Crop Systems: Commodities


Before the Cuban Revolution in 1959, there were nearly as many cattle in Cuba as there were people, mostly on large ranches in the eastern provinces. However, during the COMECON era, much of this grazing land was converted to sugarcane production for export to the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. In return more meat, milk and animal products were imported from these countries. During the Special Period, another heavy blow was dealt to the livestock industry due to a reduction in feed stocks after agricultural production plummeted. Furthermore, large numbers of livestock were illegally slaughtered to supplement people's nutritional needs. It is reported that even zoo animals began disappearing from the Havana Zoo. As a result of these developments, today Cuba's livestock population is 30% less than it was in 1959, despite an abundance of uncultivated land in the country.

Photo by Emily Sylvia

In response to the disappearance of cattle in the 1990s, today the cattle industry is one of Cuba’s most heavily regulated sectors. All cattle and their related products, including milk, are property of the State. It is illegal for an individual to kill a cow without State approval, and if caught, this crime carries a prison sentence of 4 to 8 years. (To put this into perspective, a homicide conviction in Cuba carries a prison sentence of 7 to 15 years, making it theoretically possible that somebody can receive a longer sentence for killing a cow than for killing another person).

The restrictions on livestock production have important implications for the availability of animal products in domestic markets. Dairy products are entirely State regulated, and private farmers are not permitted to sell their milk in private markets. In an interview, one cattle farmer stated that he milks all of his cows by hand, obtaining 6-8L of milk per cow per day, but that all of this milk is picked up by the State procurement agency to be used in State-owned food processing on a daily basis. Unsurprisingly, milk and dairy products are incredibly difficult to locate in smaller private markets. Rather, all processed dairy products are sold in large state-owned markets or grocery stores. Most dairy products are imported from other countries, especially Malaysia and Vietnam. Beef is unavailable to most of the Cuban public, though often served in high-priced restaurants that cater to tourists. Pork is the most abundant meat available to the public, since the restrictions placed on cattle do not apply to pigs. Private farmers and cooperatives are able to raise their own hogs with less government intervention and are able to sell their surpluses in private markets.

The technology used in livestock production has waned since the Special Period. While there have been some efforts to improve the genetic composition of cattle in some large ranches, most of the cattle in Cuba are locally-bred criollo (homegrown) varieties. The interviewed cattle farmer said that there used to be more milking equipment in Cuba, but that the stock of this equipment was never restored after the machines broke down, leaving farmers to gradually abandon mechanized milking. Cattle are identified by simple ear tags, instead of the radio frequency ID tags that are becoming more commonplace in the developed world.


Fishing in Cuba is a highly regulated activity. The industry is divided between State-owned commercial fishing fleets and processing enterprises as well as private fishermen, who sell mostly in private markets. Private fishermen in La Boca, a coastal village close to the town of Trinidad, catch mostly low-value fish near the coast, with mackerel being their most common catch. They sell their catches locally, directly to clients such as restaurants, local families, and traders. They can also sell directly to the State, but due to the low prices offered by the State procurement agency, they prefer not to, unless they are unable to sell their catch privately. In La Boca, they are able to sell their fish for the relatively high price of 30 CUP per pound -- just over 1 CUC or US$1 -- due to their close proximity to Trinidad, where a lot of restaurants serve seafood to tourists who pass through. In non-tourist areas such as Tunas de Zana to the west, fishermen are only able to obtain prices of 15 CUP per pound. In contrast, prices in Havana tend to be much higher and closer to 60 CUP per pound, though the fish is of a higher quality on the southern side of the island. Private markets are very localized, with little coordination between regions. Their most productive months are from May to June. During high seasons, private fishermen may opt to sell their surplus catch to the State to ensure stable earnings throughout the year. For private fishermen, it is illegal to harvest shrimp or lobster, and they face a penalty of 200 CUP as well as a prison sentence if they are caught harvesting them. Nevertheless, a black market for lobster and shrimp exist, where fishermen receive a much higher price of 3 CUC (US$3 or 75 CUP).

The State-owned commercial fishing fleet focuses primarily on high-value tropical seafood destined for export markets. Fishermen who work for these fleets are government employees and, therefore, receive a stable government salary. State-employed fishermen can receive a bonus if they exceed their quotas, but very little incentive exists to bring in large catches. As mentioned before, the State has a monopoly on shrimp and lobster harvesting. In addition, it operates two shrimp farms, one in Granma Province and another in Cienfuegos. The shrimp farm in Cienfuegos is shown below, and it consists of a series of artificial lagoons along the coastline built into the sea, as well as a processing facility.

Photo by Gary Verburg


Since colonial times, sugar has been a mainstay of Cuban agricultural production, and one of the country's principal exports. While one of the goals of the Cuban Revolution was to overcome the country's dependency on sugar exports and to diversify production, trade relations with the Soviet Union that began in the 1960s led the country to adopt a capital-intensive model of sugarcane production. This model was heavily reliant on imported machinery and chemical fertilizers and pesticides, obtained through generous subsidies. Cuba became the world's largest sugar exporter by the late 1980s, spurred by prices from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe that were far above world prices. However, by the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, productivity was faltering due to high levels of soil erosion and infertility, and the industry was not able to sustain itself without Soviet subsidies.

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Graph taken from a USDA report on the agricultural situation in Cuba

Currently, the sugar sector is suffering from years of underinvestment and mismanagement. The machinery used in the industry is dilapidated, and agricultural mechanics struggle to keep the tractors, harvesters, and other equipment in a workable state. Due to a lack of availability of fertilizer, much of the sugarcane grown in the countryside is in poor condition, with plants that do not exceed 2.5m in height, and leaves that are yellowing at the tips, indicating a lack of nitrogen availability -- a critical component for healthy crop growth. In the short and medium run, there is little prospect for a complete recovery of the sugar industry. Currently, sugar prices are at record lows due to the commodity glut worldwide. Any increase in production would require major capital investment, and current policies in the Cuban industry, combined with low world prices, provide little incentive for the type of investment that is needed.

Until a few years ago, there was talk of major investment by the Brazilian company Odebrecht to invest in Cuba's capital-starved sugar sector in order to start producing biofuel, despite the Castro brothers' opposition to the idea of food products being converted for fuel. However, since Brazil is now undergoing a major contraction in GDP, combined with high rates of inflation and political turmoil, there is little sign of economic activity in the sector where investment had been promised. One proposed investment was to be in a Free Economic Zone in the Port of Mariel to the west of Havana, but as the areal photo of the port area below shows, there has so far been little activity in constructing the facilities. Despite some excavations having taken place, the area is still largely underdeveloped.

Photo by: Gary Verburg


When characterizing the Cuban agriculture sector, many people jump immediately to tobacco as the most productive and universal crop across the island. Though this is true to some extent, there are many intricacies of the Cuban agriculture system that can be best illustrated through the case of tobacco. Because of the ideal growing conditions in Cuba's Pinar del Rio province, as well as the world-famous cigar brands for which Cuba is known, tobacco has become a highly prioritized commodity by the Cuban government.

The cultivation of tobacco is supposedly 100% privatized. However, about 90% of private production is sold back to the State for cigar fabrication, and 10% is saved for private sale. Private farmers sell whole tobacco leaves to the State for about 330-340 CUP per pound, and in exchange receive longer land titles and subsidized inputs. Because of the importance of tobacco to the Cuban economy and image, farmers are locked into their commitment to grow tobacco; one farmer explained that if he were to skip a season and plant some other crop, he would be kicked off his land. Again, the question of privatization in Cuba is brought to light. Because of the lack of freedom and agility in decision-making, farmers are not entirely private producers. Though, in name, they are particulares, in practice, they are reliant and subservient to the State.


Photos by: Emily Sylvia


Horticulture has become a major component of Cuba's agricultural system due to the innovation of organopónicos, which are organic, garden-like farms that have sprung up in or around urban areas, employing raised cultivation beds containing a mixture of soil and organic material to grow small foodstuffs. They are a relatively new invention of the Ministry of Agriculture. The concept of organopónicos emerged in the late 1980s, when the government became aware of the need to switch to alternative forms of production that would mitigate environmental impact and reduce Cuba's dependence on subsidized inputs. Interestingly, the first organopónicos were established in military bases, since the military became aware of the consequences to Cuba's food security of a possible blockade by the US Navy.

During the Special Period, the Cuban government responded to the food crisis by sponsoring the development of small urban farms that could meet local demand for fresh fruits and vegetables in the larger townships across the island. Plots of empty land were converted, and continue to be converted, to the production of fresh fruits and vegetables. Each organopónico can be owned by a different company, restaurant, community, or individual, but serve a similar purpose—to improve the daily access of Cubans to fresh food. These experiments in organic urban agriculture now produce about 75% of all organic crops produced in Cuba, according to specialists from the Vivero Alamar Farm. These gardens focus on producing organic herbs, vegetables (lettuce, eggplant, peppers, tomato, moringa, etc.), and fruits (bananas, plantains, pineapples, etc.)

Like rural farms, these organic urban gardens depend on the State for support, buying seed and other inputs from State-sponsored companies. However, to meet the demand for fertilizer, organopónico owners and operators depend on organic fertilizers, like compost, animal manure, and vermiculture (in more advanced operations). Some of the techniques employed in more innovative gardens, such as Alamar, are very impressive from an ecological standpoint. At Alamar, one of the types of fertilizers produced is fermented with mycorrhiza fungus, which helps plants absorb nutrients. To control pests, they rely on an integrated pest management strategy, intercropping insect-repellant plants to protect vulnerable adjacent plants.

Photos by: Emily Sylvia

True to the Cuban model, these organopónicos are often operated by community members who offer their time and labor in exchange for a stake in the production process and, therefore, a portion of yield. These members are often older, retired farmers who have a higher likelihood of falling into household and individual food insecurity, since their State pensions often do not allow them to fulfill basic needs. These gardens meet their need for societal contribution as well as function as a somewhat stable source of fresh food. Though a success story in the development of sustainable urban agriculture in Cuba, these organopónicos do very little to meet the need of food insecure households because of their inability to growing staple crops, such as rice, beans, and corn, which are critical components of the Cuban diet. As explained by renowned soil scientist Pedro Sanchez, it is extremely difficult, even for a country with rich soils such as Cuba, to grow cereal crops on a large scale using only organic fertilizers.

Written by: Emily Sylvia and Gary Verburg