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Seeds Are Key to Improving Bean Production in Cuba

Seeds Are Key to Improving Bean Production in Cuba
By Ivet González

HAVANA, Jan 31 2017 (IPS) – “You have to have good and varied seeds to
test which one adapts best to each kind of soil,” says 71-year-old
farmer Rubén Torres, who on his farm in central Cuba harvests 1.6 tons
of organic beans every year, among other crops.

The importance that Torres places on seeds in order for the agricultural
sector to meet local demand for beans, a staple of the Cuban diet,
coincides with the assessment by researchers consulted by IPS, who
propose promoting genetic improvement and the production of other kinds
of legumes.

After two decades of selecting seeds, Torres produces and sells four
varieties of black beans, four kinds of red beans and one kind of white
bean. “And I have eight varieties for family consumption and for
scientific research,” he told IPS.

Located in a livestock farming area on the outskirts of the city of
Santa Clara, 268 km east of Havana, Torres’ plot of land is unusual in
the area because he devotes most of his 17 hectares to growing beans and
rice, which form the basis of the diet of the 11.2 million people in
this Caribbean island nation.

Baños de Marrero, as his family farm is called, also has avocado and
coconut trees and crops of maize and tomatoes. Other portions are
covered with seedbeds and garden beds badly in need of repair where
Torres produces 20 tons of ecological fertiliser from worm castings.

“When farmers go to plant they often don’t have seeds. That’s why I
always give some of mine to those who need them. Without quality seeds,
you can’t succeed,” said Torres, a participant in the Programme for
Local Agrarian Innovation (PIAL), which since 2000 has helped empower
farmers in 45 of the country’s 168 municipalities.

“There is a public company that sells seeds,” but in his opinion, “to
get really good ones farmers have to guarantee them themselves.”

With the support of the Swiss development cooperation agency and the
coordination of the state National Institute of Agricultural Science,
PIAL started to teach family farmers in western Cuba how to obtain and
select their own seeds. It has expanded and now is promoting
participation by women and young people in farming.

“Without quality seeds, you really can’t make progress in terms of
productivity,” agronomist Tomás Shagarodsky told IPS about a key aspect
in raising yields in bean crops in Cuba, where there is potential for
growing many more beans.

As part of the government’s agricultural reforms implemented since 2008,
incentives were put in place for the production of beans, with the aim
of boosting the surface area devoted to this crop in the different kinds
of agricultural production units: state-run farms, cooperatives, and
small private farms.

Between 2009 and 2014, the country grew on average 126,650 hectares per
year of beans, obtaining an average of 118,830 tons. In 1996, 38,000
hectares yielded 9,000 tons of beans.

Now, the Agriculture Ministry’s Agro-Industrial Grains Group seeks to
increase bean production between 15 and 20 per cent a year, in order to
meet domestic demand and lower the high cost of beans in the farmers’
markets that operate according to the law of supply and demand.

“Cuba currently has extensive bean crops, but it hasn’t reached its full
yield potential,“ said Shagarodsky.

To achieve better harvests, he said the sector must solve “structural
problems” such as shortages of resources, labour power and equipment,
and more complex issues related to climate change and water scarcity.

In that sense, Shagarodsky, an agronomist and researcher at the state
“Alejandro de Humboldt” Tropical Agriculture Research Institute
(INIFAT), pointed out a vulnerability that is rarely discussed.

“We need young professionals devoted to improving seeds,” he said at
INIFAT headquarters, located in the poor outskirts of Santiago de las
Vegas, 18 km south of Havana.

“The stock of improved seeds has shrunk because the breeders who used to
do this job have retired, have died or have left,“ said Shagarodsky,
surrounded by the unpainted walls and deteriorated ceilings of the
INIFAT central offices. “That has to change and more attractive salaries
have to be paid,“ he said.

In live collections and cold chambers, INIFAT preserves the largest
quantity of genetic resources in Cuba. In its germplasm bank it keeps
3,250 of the 18,433 samples safeguarded in the entire national network
of institutions that share this mission. Legumes constitute 46 per cent
of the resources preserved by INIFAT.

The institution safeguards 1,465 varieties of pulses, including pigeon
peas (Cajanus cajan), peanuts, chickpeas, soybeans, lentils, peas and
green beans (Phaseolus vulgaris).

In recognition of the important work it carries out, INIFAT was chosen
in December to host the activities to end the International Year of
Pulses, as 2016 was declared by the United Nations Food and Agriculture
Organisation (FAO).

FAO representative in Cuba Theodor Friedrich pointed out at this event
that pulses contribute to food security in two senses: they have high
protein value and they naturally fertilise soil with nitrogen.

In addition, he said “growing pulses is the only way to add nitrogen to
the soil without resorting to fertilisers. And they have important
nutritional properties,” such as zero cholesterol and gluten, and high
content of iron, zinc and other nutrients.

For these and other reasons, FAO promotes the cultivation of pulses in
the western provinces of Pinar del Río and Artemisa, in a project aimed
at strengthening local capacities to sustainably produce biofortified
basic grains adapted to climate change, including several kinds of
pulses, by 2018.

“We eat all kind of pulses, from beans to chickpeas and lentils. They
are very important for children because they fall under the category of
vegetable proteins,” Misalis Cobo, who lives with her six-year-old son
in the Havana neighbourhood of Cerro, told IPS.

“We get beans from the ration card and the rest I buy in markets and
stores,” said the 37-year-old self-employed worker. “I can afford these
purchases although they are expensive because they stretch a long way
for us since it’s just my son and me. But large low-income families
they’re expensive,“ she said.

Each person in Cuba receives a small monthly quota of beans at
subsidised prices through the ration card. But to feed the family for an
entire month, more beans and other pulses are needed, and must be bought
at the state and private agricultural markets, and stores that sell
imported goods.

Prices range from 0.5 cents of a dollar up to 1.2 dollars for half a
kilogram of pulses, in a country where the average income is 23 dollars
a month in the public sector, Cuba’s biggest employer by far.

Source: Seeds Are Key to Improving Bean Production in Cuba | Inter Press
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