Cuba and resilient agriculture

Cuba is a fascinating case of resilient agriculture.  Today for the first time in fifty years, the American flag is flying over the Havana, Cuba, embassy.  Fifty years of isolation from American technology are ending.    Let’s hope American pesticides don’t flood back into the country.

cubaI visited Cuba back when America’s embargo was at its strongest.  For those of us interested in resilient agricultural systems, the embargo was a godsend.  It forced Cuba to develop ways of controlling pests without chemical pesticides.

Before the revolution in 1959, Cuba was a country of vast sugar cane fields and casinos in the cities.  Both were run by Americans.  The sugar cane plantations used machinery, seeds and chemicals imported from the US.  After the revolution the government nationalized all large private farms and other American-owned businesses.

The casinos had to move and found a home in Las Vegas, Nevada, which was a backwater for gambling until the influx of casino workers, money, and expertise from Cuba.

Sugar cane fields couldn’t move but they were no longer afflicted by US pesticides.  But the pests were still there.  When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990, the only remaining source of pesticides and fertilizer was gone and Cuba had to feed its people solely with organic and biological methods.

Cuban responded with a national plant health system that included plant health laboratories, plant protection stations and centers to produce organisms which feed on or parasitize insects which destroy crops.

The latter are what we came to see and we were amazed.  In primitive conditions throughout the country, poor country people were managing sophisticated labs producing billions of beneficial insects every year.

The nationalized farmland had been turned over to cooperatives which gave space to labs to rear beneficials.  By 1992, 227 such labs had been built on the island, and by 1997, 280 existed.  The objective is to produce a low priced product for local farmers.  Most labs located on cooperatives provided beneficial insects free to the cooperative.

An example of the labs’ activities is the rearing and distribution of the entomophagous Trichogramma. Trichogramma is a genera of wasp which parasitizes the eggs of hundreds of species of insects, including moths, butterflies, sawflies, fruitworms, beetles, and flies. The Cuban labs breed the wasp by collecting colony stocks from local crops that the reared wasps will later be released onto. The centers keep eggs of grain moths to allow the wasps to infect them. Once they have hatched from the initial batch of parasitized eggs. Cuban farmers use Trichogrammato to kill the cassava hornworm, the tobacco budworm, and the sugarcane borer. In total the CREEs produced almost 10 billion wasps each year, we were told.

The use of Trichogramma as a predator for harmful plant pests is an example of biological control. Biological control is the reduction of pest populations by natural enemies.  The agenda of Cuba agriculture was a resilient agenda:  using nature-inspired methods to foster plant health and productivity.

The labs also produce bacteria which kill destructive insects.  The labs are particularly instrumental in making biopesticides from Bacillus thuringienis (Bt). The centers multiply the bacteria and ship vials of Bt to any of the three Biopesticide Product Plants located in Cuba. Biopesticides from Bt are currently the most used biopesticide, making up 90% of biopesticide used worldwide. The biopesticide is in a liquid form and is sprayed on plants. Bt can provide mosquito and moth larvae control to save corn and cruciferous vegetables. Additionally, the biopesticide is used to combat the tobacco budworm, cassava hornworm, potato and citrus leafminers, and mites.

Bacillus thuringienis is also used in aiding soil health. Because some soils in Cuba can be high in aluminum and iron oxides, phosphorus can become unavailable for uptake by plants if it complexes with either. Bt is a phosphosolubilizing bacteria. This means that when the bacteria consume the complex, phosphorus is detached from the other chemicals and made available for plant use again.

potato beetle fungusFungi are also cultivated in the labs, to combat, for example, sweet potato weevil. The sweet potato weevil is a pest worldwide, but particularly in subtropical and tropical areas. The fungus Beauveria bassiana can be dispersed by spraying a topical solution on the leaves of the sweet potato plant, or can be used in combination with a pheromone trap to infect the sweet potato weevil.  The adjacent picture shows a potato beetle infected with this fungus.

A second technique used to control the sweet potato weevil is the use of predatory ants. The bighead ant, Pheidole megacephala, is found in banana plantations. Cuban farmers use a technique of rolling them up in banana leaves to transport the ants to sweet potato fields where the ants are let loose to enjoy a feast of sweet potato weevil.

We saw many other amazing and inspiring systems contributing to resilient agricultural systems in Cuba.  The best efforts of the United States to isolate Cuba had unexpected benefits for the world.  Cuban ingenuity created small scale, rural systems of biological control we could take back to the US.

Whatever you feel about the government of Cuba, the agricultural researchers and farmers of Cuba must be praised.  They show us that biological control can be accomplished on even the most isolated farms.

Our pristine Meadowcreek valley hasn’t seen pesticides or fertilizer in many years.  We don’t have huge fields of sugar cane or bananas to take care of so we don’t need insect rearing labs, but we do have a small facility for rearing fungal spores.

If you are interested in rearing biologicals, we would love to host you at Meadowcreek.  In the meantime, let’s all hoist a Cuba libre in praise of the Cuban contribution to a more resilient agriculture.  As I said at the conclusion of my talk in Cuba, “Viva la revolucion!