The persistent food scarcity in urban Cuba often causes us to ignore some thorny questions about what is on our plates. When there is chicken, we don’t dare ask whether the chicken, mostly imported from the US and Canada, is genetically modified or if the animals were fed genetically modified feed, even when we read that 88% of corn grown in the US is a genetically modified organism (GMO).
In the 1990s when the Soviet Union dissolved, the US government took advantage of the difficult moment to strengthen the US embargo. Cubans across the island suffered, dropping pounds and changing their diets to adjust to the scarcity of basic foods. Cuba’s agricultural system before the Special Period crisis was highly industrialized and dependent on heavy machinery, fossil fuels, and pesticides to farm large extensions of land in mono-crops. One of the positive things that came out of the Special Period crisis was a vibrant organic agriculture movement across the island that has inspired people around the world.
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Cuba’s achievements in urban agriculture are truly remarkable — there are 383,000 urban farms, utilizing otherwise unused land to produce more than 1.5 million tons of vegetables. These organopónicos supply 70 percent or more of all the fresh vegetables consumed in cities such as Havana, all virtually pesticide-free. Although small farmers hold only 25 percent of agricultural land in Cuba, using innovative agroecology practices they produce over 65 percent of our food.
For more than a decade, Cubans have debated the introduction of GMOs to the island.
At around the same time that food scarcity had Cubans of all walks of life planting seeds on their balconies, tilling empty lots in their neighborhoods, heading back to the land and learning about permaculture through the efforts of the Cuban NGO Antonio Núñez Jiménez Foundation for Nature and Humanity (FANJ), another group of Cubans at the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB) were looking for solutions by splicing genes. In 1996, Cuban scientists created the first GM plants in local laboratories.
In December 2008, FR-Bt1, 7.4 acres of Cuba’s first GM corn was planted on a state farm in central Cuba. FR-Bt1 was modified in two ways: to be resistant to Glufosinate-ammonium herbicide and to the most common corn pest in Cuba, the fall armyworm moth (Spodoptera frugiperda). The field trials came as a surprise to most Cuban farmers and crop scientists who had trusted that the GMOs being developed would stay in the labs until proven to not represent a risk for the environment or human health.
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In 2010, 6,632 acres were planted with FR-Bt1 in Santi Spíritus for animal feed. This was the first time that a genetically modified organism was released into the environment at a large scale on the island, and it set off a vigorous debate in Cuban agricultural and scientific institutions. In September 2010, farmers, activists and scientists met with the agencies responsible for issuing licenses for GMOs to be planted, to present information they had collected in fields in Santi Spíritus showing violations in the protocols for the use of FR-Bt1. Farmers in the province were not aware of guidelines for safe handling of GM corn, creating a serious risk for cross contamination that endangered agrobiodiversity by compromising the traditional Cuban corn varieties.
Members of the scientific community called for transparency and access to data from the tests done on FR-Bt1 to understand its possible environmental risks and dangers to human health. They also called for an informal moratorium on the use of GMO seeds in Cuba. The moratorium was not granted and the following year 563 acres of Cuban GM corn were planted in Cienfuegos.
For more than a decade, Cubans have debated the introduction of GMOs to the island, with scientists and organic farmers calling for a process of consultation and public debate about the expansion of a technology that threatens biodiversity of local varieties in the moment that they are most needed to adapt to climate change, drought, and temperature changes. The tension between those committed to the inefficient conventional large-scale monoculture farming that was common before the Special Period and those committed to the new agroecology movement based on small- and medium-sized family farms continues.
In July, Law Decree 4 established a National Commission for the use of GMOs in Cuban agriculture.
Although agro-ecological alternatives were proven during the Special Period to produce food under difficult economic and climatic circumstances, in moments of crisis, like after an especially destructive hurricane season or in the midst of a global pandemic, promoters of conventional agriculture make inroads.
“With the pretext of ‘guaranteeing food security and reducing food imports,’ these specific programs pursue ‘maximization’ of crop and livestock production and insist on going back to monoculture methods —and are therefore dependent on synthetic chemical inputs, large scale machinery, and irrigation— despite proven energy inefficiency and technological fragility,” wrote Dr. Fernando Funes-Monzote, one of Cuba’s leading agronomists, a prolific writer and founder of Finca Marta, a successful agroecology project outside of Havana.
This spring, another 948 acres of GM corn were planted in Central Cuba and between Covid and the everyday lucha for food security, few urban families were any the wiser. In July, Law Decree 4 established a National Commission for the use of GMOs in Cuban agriculture. It wasn’t until late September when the evening news proudly reported that the harvest of the GM corn had been a success that it became a topic of concern in Havana households.
Claudia, a university professor in her mid-30s living in Havana, was surprised to hear the announcement of the large GMO Cuba harvest on the evening news. “Years ago there was an international campaign against transgenics. Fidel explained it a thousand times, there were documentaries on TV, they talked about it in the evening news. They said that GMOs were not the answer. GMOs in Cuba would not eliminate hunger,” she remembers. “We saw the impacts: low yields, unemployment, land being taken away, small farmers losing their livelihoods, serious health problems; but now all of the sudden the story has changed. I don’t understand it and of course I’m worried. What happened? I’m worried when I see this in the news being reported lightly, just one more news story, ‘record harvest of transgenic corn!’ Like it was raining in the desert!”
Alejandro, a university student in Havana was still in elementary school during the debate Claudia remembers, but he is also concerned about the news of the recent GMO harvest. He first heard about GMOs when he was assigned a group project about the Green Revolution for a class at the university.
“As a technological advance it’s interesting, but in practice, I think it’s pretty horrible. Sometimes the environment is completely forgotten about and GMOs completely transform the land and the environment in which they are planted,” he explained.
When I asked him if his class came to a consensus about the use of GMOs in Cuba, he told me that “it became clear to us that it is not sustainable long term, it’s not just the risks and harm to human health, but the impacts on the environment. It just seems like a crazy plan to grow transgenics here.”
“Years ago there was an international campaign against transgenics. Fidel explained it a thousand times, there were documentaries on TV, they talked about it in the evening news. They said that GMOs were not the answer. GMOs would not eliminate hunger … but now all of the sudden the story has changed.”Claudia, university professor in Havana
Coverage in local new media has also questioned the necessity of turning to GMOs. Economist Dr. Juan Triana Cordoví writes that while GMO crops are designed to simplify the farming process to allow farmers to work larger plantations, they require many more pesticides and fertilizers to achieve yields that are inferior, or in the best case, equal to those of traditional Cuban varieties. Luckily, other options with fewer risks for human health and biodiversity are far from having been exhausted.
According to Dr. Funes-Monzote, if all the campesino farms (controlling 25 percent of land) and all the UBPC state farms (controlling 42 percent of land) diversified using agro-ecological designs, the country could be self-sufficient, feeding its population, supplying food to the tourist industry, and even exporting to generate foreign currency.
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Of course, neither Claudia nor Alejandro are farmers, biologists, or crop scientists. They aren’t GMO experts, but their well-informed opinions have been formed by years of public education campaigns on the island and access to information about the risks of GMOs from experts like Dr. Funes-Monzote. Claudia and Alejandro and many other Cuban consumers know that thanks to Cuba’s active agro-ecology movement, promising alternatives are alive and well here and have the potential to put food on our plates without the implications of GMOs in Cuba.