Cuba’s Clean Rivers Benefit From Sustainable Agriculture
By Paul Bierman and Amanda H. Schmidt
For most of the past 60 years, the United States and Cuba have had very limited diplomatic ties. President Barack Obama started the process of normalizing U.S.-Cuba relations, but the Trump administration reversed this policy, sharply reducing interactions between the two countries.
Scientific cooperation is a bright spot in this difficult history. Since the 19th century, U.S. institutions like the Smithsonian and the National Academy of Sciences have worked with Cuban counterparts to understand topics such as vector-borne disease transmission. Although political friction has often made such partnerships challenging, many scientists on both sides believe their countries stand to gain by tackling health and environmental challenges together.
We are geoscientists who study how landscapes change through processes such as erosion. For the past two and a half years, we and our team of U.S. scientists have been working with Cuban geoscientists to understand the environmental and water quality effects of progressive agricultural policies in Cuba.
In a recently published study, we show that Cuban rivers are cleaner than the mighty Mississippi. Why? Because Cuban farmers practice organic farming and conservation agriculture to reduce soil erosion and nutrient loss. In sum, Cuba is doing a better job than the U.S. at keeping farming from hurting its rivers, and its results offer useful lessons.
A Test Case in Sustainable Farming
Cuban rivers run from the mountains to the ocean through cow-filled pastures, fields of sugar cane and rice paddies, forests, wetlands and mangroves. Along the way, groundwater seeps into river channels from below. When heavy thunderstorms strike, water pours off the land.
These flows carry soil and dissolved material into streams, which deliver this load to the coast. Cuba's coastlines have abundant mangrove thickets, underwater seagrass beds and some of the Caribbean's best-preserved coral reefs.
We became interested in teaming with Cuban scientists because of their nation's country-wide experiment in organic agriculture dating back to the late 1980s. When the Soviet Union, Cuba's former trading partner, broke apart, Cuban farmers lost access to fertilizers, pesticides and heavy equipment, and had to adopt a more ecologically based aproach. Could their experience provide a blueprint for more sustainable approaches to feeding the world?
We used the ResearchGate network to find Cuban collaborators. Supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation and the Centro de Estudios Ambientales de Cienfuegos, the research we are doing in Cuba builds on measurements we have done all over the world.
Less Fertilizer Runoff in Cuba
For this study we analyzed water samples from each of 25 rivers in central Cuba, looking for elements from across the periodic table and for bacteria. Our first results show that Cuba's sustainable agricultural practices minimize the impact of agriculture on river water quality by reducing the amount of nitrogen fertilizer that washes off from fields into local waters.
Cuban farmers use about half as much fertilizer for each acre of farmland than their U.S. counterparts (3 versus 6 tons per square kilometer per year in 2016). As a result, rivers in central Cuba contain much lower concentrations of dissolved nitrogen than the Mississippi River, which drains more than 1 million square miles of America's agricultural heartland. On average, the Cuban rivers we analyzed contained 0.76 milligrams of nitrogen per liter of water, compared to 1.3 milligrams per liter in the Mississippi River from 2012-2019.
American crop yields per acre are higher than Cuba's, thanks partly to fertilizer use, but the trade-off is stark. Nutrients that pour off U.S. farm fields and flow down the Mississippi River create the Gulf of Mexico dead zone, a patch of ocean where oxygen levels are so low that almost no marine life survives. The dead zone forms every summer, fed by spring rainfall, and has covered an average of 6,000 square miles in recent years.
Cuba's rivers do contain other pollutants. We found high levels of bacteria and sediment in most of the rivers we sampled. DNA analysis suggests that at least some of these bacteria were from the guts of cows. We saw many cows during our field work in central Cuba, and those animals had free access to local streams. Simple solutions, like fencing river banks, could greatly lower bacteria levels in surface waters.
We also found naturally high levels of calcium, sodium and magnesium in Cuban river water. These materials come from rocks that are naturally dissolved by rainwater. None of them are hazardous to humans, although they might leave scale in tea kettles and alter the water's taste.
Enabling More Scientific Cooperation
Although we've done field work on Greenland's ice sheet and in rice paddies of southwest China, this work in Cuba has been a uniquely valuable experience for us, both professionally and personally. We found Cuban culture to be warm and welcoming, even to Americans whose leaders for the most part have shunned the Cuban people for decades.
Sharing and teamwork are key parts of Cuban culture. When we brought out American snacks during our first visit to Cuba, our collaborators insisted these gifts must be shared with the entire lab staff. In the tropical January sunshine, scientists, technicians, secretaries and directors gathered outside to eat Vermont maple candies and blueberry jam.
We view this project as science diplomacy in action. But our Cuban partners cannot visit us until the United States agrees to grant visas to Cuban scientists. The Trump administration is going in the opposite direction: It has suspended commercial and public charter flights to Cuba from the U.S. and imposed sanctions that are designed to deny Cuba access to hard currency.
As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps around the world, scientific cooperation is more important than ever. To us, it doesn't make sense to increase sanctions against a country that has more doctors per capita than any country on Earth and has responded more successfully than many nations to COVID-19. We believe that science in the U.S. would gain from reopening communication with Cuba and sharing knowledge that could help heal the global community.
Paul Bierman is a Professor of Geology and Natural Resources and Fellow of the Gund Institute for Environment, University of Vermont.
Amanda H. Schmidt is an Associate Professor of Geology, Oberlin College and Conservatory.
Disclosure statement: Paul Bierman receives funding from the US National Science Foundation. Amanda H. Schmidt receives funding from the National Science Foundation.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
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By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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