Farm Progress

Transgenics could give the country the food security it needs.

Mike Wilson, Senior Executive Editor

January 31, 2017

4 Min Read
“For the average citizen in Cuba, there is a feeling that they are comfortable with what comes from science,” says Cuba’s Merardo Pujol Ferrer.

What does it mean when a country gives first priority to education, yet cannot feed itself?

That is the state of Cuba today — that is to say, it’s stuck in the past, thanks to socialist policies and the long-standing U.S. embargo. But those barriers haven’t stopped the Cuban government from embracing new technologies.

“Biotech in Cuba is very important in human health and also contributes to the good perception in general about science,” says Merardo Pujol Ferrer, business development director at Cuba’s Center for Genetic engineering and biotechnology. “We have veterinary vaccines derived from our own research. We have imported transgenic foods for years.

“For the average citizen in Cuba, there is a feeling that they are comfortable with what comes from science,” he says. “They are also aware that they are eating food derived from transgenics, and they’re not worried about it.”

Why does consumer confidence in technology flourish here? “It’s because of our regulatory system and because of national commercialization of food — transgenics go through the same system,” says Ferrer. “It’s also because of scientific education among Cubans.”

Remember also that there is no free enterprise in a socialist country. The government controls everything, including food and agriculture. So while education may flourish, food does not. Trying to understand why book education does not transfer to actual productivity? There is no profit motive in a socialist country. You might learn how or why a plant grows, but it doesn’t give you incentive to grow more of them.

No luxuries
Cuban consumers don’t have the luxury of choice as so many European and U.S. consumers have. The focus here is on nutrition and keeping people fed. Over 70% of Cuba’s food must be imported. Cuba built a biotech platform, because the government realized it’s critical to the country’s food security.

“We’ve been importing food for 40 years,” Ferrer says. “Cuba has a problem with food production — it’s a nightmare for the Cuban economy. We think that our agriculture could play an important role in substituting some of these imports. Eventually we think we can produce at least half of that imported food.”

There is no commercial transgenic activity in Cuba. Genetically modified seed technology, more suited to high-income row crop agriculture, doesn’t fit well with Cuba’s small-scale Caribbean farming. Cuba imports GMO-based soybeans for animal feed, and the country is now testing transgenic soybean seed with good results.

Three government bodies have set up the “legal framework” to allow biotechnology products in Cuba. “We have been given licenses for using transgenic lines in corn and soybeans from all three, but agriculture will decide if they want to use them,” he says.

Cuban agriculture includes traditional, small-scale farming with primitive tools and low inputs. But there are also bigger farm operations with larger resources and newer technologies where transgenics might be more appropriate.

“If you want very high yields, you cannot keep from using technology,” says Ferrer. “In the case of grains, large-scale production and high yields are greatest with transgenic corn or soybeans, anywhere. We’re not saying substitute one for the other — there’s room for both types of agriculture.”

Commercialization
Heber Biotec, a division of Cuba’s genetic engineering center, is focused on commercializing new products — in Cuba and worldwide. This company distributes products in other countries through agreements with local distributors. It has also been approached by many U.S. companies to do trials and work together, but the embargo prevents commercialization in the states.

There’s a lot of good things that could be coming from this research (see story above). Cuban hog farmers, for example, must deal with African swine fever. The country’s scientists created a vaccine and are able to distinguish between an infected and non-infected animal.

“We are finishing the last clinical phase for this vaccine and expect to market it next year,” says Ferrer. “In the case of veterinary vaccines, we are looking for investment partners for future growth.” The researchers also collaborate with a breeding institute for grains, rice, sugarcane and other crops. They also work with international groups like Brazil’s research arm, EMBRAPA.

Food for thought
What does Ferrer think about Americans who rail against GMO technology?

“Your agriculture is very efficient, and I’m sure transgenics is related to that,” he says. “When you have enough cheap food, you can think anything you want. But if you don’t have enough, then you don’t worry so much about the source of the food. Perhaps the population is not very well aware of why food is cheap and plentiful.”

About the Author(s)

Mike Wilson

Senior Executive Editor, Farm Progress

Mike Wilson is the senior executive editor for Farm Progress. He grew up on a grain and livestock farm in Ogle County, Ill., and earned a bachelor's degree in agricultural journalism from the University of Illinois. He was twice named Writer of the Year by the American Agricultural Editors’ Association and is a past president of the organization. He is also past president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists, a global association of communicators specializing in agriculture. He has covered agriculture in 35 countries.

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