How the Scots are helping to energise Cuban agriculture

Amid the warm seas and beneath the blue tropical skies of the Caribbean, a former agricultural powerhouse is slowly awakening.

Since I first visited Cuba four years ago, there have been prudent positive steps forward for this large US-embargoed island nation.

Cuba formerly produced more sugar than Brazil, provided more than one-third of the US’ sugar and latterly was a huge sugar producer for the former Soviet Union under conventional agriculture.

The high dependence on the monoculture of sugar cane has been an issue for both Cuban agriculture and its economy.

The former immense sugar industry shrunk to about 10% of its size due to the collapse of global sugar prices and the loss of a major market with the breakup of the Soviet bloc.

Keith Dawson
Keith Dawson
Technical director
Havana Energy

This was coupled with lack of capital for reinvestment and basic inputs to feed and protect the lush crops.

Things are now changing for the better, with the sugar industry starting to reverse its decline and foreign capital investment starting to trickle into the country for agricultural and other projects.

The Cuban government is now taking steps towards a freer market – noticeable in the four years that we have been working to develop our agro-energy project there through the Scottish-led Havana Energy.

We are helping secure sources of renewable energy on the island through biomass, biogas, hydro and solar energy projects.

The process was given a huge impetus last December with the announcement that the US and Cuba would renew diplomatic ties – just weeks after Putin had visited Cuba and written off US$23bn (£15.3bn) of Cuban debt.

Energy needs

Power generation is almost wholly dependent on imported, subsidised Venezuelan oil. This has implications for agriculture, as recent test drillings for oil by joint Cuban and Russian ventures have proved fruitless.

As such there is intense interest in producing unsubsidised energy from agriculture, through the use of agricultural waste or growing novel crops specifically for power.

One such approach that we are involved in developing is the use of the bagasse fibre waste from the sugar industry to power biomass plants for electricity.

Cuba facts

  • Population: 11m
  • Area: 109,000sq km (one-third cropping)
  • Main crops: Sugar cane, tobacco, citrus, rice, maize, potatoes and soya

With the collapse of the sugar industry, an aggressive, thorny, leguminous tree (marabu) imported from Africa has invaded more than 1.5m ha of former sugar cane land.

Our work has shown that once the marabu is cleared, it can provide 100t/ha of highly calorific biofuel and charcoal feedstock and land can rapidly return to cultivation.

This transformation from intransigent weed tree to valuable energy/industrial resource has astonished the Cubans.

Perfect climate

The tropical Cuban climate benefits from both its latitude and warm Caribbean currents and is perfect for crop production; in mid-winter the temperature hovers around 20C, giving conditions for 365-day growth.

The main crops are sugar cane – continually cropped for six to seven seasons – tobacco, citrus, rice, maize, potatoes and soya.

Double cropping – producing two crops a year – is an option. Interestingly, genetically modified crops are permitted, but only those developed by Cuban researchers themselves.

These include an energy cane capable of 6m of growth in one season and 200t/ha yield, which gives a clear idea of climate and crop potential.

Cuba was a former major exporter, but now imports about 60% of its food and the population carries ration cards, which provide them with a minimum allocation of staples such as rice and oil.

There are valuable technologies that can be adopted in Cuba which will be essential to feed its population and make it a major exporter again, to the large markets in the US and Central and South America.

A good example is that of the potato crop, where areas have dropped dramatically under state management.

There is now a black market, as potatoes are only available for two months of the year, with enough for just 20% of the population.

Potato trials

Our first potato trials from Scottish seed were planted in December and harvested in March. Average commercial yields are about 29t/ha, but we believe this can be doubled in due course.

There has been a shift from inefficient state-owned to co-operative and individual farmer operations in recent years, and the increase in urban farming has been remarkable.

This change has been supported by a good, but underresourced, state advisory and research effort.

In a world with ever more mouths to feed, Cuba has a clear role to play in helping to meet global food security needs.

The political and economic challenges are clear, but there is every sign that Cuban farming will flourish once more in the coming years.