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USDA: Cuba may become key U.S. source of organic foods
CubaNews / December 2005

By Larry Luxner

Cuba could someday be a leading supplier of organic fruits and vegetables to the United States, says a U.S. Depart-ment of Agriculture economist who’s actually prepared a paper on the subject.

Bill Kost, an official at the Specialty Crops Branch of the USDA’s Economic Research Service, said Cuba has already produced Swiss-certified organic juices; it’s also working with Switzerland for certification of organic coffee, cocoa, mangoes and coconuts.

“The organic farming movement grew out of a severe economic crisis that generated food shortages,” said Kost, who presented his paper at a recent Miami meeting of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy.

Since the early ‘90s, he said, urban gardens from Havana to Holguín have helped boost domestic availability of fresh vegetables, roots, tubers, plantains and non-citrus fruits for the general Cuban population.

“If the Cuban economy improves — and if the demand for organic food continues to grow, particularly in higher-income markets — Cuba could become an exporter of organic foods like tropical fruits,” he said.

“Production would need to be certified organic before it could enter the organic market. It’s a marketing issue, a truth-in-labeling issue, and it is a necessary condition. By necessity, Cuba has already met many of that production criteria. They’re not certified for the domestic market — they don’t need to be. This is for the export market. They’ll have to provide proof and documentation that they’ve produced under organic methods.”

Last year, Cuba produced almost 500 tons of organic honey. In addition, more than 3,000 hectares of coffee plantations have been certified organic, with such coffee fetching a 45% premium in Europe.

These days, socially conscious British shoppers can find 200-ml and 1-liter tetra cartons of “ethically produced” — though not necessarily organically produced — Fruit Passion juice brands at Sainsbury’s and other supermarket chains throughout England (see CubaNews, September 2004, page 11).

Domestically, Cuba is said to have 220 re-production centers throughout the country making seven lines of biopesticides; last year, the island produced nearly 2.5 million tons of an organic fertilizer called humus of worm.

Made from the excrement of earthworms, the humus is an effective and natural fertilizer, used mainly in vegetable and tobacco crops, as well as banana and fruit plantations.

“U.S. demand has increased 10% a year during the past decade,” he said. “Organic crops bring premium prices, and more and more U.S. growers are interested in switching some or all of their acreage to organic.”

But in order to stay organic once Cuba adopts a free-market economy, said Kost, “the market price will have to be high enough to keep Cuban producers happy.”

At present, Costa Rica is the chief supplier of fresh fruits to the United States, and Mexico is the top supplier of fresh vegetables.

On the other hand, once the embargo is lifted, Cuban food exports could play a significant role in the American organic market.

“Tapping U.S. markets may create sufficient price incentives for Cuban producers to take the next steps to meet other organic standards,” Kost explained. “Cuba has the climate, land resources, low-cost labor and history of organic-oriented production to allow it to develop and grow its horticultural sector in that direction. And without U.S. access, organics will remain a necessity-driven way to produce food when there’s no alternative.”

However, he warned, “if market incentives [for organic crops] are not sufficiently large, Cuba will return to a chemical and technology-driven, yield-maximizing and labor-minimi-zing commercial model of production as rapidly as it can afford to do so.”

Along with that, he warned, “with higher in-come and increased availability of foreign exchange, commercial input prices in Cuba will start dropping. If fuel, chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides are cheaper than they were during the 1990s, it’s very likely farmers will start using them to increase production. Higher incomes will also make it easier to import food, reducing demand for domestically produced crops. That will mean lower prices in the farmers’ markets.”

And when production costs are high, “cheap food imports reduce the incentive to keep growing organic food in urban gardens.”

Yet Kost says Cuba is “an unlikely role model” for organic production eleswhere. “Other countries facing resource constraints and food shortages should exploit under-utilized resources such as surplus labor, and consider unconventional production techniques that may make them productive,” said Kost.

“Locally grown produce can augment a country’s commercial production and replace or supplement imports,” he warned. “but will not provide a long-term solution for meeting its food needs.”

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