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What may save Cuba from hunger? GMOs

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Cuban officials have announced the island is turning to genetically modified organisms (GMO) to help feed its increasingly hungry population. Hunger is spreading in Cuba, something officials ascribe to higher levels of tourism. Tourists can afford to pay more for food, so they outbid the native population. The New York Times wrote that food insecurity is “upsetting the very promise of Fidel Castro’s Cuba” (though, in their defense, his reign owed much to their coverage).

But Cuba’s use of GMOs, which it hopes to begin planting this month, is threatening to start an intra-Left conundrum. Although the EU surveyed a decade of tests and found that “biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies,” many continue to deride so-called “Frankenfoods.” The president of Zambia in 2002 refused to give his starving people U.S. food aid that contained genetically modified maize, calling it “poison.”

Officials in Havana hope that GMO foods will boost Cuba’s corn production to 140 bushels per acre and the soybean yield above 40 bushels per acre. That sounds fairly uninspiring to farmers in the United States, where corn production averaged 175.3 bushels per acre last November, and soybeans yielded 52.5 bushels per acre. But Cuba produces just over 30 bushels an acre of corn, and its soy production has been described as “almost non-existent.” AFP notes:

The island invests nearly $2 billion annually in importing about 75% of what Cubans eat, since their produce is insufficient to feed 11.2 million people and nearly 4 million tourists.

The country’s socialist economy harms agriculture in numerous ways.

Price controls. The same New York Times story acknowledges, “Economists also argue that setting price ceilings can discourage farmers and sellers. If prices are set so low they cannot turn a profit, they argue, why bother working? Most will try to redirect their goods to the private or black market. … Most acknowledge that they distort the market in some ways.”

Poor economic productivity. The average Cuban makes or $25 a month, according to the National Office of Statistics. “The low pay of the average Cuban means there is not enough money circulating in the broader economy to boost production, traders and farmers said,” Reuters reports. When there is not enough domestic capital or incentive to go into farming, the government must attract foreign investment. But there’s also a problem with that.

An unstable investment environment. Before South American “populists” followed suit, Fidel Castro nationalized U.S. investments, seizing assets worth approximately $7.2 billion in 2017 dollars. No investor would risk his wealth without knowing that his investment is protected by the rule of law, so that he will not “give [his] honor to others” (Proverbs 5:9). The Cuban government “almost always insists on having a majority stake in partnerships with foreign companies,” Newsweek reports. “And the island doesn’t have a sterling reputation in the minds of investors — expropriating billions in assets from U.S. corporations doesn’t scream ‘open for business.’”

Government incompetence. Marxist ineptitude at genetic manipulation of agriculture has been on display since the days Josef Stalin promoted Trofim Lysenko. In the 1960s, Fidel Castro personally oversaw a breeding program for a new line of supercows – combining Cebu and Holstein cows. It was a predictable failure and closed down in 1968. Cuba’s existing cattle industry owes its success to artificial insemination by an American bull (named Gator). Similarly, one of its most successful ranches, El Alcázar, continues to operate as it did before the Cuban revolution. It thrives only because it survived the “agrarian reforms” due to the owner’s lifelong ties to the Castro brothers. (N.B.: In a socialist economy, people owe their success to the quality of their political influence.) After massive government interventions to increase milk production, a kilo of powdered milk today costs around $7.50, more than a quarter of average monthly wages and, as always, subject to availability.

These strands of economic policy that repulse investors and development – price controls, poor productivity, an unstable investment environment (a breakdown of the rule of law), and the incompetence of government-(micro)managed industries – can be shortened into one word: socialism.

The island experimented with transgenic crops in 1996 and again in 2011, but both times the research was abandoned. Now, Western GMOs may deliver the revolutionary progress and improved living standards that socialism never could.

(Photo credit: U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. CC BY 2.0.)

Rev. Ben Johnson Rev. Ben Johnson is Senior Editor at the Acton Institute.

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