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Transgenic Crops in Cuba: The Next Ten-Million-Ton Sugar Cane Harvest?

After reaping the first crop of genetically modified Cuban corn, the government announces projects with soybeans, sugar cane and beans.

Image. Diario de Cuba

Since the end of last July, when the Cuban Government released its Decree-Law No. 4 of 2020, signed by the National Commission for the Use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in Agriculture, the controversy surrounding the official race to expand the use of such crops on the island has only intensified.

A month after the legislation was approved government television reported the first successful crop of transgenic corn created by the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB), with yields of five tons per hectare, an astronomical figure taking into account that the national average is barely half a ton per hectare.

According to Dr. Mario Pablo Estrada García, Director of Agricultural Research at the CIGB, the transgenic corn planting project, which experimented on 550 hectares, will be ramped up soon: 8,500 hectares could be sown in the spring of 2021, from which they expect to reap between 40,000 and 50,000 tons by August.

The first reason for this deployment is economic. "When you analyze what we import, only five products add up to more than 1.2 billion: corn, soybeans, rice, milk and meat, mainly chicken. And, if you add beans, this comes to almost 1.3  billion ... Wheat is not so expensive. It does not grow well in the tropics, you have to buy it, but the cost is not of that magnitude," the official told the government’s Cubadebate website.

"Cuba needs 900,000 tons of dry corn and 500,000 tons of soybeans (at least, as this is what the country has managed to buy in its best year) to produce feed so that there is pork, chicken, eggs and other foods. We're going to start fattening the chickens. Today everything is bought, but we have to produce it here, we have to become independent. The tilapia was affected, because it also consumes feed. Well, that corn and soybeans are used to make the necessary feed. Just between corn and soybeans, we are talking about more than 500 million dollars a year," he explained.

"If you look at the development plan of the Food Industry Ministry until 2030, the plans for the development of soy-based foods are impressive. In the world there are ice creams, milks, yogurt and other products that are as nutritious as those based on milk. There are sausages with a major component of soy protein. Many of the products we import contain soybeans. And many programs in the Cuban food industry are based on soybeans. But, are we going to support them by importing? It has to be produced here. Today there is no soy program in the country. It's going to be created," he stated.

Estrada García considers the debate over on the supposed risks to human health that the use of transgenic crops could pose, both as feed for animals slated for human consumption and their direct serving on Cuban tables.

"The soy that we bought two decades ago - and we buy it from countries like the United States, Brazil and Argentina, which are the largest soy producers in the world - is transgenic. The same is true of corn. All the transgenic grain that Cuba consumes has been internationally approved for both animal and human consumption. Here it is approved by the MINSAP's National Institute of Hygiene, Epidemiology and Microbiology when it is imported, and it is confirmed that it is internationally approved. We do not eat anything that has not been internationally approved and has less than 20 years of proven safety, including toxicology, ecotoxicology, nutrition, etc. studies," he said.

Likewise, the expert underlined another central element of the official Cuban strategy: the technological and food sovereignty entailed by the use of GMOs developed in local laboratories.

"Thanks to the development Cuba has achieved in the Biotechnology industry, we have scientific institutions capable of achieving these advances. Second, we do it on Cuban varieties; a variety of Cuban corn is genetically transformed. (...) Therefore, we have complete ownership of that seed. And there are no foreign patents here."

Armando Rodríguez Batista, Vice-Minister of Science, Technology and the Environment (CITMA), indicated that, despite plans to increase new crops, this is not "the only way, but one more alternative, and their relationship to the period that the country is going through is very important, as they promote food sovereignty based on science, technology and innovation, national production and the incorporation of the industry. "

The underlying problem that officials do not mention

The authorities avoid mentioning the underlying problem that has spurred the government into this headlong rush to solve the chronic shortage of food suffered by Cubans: the feeble productiveness of an agrarian model that prevents farmers from exercising essential freedoms for the proper development of efficient agriculture.

According to official figures, Cuban agriculture, both state and private, contributes only 3.7% to GDP, which explains why the island imports 80% of the food it consumes.

While the government made public its brand-new Decree-Law on transgenics, the League of Independent Peasants and the Cuban chapter of the Latin American Federation of Rural Women (FLAMUR) were promoting their "No Agriculture, No Country" initiative, with no response received to date.

Esteban Ajete Abascal, leader of the League of Independent Peasants, reminded DIARIO DE CUBA that "the Cuban peasant's biggest obstacle today is that his lands are ceded on a usufruct basis by the state, and when the state decides to plant something, it must be done, or they take away the title to the land. This is one of the five points that we are proposing: that they be given permanent titles so that the peasants can sow whatever they want. So, it depends on what the government wants to do."

According to the peasant leader, the campaign in favour of transgenics is part of a trend that in recent decades has transformed the exploitation of land in Latin America, having a special impact in countries such as Argentina and Brazil.

"All over the world, this is a variant that has been used to improve crop yields. In this case, I have my point of view on the health question, but it is not about my view, but rather that an alternative must be sought to alleviate the famine situation, irrespective of the demands we are making of the government through the campaign. The other aspect depends on the government taking us into account as independent farmers, with seeds of different varieties, etc."

Ajete Abascal is not the only one who has questioned the official strategy from the point of view of those actually in the fields.
Cuban agronomist Fernando Funes Monzote expressed, on his social media pages, that "there are many ways to achieve food sovereignty for Cuba, and none of them involve transgenics," while researcher Aleyda Marrero Terán warned: "The desire for scientific gloriy and to justify inefficiencies that have slowed and are hampering Cuban agricultural production can lead to errors that forever compromise our efforts to achieve the kind of prosperous and sustainable agriculture that we need."

"When the potential of the varieties the country, even with very limited supplies, has not yet been reached, I don't know why we are turning to a transgenic or a Vietnamese hybrid with a 'good technological package'. GMOs and hybrids would be welcome when efficiency has exploited current varieties' full potential."

"No Agriculture, No Country" ("Sin campo no hay país") is calling for the delivery of property titles to producers instead of limited usufruct arrangements; the freedom to produce, sell and even export and import, without state mediation; and a ten-year tax moratorium to weather the current crisis.

Economists Pedro Monreal, Julio Carranza, Humberto Pérez, Fidel Vascos and Joaquín Benavides agreed with these appeals. In the summer they sent an open letter entitled "A reform proposal and agricultural program for the short and medium term in Cuba", in which they stated that "either the centralized state monopoly on agriculture is abandoned immediately or we will face a horrible famine in the short term."

"The government has to understand that this is a systemic problem and that no stopgap measures are going to ward off the storm. With talent, but also with patriotism, a civic spirit and decency, we can prevent this tragedy," they said.

Among the main proposals in the document is to free peasants and local producers from mandatory commitments to state companies, and allow them to transport and sell their products without the need for a specific license.

The specialists also suggest shifting the role of the company Acopio to the "wholesale supplying of large volumes at a distance", mainly large urban centers, such as Havana; reducing the obligations of producers with the entity to 50%, and eliminating the "maximum prices" stipulated in payments to farmers.

Transgenics: A New Ten-Million-Ton Sugar Cane Harvest?

CITMA Vice-minister Armando Rodríguez Batista denied that transgenic technology is "the only way, but rather one more alternative, a complement to conventional agriculture," and stated that "there is going to be an explosion in the use of GMOs."
But Mario Pablo Estrada García has announced that the CIGB already has "a patent for a transgenic Cuban soybean seed", while working on another of the same crop "which is under study, not in production (...) Looking to the future, there has been interest by several countries in acquiring the Cuban seed."

He also stated that Cuban researchers are working on transgenic sugar cane, and that there are also plans to work on beans, which are vital in the Cuban diet.

In response to such announcements, and in view of the history of Castroism's messianic projects —including the infamous Ten-Million-Ton Sugar Harvest, the Havana Agricultural Belt, and the unfulfilled promise of a daily "glass of milk" for each child, made by Raúl Castro, latent in the nation's collective memory - the predictions made with regards to GMOs are triggering alarms.

Could this be the Cuban government's "Solomonic solution" to solve the lack of food on the table in Cuban homes?

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