Selections from a very long article in the April 2005 issue of Harper’s Magazine:

….Castro spent three decades growing sugar and shipping it to Russia and East Germany, both of which paid a price well above the world level, and both of which sent the ships back to Havana filled with wheat, rice, and more tractors. When all that disappeared, literally almost overnight, Cuba had nowhere to turn. The United States, Cuba’s closest neighbor, enforced a strict trade embargo (which it strengthened in 1992, and again in 1996) and Cuba had next to no foreign exchange with anyone else…

In other words, Cuba became an island. Not just a real island, surrounded by water, but something much rarer: an island outside the international economic system, a moon base whose supply ships had suddenly stopped coming…..

What happened was simple, if unexpected. Cuba had learned to stop exporting sugar and instead started growing its own food again, growing it on small private farms and thousands of pocket-sized urban market gardens – and, lacking chemicals and fertilizers, much of that food became de facto organic. Somehow, the combination worked. Cubans have as much food as they did before the Soviet Union collapsed. They’re still short of meat, and the milk supply remains a real problem, but their caloric intake has returned to normal – they’ve gotten that meal back.

In so doing they have created what may be the world’s largest working model of a semi-sustainable agriculture, one that doesn’t rely nearly as heavily as the rest of the world does on oil, on chemicals, on shipping vast quantities of food back and forth. They import some of their food from abroad – a certain amount of rice from Vietnam, even some apples and beef and such from the United States. But mostly they grow their own, and with less ecological disruption than in most places. In recent years organic farmers have visited the island in increasing numbers and celebrated its accomplishment. ….

There’s always at least the possibility, however, that larger sections of the world might be in for “Special Periods” of their own. Climate change, or the end of cheap oil, or the depletion of irrigation water, or the chaos of really widespread terrorism, or some other malign force might begin to make us pay more attention to the absolute bottom-line question of how we get our dinner (a question that only a very few people, for a very short period of time, have ever been able to ignore). No one’s predicting a collapse like the one Cuba endured – probably no modern economy has ever undergone such a shock. But if things got gradually harder? After all, our planet is an island, too. It’s somehow useful to know that someone has already run the experiment. ….

Fidel Castro, as even his fiercest opponents would admit, has almost from the day he took power spent lavishly on the country’s educational system. Cuba’s ratio of teachers to students is akin to Sweden’s; people who want to go to college go to college. Which turns out to be important, because farming, especially organic farming, especially when you’re not used to doing it, is no simple task. You don’t just tear down the fence around the vacant lot and hand someone a hoe, quoting him some Maoist couplet about the inevitable victory of the worker. The soil’s no good at first, the bugs can’t wait to attack. You need information to make a go of it. To a very large extent, the rise of Cuba’s semi-organic agriculture is almost as much an invention of science and technology as the high-input tractor farming it replaced, which is another thing that makes this story so odd. ….

“In that old system, it took ten or fifteen or twenty units of energy to produce one unit of food energy”, Funes [director of Cuba’s Pasture and Forage Research unit] said. “At first we didn’t care so much about economics – we had to produce no matter what”, Even in the salad days of Soviet-backed agriculture, however, some of the local agronomists were beginning to think the whole system was slightly insane. “We were realizing just how inefficient it was. So a few of us were looking for other ways. In cattle we began to look at things like using legumes to fix nitrogen in the pasture so we could cut down on fertilizer”, Funes said. ….

“It is easier to use chemicals. You see some trouble in your tomatoes, and chemicals take care of it right away”, [agronomist Jorge Padron] said. Over the long run, though, thinking about the whole system yields real benefits. “Our work is really about preparing the fields so plants will be stronger. But it works.” It is the reverse, that is, of the Green Revolution that spread across the globe in the 1960s, an industrialization of the food system that relied on irrigation, oil (both for shipping and fertilization), and the massive application of chemicals to counter every problem.

The localized application of research practiced in Cuba has fallen by the wayside in countries where corporate agriculture holds sway. ….

In Cuba, however, all the equivalents of Texas A&M or the University of Nebraska are filled with students looking at antagonist fungi, lion-ant production for sweet potato weevil control, how to inter-crop tomatoes and sesame to control the tobacco whitefly, how much yield grows when you mix green beans and cassava in the same rows (60 percent), what happens to plantain production when you cut back on the fertilizer and substitute a natural bacterium called A chroococcum (it stays the same)….

Most of the farmers and agronomists I interviewed professed conviction that the agricultural changes ran so deep they would never be eroded. Perez, however, did allow that there were a lot of younger oxen drivers who yearned to return to the cockpits of big tractors, and according to news reports some of the country’s genetic engineers are trying to clone White Udder herself from leftover tissue. If Cuba simply opens to the world economy – if Castro gets his professed wish and the US embargo simply disappears, replaced by a free-trade regime – it’s very hard to see how the sustainable farming would survive for long. We use pesticides and fertilizers because they make for incredibly cheap food. None of that dipping the seedling roots in some bacillus solution, or creeping along the tomato rows looking for aphids, or taking the oxen off to be shoed. Our industrial agriculture – at least as heavily subsidized by Washington as Cuba’s farming once was subsidized by Moscow – simply overwhelms its neighbors. ….

Does the Cuban experiment mean anything for the rest of the world? An agronomist would call the country’s farming “low input”, the reverse of the Green Revolution model, with its reliance on irrigation, oil, and chemistry. If we’re running out of water in lots of places (the water table beneath China and India’s grain-growing plains is reportedly dropping by meters every year), and if the oil and natural gas used to make fertilizer and run our megafarms are changing the climate (or running out), and if the pesticides are poisoning farmers and killing other organisms, and if everything at the Stop & Shop has traveled across a continent to get there and tastes pretty much like crap, might there be some real future for low-input farming for the rest of us? Or are its yields simply too low? Would we all starve without the supermarket and the corporate farm?

It’s not a question academics have devoted a great deal of attention to – who would pay to sponsor the research? ….

And what about the heartlands of industrial agriculture, the US plains, for instance? “So much depends on how you measure efficiency”, Pretty said. “You don’t get something for nothing”. Cheap fertilizer and pesticide displace more expensive labor and knowledge – that’s why 219 American farms have gone under every day for the last fifty years and yet we’re producing ever more grain and a loaf of bread might as well be free. On the other hand, there are those bereft Midwest counties. And the plumes of pesticide poison spreading through groundwater. And the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico into which the tide of nitrogen washes each planting season. And the cloud of carbon dioxide that puffs out from the top of the fertilizer factories. If you took those things seriously, you might decide that having one percent of your population farming was not such a wondrous feat after all.

The American model of agriculture is pretty much what people mean when they talk about the Green Revolution: high-yielding crop varieties, planted in large monocultures, bathed in the nurturing flow of petrochemicals, often supported by government subsidy, designed to offer low-priced food in sufficient quantity to feed billions. Despite its friendly moniker, many environmentalists and development activists around the planet have grown to despair about everything the Green Revolution stands for. Like Pretty, they propose a lowercase greener counterrevolution: endlessly diverse, employing the insights of ecology instead of the brute force of chemistry, designed to feed people but also keep them on the land. And they have some allies even in the rich countries – that’s who fills the stalls at the farmers’ markets blooming across North America. ….

Is it possible that markets, at least for food, may work better when they’re smaller and more isolated?

The next few decades may be about answering that question. It’s already been engaged in Europe, where people are really debating subsidies for small farmers, and whether or not they want the next, genetically modified, stage of the Green Revolution, and how much it’s worth paying for Slow Food. It’s been engaged in parts of the Third World, where in India peasants threw out the country’s most aggressive free-marketeers in the last election, sensing that the shape of their lives was under assault.

Not everyone is happy with the set of possibilities that the multinational corporate world provides. People are beginning to feel around for other choices. The world isn’t going to look like Cuba – Cuba won’t look like Cuba once Cubans have some say in the matter. But it may not necessarily look like Nebraska either. “The choices are about values”, Pretty said. Which is true, at least for us, at least for the moment. And when the choices are about values, we generally pick the easiest and cheapest way, the one that requires thinking the least. Inertia is our value above all others. Inertia was the one option the Cubans didn’t have; they needed that meal a day back, and given that Castro was unwilling to let loose the reins, they had a limited number of choices about how to get it.

“In some ways the special period was a gift to us”, said Funes, the forage expert, the guy who lost twenty pounds, the guy who went from thinking about White Udder to thinking about oxen teams. “It made it easier because we had no choice. Or we did, but the choice was will we cry or will we work. There was a strong desire to lie down and cry, but we decided to do things instead.”

Bill McKibben, a scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College, is the author of many books, including The End of Nature (Random House, 1989) and Wandering Home: A Long Walk Across America’s Most Hopeful Landscape, Vermont’s Champlain Valley and New York’s Adirondacks (Crown, 2005). His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “Small World”, appeared in the December 2003 issue.