labrada realized he had to seek lessons outside of the classroom and learn from smallholder farmers.

Over the next several years, Ríos Labrada worked in the fields, learning about seed diversity and organic plant production. While his university had been able to sustain four to five varieties of beans, Ríos Labrada discovered local farmers maintained well over 200 varieties. “I originally thought that I was going to teach the farmers to improve seed diversity,” said Ríos Labrada in a 2010 interview. “After I began working with them, I realized they were going to teach me how to create better crop yields.”

The timing was crucial. The early 90s in Cuba was characterized by hardship and transition. For decades, the country had depended on trade ties with the Soviet Union, relying on Soviet markets for food, agrochemical inputs, and other imports. The collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1991 brought these trade relationships to an end, and a tightening of the long-time trade embargo between Cuba and the United States meant the Caribbean country had little choice but to ration food and other resources. Their supply of fertilizer and pesticide was also cut off.

And so, it was in many cases through necessity that Cuban farmers were forced to adopt organic agricultural practices. The Farmer-to-Farmer Agroecology Movement (MACAC), a grassroots initiative of the Cuban National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP) was born. Today, MACAC is a member of La Via Campesina, an international farmers organization that brings together millions of smallholder farmers from around the world.

Ríos Labrada is one of the founding members of ANAP, and received the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2010, recognizing his lifelong work to promote seed and plant diversity in Cuba.

Planting the seed for agroecological approaches

So much larger than any one person, MACAC is a social movement that builds Cuban farmer sovereignty and autonomy through agroecological practices, participatory plant breeding, and farmer-to-farmer approaches. Its success depends on the trust that has been developed between farmers.

Through the initiative, the small farm sector in Cuba is achieving higher production at lower costs when compared to conventional, chemically-dependent monoculture systems. As a result, the sector is increasing national food production and improving local food security.

An increase in seed exchange and cross-breeding has adapted seeds to local soil compositions and made yields more resistant to the adverse effects of climate change. Implementation of MACAC’s efforts use local resources, lessening the dependence on external actors or donors to ensure sustainability. Finally, because agroecological techniques don’t require any imported chemicals, the sector is less likely to be affected by economic or political shocks.

Knowledge exchange is also an important part of MACAC’s approach. Rather than farmers learning from institutions and subject matter “specialists,” those groups instead learn from the farmers who are experts in their own right.

“This project completely breaks with the traditional notion that holds scientists up as those who think and farmers as those who receive that knowledge,” explains Ríos Labrada of the paradigm shift. “We’ve put both of these important groups on the same level.”

One example of this knowledge exchange work includes seed fairs where farmers share their knowledge of crop diversity. Other outreach has involved bus trips where research institutions visit local farmers, and the creation of educational brochures, books, and magazines.

Today, MACAC is credited for helping to increase the number of agroecological farmers in Cuba from 200 in 1999 to 200,000 by 2018—more than half of all smallholder farmers in the country. A future goal is to connect small farmers directly to markets and increase consumer demand for organic products.

Another pressing matter is to get the national government on board. Despite substantial progress and positive developments in the last three decades, Cuba’s Ministry of Agriculture remains focused on policies that favour conventional, high-input agrochemical agricultural methods.

Agroecological farming practices have significant potential around the world, and MACAC has demonstrated that grassroots movements can lead the charge. Said Ríos Labrada in his Goldman Environmental Prize video: “I truly believe that if farmers are the ones making innovative decisions, Cuba can overcome its food challenges.”