Quality Seeds Needed For High-Yield Agriculture
Cuba: Quality Seeds Needed For High-Yield Agriculture
HAVANA, Sep 10, 2009, 2009 (IPS/GIN via COMTEX) — Cuba is facing the
challenge of boosting agricultural output under difficult climate
conditions and on soils badly deteriorated by erosion, salinity and
other problems. Scientists have a strategic role to play, provided they
get out into the fields where the action is.
"To do real science you have to be out there where the crops are
growing," said Sergio Ramirez, the son of a farmer who for the past 18
years has directed a research center that is vital to meeting the
challenge of securing Cuba's food supplies, however adverse the climate
conditions. In his view, the main thing is to be prepared for climate
change, look for solutions, and bring together the experience and
know-how of small farmers with the theoretical knowledge of researchers,
in order to be forearmed to face the coming difficulties.
"Cuba possesses a potential range of species and varieties that allow
cultivation of specific foods under particular climate conditions," said
Rodriguez, the head of the National Research Institute of Tropical Root
Vegetables (INIVIT) in the central province of Villa Clara. The expert
told IPS over the telephone that many tropical countries like Cuba must
plan food production around two completely opposite sets of probable
conditions: severe drought and hurricanes. Three hurricanes devastated
the island's crops in 2008.
It is no secret that 76 percent of the country's farmland is relatively
unproductive, with nearly 15 percent being affected by soil salinity and
another 14 percent with low organic matter content, due to soil
exhaustion and other reasons, Rodriguez said.
"The situation is improving with the use of farm animals to work the
land, and organic fertilizers and biological control methods instead of
chemical fertilizers and pesticides. I would say we are moving towards a
low-input, economically sustainable agriculture that is less harmful to
the environment," he said.
To mitigate adverse climate factors, in Rodriguez's opinion the key is
to diversify agriculture, in order to ensure there is sufficient food
after a hurricane or a lengthy drought. "Growing a wide variety of crops
will also help satisfy consumer demand," he added.
He mentioned the advantages of planting sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas)
and pumpkin or squash (Cucurbita moschata), for instance, two creeping
plants that are resistant to high winds. The same is true of taro
(Xanthosoma and Colocasia esculenta) because it is a low-growing plant
and has firm root anchorage, he said.
"During times of severe drought we can grow cassava (Manihot esculenta)
and plantains (Musa paradisiaca), which can survive long periods without
water. When crops are diversified, an answer can be found to
everything," said Rodriguez. Many species of roots and tubers are
particularly appreciated by Cubans as staple foods.
According to Rodriguez, INIVIT has these varieties available and is
constantly seeking others. "At present we are experiencing a period of
high temperatures in Cuba and we have to design varieties resistant to
these conditions," he said.
The research center maintains a germplasm bank containing 650 varieties
of sweet potato, 512 of cassava, 327 plantain and banana varieties, 120
of yam and 152 taro species. "These genetic resources are one of the
country's major strengths," he said.
According to Rodriguez, the germplasm bank is "a living museum,
containing the genes necessary to cross plant lines and construct new
varieties with the ability to resist or adapt to adverse conditions." To
preserve this genetic wealth is "to conserve biodiversity, which makes
it possible to select the most suitable characteristics for every
possible set of conditions," he said.
Science – from the ground up
The means of communicating crop science from the laboratory to the field
need to be improved, Rodriguez acknowledged. "Agricultural extension,"
the process by which new farming technology is introduced into a rural
community, is an unresolved problem. "We have made progress, but there
is still a lot to be done," he said.
INIVIT has created a "national root vegetables group" made up of
research scientists who visit every municipality in the country where
these crops are grown, once every three months, in order to present
scientific results and help with technology transfer, or the
distribution of varieties created by the producers themselves.
"There is a lot of science at ground level: we find many farmers who
develop their own cultivation techniques and are willing to share with
others what they have learned from experience. We disseminate those
achievements, giving credit to the farmers, of course," said Rodriguez.
The expert said training is also essential, because access to crop
varieties and resources is not enough.
"If we don't train farmers to make the most effective use of inputs and
plant the vegetable varieties at the right time and place, there won't
be a good response in terms of productivity," he said.
To this end, Rodriguez said it is necessary to continue to "study in
depth" the issue of agricultural extension to foster sustainable,
ecofriendly farming methods.
"This is not just a Cuban problem; there is generally an enormous gulf
between what is known in research centers and what reaches the farmer in
the fields," said Rodriguez. Another extremely important issue is to
have an adequate supply of high-quality seeds, without which no
agricultural system can operate efficiently, he added.
According to official statistics, national production guarantees the
seed supply for 94 percent of the farmed area on the island, while seeds
are imported for six percent of the farmland, mainly to grow vegetables
Rodriguez estimates that Cuba could potentially produce up to 40 million
plants a year, of different species, using in vitro (test tube)
propagation methods, an ambition that has been thwarted by lack of funds.
This technique is used in the laboratory to multiply seedlings faster,
so that they can be distributed to farmers.
The 11 molecular biology facilities in Cuba, where biotechnological
research, development and production are under way, are a national asset
whose potential is not being sufficiently exploited, according to the
62-year-old Rodriguez, who has a doctorate in agricultural sciences and
has worked in his field for over thirty years. "High-yield agriculture
cannot be achieved without high-quality seeds," he said.
Cuban scientists warn that climate change poses a threat to sustainable
development in the country, and point to the increased force of
hurricanes, more frequent droughts, more tornadoes and heavy rainstorms,
and changes in the patterns of crop growth and yields, among other
RBC Wealth Management (12 September 2009)