Elizabeth Feldeverd, a student from Cornell University, provided research support for System of Rice Intensification (SRI) for the FAO office in Cuba.
When I accepted my internship with the Food and Agriculture Organization in Cuba at the end of March, I had inadvertently signed up for a lesson in patience as well. The plan was to begin working at the FAO’s office in Havana at the end of May. Unfortunately, there had been a delay getting my visa approved. What began as a minor inconvenience gradually became a question of feasibility. Shortly after “giving up” on my visa, I received a call that it had been approved. Within five days of that phone call, I landed in Havana on July 16th to begin my internship with the Food and Agriculture Organization in Cuba. Since my contract was significantly shorter, I was eager to make up for lost time and make the most of my five week internship before returning to school in the fall. At Cornell University, I study International Agriculture and Rural Development. The opportunity to learn firsthand how Cuba’s agrosystem supports- or fails to support- its citizens is invaluable to my education. Cuba’s agricultural situation truly is unique: the socialist Cuban government allows a mix of state, private, and cooperative farms to exist. Despite recent efforts to bolster national production, the FAO reports that 80% of all food is imported, often resulting in nationwide shortages when international markets fluctuate. Perhaps what separates Cuba from most other food insecure nations is its very low level of undernutrition: the Global Hunger Index gave the country a score of 4/100 in 2012. That being said, the systems that currently guarantee an adequate food supply are not economically sustainable, nor environmentally responsible. The development of under-utilized agricultural resources is critical to establishing lasting food security in Cuba.
Along with the other interns, my task is to analyze the current state of food security in Cuba, to identify barriers and challenges towards maintaining it, and to propose steps to ensure sustainable food security and establish food sovereignty. My portion of the project is to write a summary of the current status of food security in Latin American. Additionally, I am responsible for examining the utilization of food resources by five major vulnerable populations: young children, the elderly, handicapped persons, women, and specifically pregnant and nursing mothers. Cuba is applauded for its high quality social services, including healthcare and education, which are provided freely and equitably. While it is true that the government’s efforts to address hunger in vulnerable populations have paid off, there are gaps that still need to be addressed.
My main project, however, is the future of rice cultivation in Cuba. Like many places in the world, traditional Cuban diets prominently feature rice as its main cereal crop. More than any other Latin American nation, Cuba supplies 62.3 kg/capita/year of rice, according to the FAO’s Food Balance statistics. Furthermore, 60% of the island nation’s precious freshwater water resources are used for agriculture, and 50% of that is used exclusively for the production of rice. Needless to say, a new system is needed to reduce the country’s dependency upon unstable foreign markets and produce enough of its staple crop to ensure food security.System of Rice Intensification, also known as SRI or SICA in Spanish, is a set of agricultural principles that are applied to the production of rice to increase yields while reducing the exploitation of natural resources. There are four fundamental methods to employ under SRI that can be practiced by small farms with proper training. First, planting healthy rice seedlings early is crucial to avoid transplant shock. Farmers establish a grid of at least 25×25 cm for a single seedling. Traditional transplants are older and more densely populated, which creates unnecessary competition between plants on the same hill. Throughout the season, it is important to maintain good soil health, typically through the application of organic matter. Finally, and perhaps most unconventional, is the drastic reduction of irrigation. Under traditional methods, rice paddies are continuously flooded, creating an anaerobic environment that rice can tolerate. However, researchers have found that rice plants thrive better with intermittent irrigation only when necessary, such as every three to seven days.
Conservation Agriculture (CA), the other agricultural system I am assessing, focuses on maintaining healthy soil. It provides a set of three main principles to guide farmers for better soil management and higher yields. Permanent or semi-permanent soil coverage is maintained throughout the season, which can boost soil structure and ensure a more stable level of nutrients. Another way to revitalize the soil is through crop rotations, which is the alternation of crops cultivated on the same plot of land in a successive cycle. CA believes in reducing tillage as much as possible. If it is feasible, no-till methods are encouraged to prevent further soil erosion and water runoff.
Alone, both agricultural approaches are beneficial to the environment, the farmer’s net income, and the sustainability of the participating communities. Our task is to synthesize the two methodologies for even greater success. Only limited research has been done regarding the combination of SRI and CA, and proposing a system that will be practical and sustainable is no easy feat. One proposal we believe would gradually improve the degraded soils would be direct seeded rice in a reduced-tillage system. Instead of transplanting the seedlings through traditional methods, direct-seeding means sowing the seeds immediately. Doing so would avoid loss from transplant shock and also reduce labor costs for small farmers. Building on the pillars of Conservation Agriculture, we suggest that local farmers experiment with mulch cover in their rice fields to maintain permanent soil cover. In a similar way to complete submersion of water, a cover would create an environment without sunlight unsuitable for the growth of weeds, therefore reducing the labor that would otherwise be required to control weeds on uncovered fields.
Above are just two examples of how SICA and CA can work together; many possibilities are yet to be tested or even discovered. Because both methodologies have the same goal of environmental responsibility, it is not uncommon for farmers to unknowingly mix the two systems in an attempt to conserve natural resources and labor. In fact, the system has spread to other crops globally. SICA principles have already been applied to sugarcane cultivation in Cuba with comparable success. The next step, which I unfortunately will not be around to witness in person, is testing out which of these methods are feasible and affordable for the farmer to execute. If so, further research can be conducted and proper technical training should be distributed to rice growers.
Although my time in Havana has been brief, it has been enlightening to live under an unfamiliar political/economic system. Tasks as mundane as getting groceries are fundamentally different in Cuba versus the United States; rounding up ingredients involves stopping at numerous markets throughout the week. It is a regular reminder of the importance of organizations like the Food and Agriculture Organization. Statistics can only tell part of the story: engaging in the system firsthand inspires me to help find a solution to sustainable food security. My experiences, both at the office and exploring the streets of Havana, have reminded me to always keep an open mind for new ideas, and that good things come to those who wait.