Dry, yet storm-battered Cuba tries to feed itself amid climate extremes

SANTO DOMINGO, Cuba -- A battered Soviet-era Moskvitch car made its way down a dirt road in the National Research Institute on Tropical Roots and Tubers' (INIVIT) 200-acre compound. The sun shone brightly through the windshield, and, though the windows were completely rolled down, the air inside the car grew stuffy and hot. It's not what you'd expect in western Cuba in April.

"It's been an atypical month, an atypical trimester," said Sergio Rodríguez Morales, director of the INIVIT. "This past dry season has been more intense in this region. And the cold, it hasn't been cold this year, either."

According to official numbers, the average rainfall for the month of March at the institute is 63 millimeters, but this year saw 4.8 millimeters. Additionally, there was an increase in average maximum temperature of 1.5 degrees Celsius compared with the long-term March average.

But despite the abnormal weather, the crops at the INIVIT seemed to be thriving. Left to right, the fields were covered by a 3-foot-tall green blanket of yucca, sweet potato, yautia and plantain plants. "It's a beauty, isn't it?" Rodríguez said.

The INIVIT was founded in September 1967 in the municipality of Santo Domingo, in Villa Clara Province, almost 155 miles east of Havana. As a research facility of the Ministry of Agriculture, it provides scientific and technical knowledge to promote sustainability and competitiveness in Cuba's agricultural production chains.

In the last couple of years, the institute has been spearheading a genetic enhancement program designed to develop crop varieties that are more resistant to extreme weather conditions, such as intense drought and storms, as well as diseases and pests. These efforts are part of a nationwide "macroproject" to tackle climate change, which requires every ministry -- and its agencies -- to design and implement adaptation plans of their own.

"Here we have 620 varieties of yucca," said Rodríguez, highlighting the third largest gene bank in the Americas, after the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Colombia and the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corp. "There are varieties resistant to drought, varieties resistant to diseases and pests."

The INIVIT also has the largest plantain gene bank in the Americas with 345 varieties.


"Today almost 80 percent of the varieties used in the country are varieties obtained or recommended by the INIVIT," Rodríguez explained. "And we're beginning to see results."

Flooding, drought and 'missing potatoes'

According to Rodríguez, anyone working in agriculture knows that producing food is a challenge. Over the last 60 years, the agricultural sector globally has experienced major shifts that have made the job particularly difficult.

While world population has almost tripled from 2.6 billion people in 1950 to approximately 7.1 billion in 2013, based on U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the number of people farming the land has declined. "In the '50s, there used to be four people in the country to every one person in the city, but now you have one in the country and four in the city," Rodríguez explained. With more mouths to feed each day, and additional demand from the production of biofuels, "this exodus is a global problem," he added.

Because of the susceptibility of crops to climate variations, there is also less money going into agriculture. "It's very risky," Rodríguez said, so fewer people are willing to invest in the sector.

And then there's climate change. Since the second half of last century, the country has experienced a change in the amount and distribution of rainfall with flooding on one hand and intense drought on the other. At the same time, the average maximum temperature in Cuba has increased 0.9 degrees C, while the average minimum temperature rose by 1.9 degrees C.

Recently, there was a study published by the Cuban press exploring the mystery of "the missing potatoes." Since 2000, potato production in Cuba apparently has dropped considerably, because of a shortage of seeds, low yields, smaller growing areas related to climate shifts and other factors.

According to the researchers, the impacts of climate change, particularly the rise in temperatures during sow winter season, are gradually affecting crop yields. The same can be said about other crops, such as vegetables and tobacco, which become more vulnerable to pests.

"It is well-known that a 1-degree increase in maximum average temperature leads to a 10 percent drop in yields," Rodríguez explained.

In the last decade, Cuba has lost more than $20 billion due to the impact of "adverse natural events." According to local studies, some regions in the country could expect an increase in temperatures of up to 6 degrees by the end of the century.

"Whatever varieties we are able to create, we need to take into account all these factors," he said. "We'll have to produce more food for men, we'll have to produce more cereals for biofuels, and all under an umbrella of a different and more aggressive climate."

'If there is no food, there can be social upheavals'

Although more than 58 percent of Cuban lands were used for agriculture in 2012, Cuba currently imports nearly 80 percent of its food. At the same time, the proportion of cultivated lands has diminished from 65 percent in 1989 to almost 46 percent in 2012.

In 2009, President Raúl Castro declared food production a "matter of national security," highlighting the need to reduce the country's dependence on food imports.

"I dare say this phrase does not only apply to Cuba, it applies to many countries in the world," Rodríguez said. "A man can live with the same change of clothes, can live with one pair of shoes, but he can't live without food. And if there is no food, there can be social upheavals."

According to Rodríguez, people don't understand the implications of climate change on food availability. For example, in the aftermath of a hurricane, Cubans are usually sympathetic to producers, he said. But a couple of months later, they start asking for food that's just not there.

With that in mind, researchers are looking to crop diversification.

At the INIVIT, the genetic enhancement program is developing short plant varieties to dampen the effects of hurricanes, as well as varieties that are more tolerant to drought. It is also reaching out to farmers to share their technology and obtain practical feedback on the best techniques for the different weather and soil conditions throughout the country.

"The problem needs to be solved by applying science and technique," Rodríguez said. "The world that eats today eats thanks to technology and organization. Because if we think about it, every day there are fewer people to farm the land, and you have to find technologies and varieties for these people to yield more."

The key, Rodríguez said, is having high-quality, high-yielding seeds.

Catalog of climate-resilient crops

Cuba has 11 biofactories throughout the country with the capacity to produce up to 30 million vitroplants to be delivered to producers in every region.

"The true producer is always after the good seed and high-yielding varieties," Rodríguez said. And that's exactly what scientists do at the factories: produce seeds of "the best varieties" through biotechnology.

As part of its mitigation efforts, the INIVIT recently published a catalog of crop varieties that proved to be more resilient to climate change. The idea, according to Rodríguez, is to show producers the strengths and potential of different crops and get them more involved in the design of production adaptation strategies.

"The impact of climate change is not a problem to be solved by research institutions alone," Rodríguez said. "The impact of climate change can only be solved or mitigated with the collaboration of producers, because the producer is the one who spends all his days in the field."

The INIVIT has a group called the National Group of Tubers that conducts periodical visits to every province to follow up on crop progress and resiliency.

"We've already seen some cases with low-lying plants in places were hurricanes have hit that still managed to produce a certain level of plantains, or varieties that have resisted better the saturation of the soil after episodes of heavy rain," Rodríguez said as he stepped out of the car. "It's a reality, we're already seeing these things."

On the side of a road in the compound, Rodriguez reached toward a stocky plant.

"This is a new variety of yucca, No. 93-4. It's low-lying and has a symmetrical root system," he said. "This is the clone, the variety we're developing throughout the country now."

93-4 is a highly productive, short yucca variety with small leaves and a thin stem. This, combined with its circular root system, offers the plant a better grip -- to resist hurricane winds without being uprooted -- and helps it endure periods of drought by transpiring less water.

"This means the producer can develop it to mitigate the effects of climate change and, because it's high-yielding, they can produce more food," he added. Also, high-quality, high-yield seeds tend to require considerably less fertilizers and pesticides than regular varieties, reducing total production costs.

It takes a lot of work, but according to Rodríguez, it shows that there's still hope for the agricultural sector, if efforts start now.

"With emissions continuing to climb, we must prepare for tougher scenarios," Rodríguez said. "But I think it can be done, and we are in the position to do it."

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