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Cuban Agriculture Goes Organic by Necessity

June 22, 1994

ZARAGOSA, Cuba (AP) _ Juan Jose Leon opened a creaky wooden cage and plucked out an inch-long enemy of Cuba’s desperate effort to feed its 11 million people.

Thin green caterpillars like those in the cage have devoured hundreds of thousands of tons of forage in the surrounding Valle Rojo, leaving the cattle hungry, taking meat and milk from Cuban mouths.

Leon’s job is to fight such predators without the pesticides Cuba has been unable to afford since the fall of European communism devastated the island’s economy by depriving it of Soviet-bloc aid.

He breeds pest-fighting wasps, fungi and bacteria from ingredients as simple as wheat and honey, using equipment that seems homemade.

The whitewashed little agricultural field station on a hilltop is one of 150 scattered around Cuba. They are critical parts of what some scientists describe as a historic experiment in organic farming.

In his laboratory of blistered-whitewash walls, bare lightbulbs, empty sockets and dangling wires, Leon raises moths in wooden boxes and exposes their eggs to tiny wasps that live on moth eggs.

When the wasps have burrowed into the clusters of eggs, the eggs are distributed in fields and the wasps emerge to attack the eggs of other moths.

On a shoestring, Cuba is making ″the largest conversion of any nation in history from conventional modern agriculture to large-scale organic farming,″ said Peter Rosset, executive director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy in San Francisco.

″What the Cubans are doing in agriculture is important to the world,″ said Paul Gerster, soil scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, who has visited Cuba to study the program.

One reason Cuba’s effort intrigues advocates of alternative farming is that its Soviet-style farms are more like the sprawling industrial farms of California than the subsistence plots in many Third World countries.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization is sharing data and experts with Cuba with an eye to making its program a model.

When aid from the Soviet bloc disappeared in 1990, Cuba was left without the pesticides, fertilizers and fuel that kept the big farms running. Fidel Castro’s government had begun experiments with alternative farming in the early 1980s and plunged into it a decade later.

Leon and his colleagues are expanding the use of organic fertilizers - such as fermented cane runoff - and biological pest controls, combining production of new plant varieties with increased use of oxen for plowing, mixing scientific investigation of beneficial bacteria with old-fashioned mulching.

They look for plant varieties hardier than the delicate hybrids that need heavy doses of imported chemicals, and are switching to breeds of cattle that may produce less milk, but also need less care.

Most of the techniques are used elsewhere, but not on so great a scale, Gerster said.

Cuban leaders have told agricultural researchers to concentrate on alternative farming, making only limited use of chemicals.

Matias Brull, vice rector of the Higher Institute for Agricultural Sciences of Havana, the country’s largest farm research center, said it is ″trying to work so that everything agrees with that line.″

″It isn’t easy,″ he said. ″Some of our own professors in agrochemistry ... are resisting.″

For farmers, going from vast fields of a single crop sprayed with pesticides and fertilizers is difficult.

″The change from the tractor to the ox yoke (means) they move from eight mechanical operations ... to 25 that cause more work,″ said Raul Mejillas, the Communist Party leader at the institute.

″Sustainable agriculture is not a romantic step into the past,″ said Raul Espinosa, a leading researcher at the Institute of Agricultural Sciences. ″Sustainable agriculture is the application of the most advanced science and technology.″

With Cuba facing serious food shortages, ″we cannot be romantics,″ he said.

Those shortages indicate alternative farming has not performed miracles.

U.S. experts on organic farming say output usually falls sharply after a switch from chemicals because single-crop chemical farming depletes the soil, but that yields usually recover in about three years.

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