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CUBA: Scientists, Farmers Fighting Climate Change – Together

Patricia Grogg

HAVANA, Sep 10 2009 (IPS) - Cuba is facing the challenge of boosting agricultural output under difficult climate conditions and on soils badly deteriorated by erosion, salinity and other problems. And scientists have a strategic role to play, provided they do not sit in their laboratories but get out into the fields where the action is.

“To do real science you have to be out there where the crops are growing,” said Sergio Ramírez, the son of a farmer who for the past 18 years has directed a research centre that is vital to meeting the challenge of securing Cuba’s food supplies, however adverse the climate conditions. In his view, the main thing is to be prepared for climate change, look for solutions, and bring together the experience and know-how of small farmers with the theoretical knowledge of researchers, in order to be forearmed to face the coming difficulties.

To respond to this challenge, “Cuba possesses a potential range of species and varieties that allow cultivation of specific foods under particular climate conditions,” said Rodríguez, the head of the National Research Institute of Tropical Root Vegetables (INIVIT) in the central province of Villa Clara. The expert told IPS over the telephone that many tropical countries like Cuba must plan food production around two completely opposite sets of probable conditions: severe drought and hurricanes. Three hurricanes devastated the island’s crops in 2008.

It is no secret that 76 percent of the country’s farmland is relatively unproductive, with nearly 15 percent being affected by soil salinity and another 14 percent with low organic matter content, due to soil exhaustion and other reasons, Rodríguez said.

“The situation is improving with the use of farm animals to work the land, and organic fertilisers and biological control methods instead of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. I would say we are moving towards a low-input, economically sustainable agriculture that is less harmful to the environment,” he said.

To mitigate adverse climate factors, in Rodríguez’s opinion the key is to diversify agriculture, in order to ensure there is sufficient food after a hurricane or a lengthy drought. “Growing a wide variety of crops will also help satisfy consumer demand,” he added.

He mentioned the advantages of planting sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) and pumpkin or squash (Cucurbita moschata), for instance, two creeping plants that are resistant to high winds. The same is true of taro (Xanthosoma and Colocasia esculenta) because it is a low-growing plant and has firm root anchorage, he said.

“During times of severe drought we can grow cassava (Manihot esculenta) and plantains (Musa paradisiaca), which can survive long periods without water. When crops are diversified, an answer can be found to everything,” said Rodríguez. Many species of roots and tubers are particularly appreciated by Cubans as staple foods.

According to Rodríguez, INIVIT has these varieties available and is constantly seeking others. “At present we are experiencing a period of high temperatures in Cuba and we have to design varieties resistant to these conditions,” he said.

The research centre maintains a germplasm bank containing 650 varieties of sweet potato, 512 of cassava, 327 plantain and banana varieties, 120 of yam and 152 taro species. “These genetic resources are one of the country’s major strengths,” he said.

According to Rodríguez, the germplasm bank is “a living museum, containing the genes necessary to cross plant lines and construct new varieties with the ability to resist or adapt to adverse conditions.” To preserve this genetic wealth is “to conserve biodiversity, which makes it possible to select the most suitable characteristics for every possible set of conditions,” he said.

Science – from the ground up

The means of communicating crop science from the laboratory to the field need to be improved, however, Rodríguez acknowledged. “Agricultural extension,” the process by which new farming technology is introduced into a rural community, is an unresolved problem. “We have made progress, but there is still a lot to be done,” he said.

INIVIT has created a “national root vegetables group” made up of research scientists who visit every municipality in the country where these crops are grown, once every three months, in order to present scientific results and help with technology transfer, or the distribution of varieties created by the producers themselves.

“There is a lot of science at ground level: we find many farmers who develop their own cultivation techniques and are willing to share with others what they have learned from experience. We disseminate those achievements, giving credit to the farmers, of course,” said Rodríguez.

The expert said training is also essential, because access to crop varieties and resources is not enough.

“If we don’t train farmers to make the most effective use of inputs and plant the vegetable varieties at the right time and place, there won’t be a good response in terms of productivity,” he said.

To this end, Rodríguez said it is necessary to continue to “study in depth” the issue of agricultural extension to foster sustainable, ecofriendly farming methods.

“This is not just a Cuban problem; there is generally an enormous gulf between what is known in research centres and what reaches the farmer in the fields,” said Rodríguez. Another extremely important issue is to have an adequate supply of high-quality seeds, without which no agricultural system can operate efficiently, he added.

According to official statistics, national production guarantees the seed supply for 94 percent of the farmed area on the island, while seeds are imported for six percent of the farmland, mainly to grow vegetables and potatoes.

Rodríguez estimates that Cuba could potentially produce up to 40 million plants a year, of different species, using in vitro (test tube) propagation methods, an ambition that has been thwarted by lack of funds.

This technique is used in the laboratory to multiply seedlings faster, so that they can be distributed to farmers.

The 11 molecular biology facilities in Cuba, where biotechnological research, development and production are under way, are a national asset whose potential is not being sufficiently exploited, according to the 62-year-old Rodríguez, who has a doctorate in agricultural sciences and has worked in his field for over thirty years. “High-yield agriculture cannot be achieved without high-quality seeds,” he said.

Cuban scientists warn that climate change poses a threat to sustainable development in the country, and point to the increased force of hurricanes, more frequent droughts, more tornadoes and heavy rainstorms, and changes in the patterns of crop growth and yields, among other meteorological signs.

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