U.S. companies make case for keeping Cuba organic
Coffee and bananas, which both grow well in the island’s tropical climate, are the top two organic imports by value in the United States. | Getty
Cuban farms could one day help to feed Americans’ burgeoning appetite for organic food.
Amid the fanfare over President Barack Obama’s visit to Havana, U.S. officials and executives from major food companies, including Honest Tea, Stonyfield Farm and Global Organics, are eyeing the island as a potential supply of organic products, looking to take advantage of its close proximity and decades of farming without chemicals.
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Representatives from those companies are among those heading to the island in May as part of a trip led by Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Maine Democrat who has her own organic farm. Celebrity chef Tom Colicchio is also part of the group.
“Cubans have this incredible opportunity,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who has been promoting the idea, adding that “there is no doubt that if they grow it, there would be a market for” those organic products in the United States.
It could be a beneficial relationship for both sides. U.S. food producers are already relying on imports from South America, Europe and Asia to keep up with Americans’ demand for organic produce, dairy, meat and packaged foods. Meanwhile, Cuban farmers have had to work their land without chemical fertilizers and pesticides since the early 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed. If Congress lifted the Cuban embargo, they would have easy access to a market willing to pay top prices for their goods.
To be sure, there is a long way to go before organic Cuban oranges start appearing in Whole Foods. At the top of the list is persuading a GOP-led Congress to end the Cuban embargo — something many believe will wait until Cuban President Raul Castro steps down.
Cuba also has an aging road and port system that would need updating to move products from the country’s fields to the United States. And products would have to meet U.S. food safety and pest standards and farms would need to be certified under the U.S. organic program.
Vilsack said promoting organic foods isn’t something the Cuban government has thought about, but it’s a natural fit as the country looks for potential U.S. export markets. There is already a USDA-approved private certifier operating on the island, according to USDA’s records.
Cuba has the ability to grow many of the products that are in high demand in the United States. Coffee and bananas, which both grow well in the island’s tropical climate, are the top two organic imports by value in the United States, and mangoes are not far behind, according to the USDA. Combined the three products represented more than $600 million worth of imports to the U.S. in 2013.
Then there is the possibility of having Cuban farmers grow organic versions of other high-demand crops, especially corn and soybeans needed for animal feed.
The island has a lot of promise for the U.S. organic industry, said Dave Alexander, president of Global Organics, an ingredient supplier who will be on the trip.
“The varying climates there and the different types of products they can do are very interesting,” Alexander added. “And it’s literally right off the end of Key West. You can’t imagine anything closer.”
American demand for organic food supplies, meanwhile, is expected to keep growing: Sales of organic products in the United States topped $39 billion in 2014, up 11 percent from the year before, accounting for about 5 percent of food sales, according to the most recent numbers from the Organic Trade Association. However, organic farms account for less than 1 percent of domestic acreage, and U.S. growers have been hesitant to spend the three years without using chemicals needed to get certified — and without getting the premium from the organic label.
As a result, food manufacturers and retailers have turned to imports. In 2013, $1.4 billion worth of organic products were brought into the country.
Big agriculture groups have been largely silent about the prospect of developing Cuba’s organic industry for export. U.S. corn, soy, wheat and other commodity groups are more focused on getting a share of the more than 70 percent of food imported by Cuba to feed its own population. Currently those products are coming mostly from South America and Europe.
If Cuban farmers can fill a gap in the U.S. organic market, they should take advantage of that opportunity, said Devry Boughner Vorwerk, chair of the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba.
That opportunity flows out of decades of deprivation. Many Cuban farmers haven’t had access to the chemical pesticides and fertilizers prohibited under the USDA’s green-and-white seal since the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991. Without the backing of the Soviets, Cuban couldn’t afford to buy even basic agricultural inputs, let alone the fuel to keep tractors running.
The United States hopes to learn from the Cubans’ experience with organic production.The USDA and Cuban agriculture ministry signed an agreement during Obama’s visit last week that included calls for sharing information and research on organic farming practices.
“I think there will be a certain kind of cachet with not only an organic product but an organic product grown in Cuba,” Pingree said.
Showing Cubans that potential now is important to try and preserve the island’s unique farming methods, said Kathleen Merrigan, director of George Washington University’s Sustainability Institute and a former USDA deputy secretary.
“When the embargo is eventually lifted … they are going to have a lot more access to inputs, they are going to have a lot more choices about what their agricultural system looks like,” said Merrigan, who is also going with Pingree. “We want to make sure that they understand that organic is a very strong option.”