How will normalizing US-Cuba relations affect agriculture, biotechnology in both countries?

| March 24, 2016
This article or excerpt is included in the GLP’s daily curated selection of ideologically diverse news, opinion and analysis of biotechnology innovation.

Much is expected to change in the near future for both Cuba and the United States as a result of President Obama’s initiative to ‘normalize’ relations with America’s communist neighbor.

Chief among them is an increased American presence on the island nation. Obama’s visit marked the first time a sitting president has visited Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. Since announcing his plan to improve relations with Cuba on December 17, 2014,  Obama has removed or weakened several restrictions including those on travel, banking and mail to the island country. The U.S. also opened an embassy in the country’s capital of Havana last July. While he does not have the power to lift the Cuban embargo, he has on several occasions urged Congress to do so.

While the two countries may still be miles apart on fundamental issues of economic and government structure, they appear to be ready to work together on issues of science. Cuba has been a champion of biotechnology for human medicine for decades, but has yet to cultivate any genetically engineered crops for food. In fact, many reports portray Cuba as an “organic only island.” However, this new relationship, highlighted by a historic agreement between the countries’ agriculture departments, will forever change the landscape of science on the island and may open the door for GMOs in Cuba.

Current biotech state in Cuba

'Protocol 149 house' where interferon was first made.
‘Protocol 149 house’ where interferon was first made.

Cuba’s long history with biotechnology began back in 1980 when then President Fidel Castro sent six top scientists to Europe to investigate and learn about a molecule called interferon, a natural component of human blood. Upon their return, a small house in Havana was turned into a lab for the scientists, who worked non-stop—with the dictator reportedly checking in on them daily—until the projects completion 42 days later. Today, the compound, and similar derivatives, are used to treat cancers like leukemia, melanoma and AIDS-related Kaposi’s sarcoma, as well as chronic hepatitis B and C.

In the 36 years since, Cuba has had a number of major biotech achievements. A 2013 report from the World Health Organization noted that from 1993 to 2013, Cuba invested about one billion US dollars into biotech research and development. That heavy investment has paid off, as the country holds 1,200 international patents and markets pharmaceutical products and vaccines in more than 50 countries. The export of these products has been a boon for the country financially. Dr José Luis Di Fabio, the head of the WHO Country Office in Cuba commended the country in a WHO report in 2013:

More than 90 new products are currently being investigated in more than 60 clinical trials. These numbers are expected to grow. The tremendous benefit from this focus on health biotechnology is that it is producing more affordable drugs to tackle diseases that run rampant in low- and middle-income countries.

Cuba also developed a vaccine for a rare strain of meningitis almost almost two decades before the U.S., developing one in 1989, according to the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. The U.S. did not have an approved meningitis vaccine until 2005 and didn’t have one that protected against group B until 2014. Better relations with Cuba could have gotten us this life-saving drug much sooner, a scenario that is playing out again with a lung cancer vaccine, CimaVax, which both treats and protects against the most common type of lung cancer. In 2015, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo went to Cuba on a trade mission and signed an agreement to bring the cancer drug back to the states. However, because of the embargo, it will take U.S. scientists years to cut through all of regulatory red tape to begin clinical trials — which would likely only confirm the safety and efficacy shown in Cuba’s clinical trials. Normalized relations would not only improve life for Cubans, but also in some cases for Americans, something Obama has pointed out frequently.

Agriculture lags behind medicine

But biotechnology in Cuba hasn’t caught on in all fields; in agriculture it has been stagnant for years. A 1999 report in Nature, which described the state of biotechnology in Cuba, explained that several GM crops were then in the country’s pipeline:

Plants including sugar cane, papaya, potato, coffee, cabbage and tomato are being genetically modified at the institute for increased resistance to pests and disease, and transgenic sweet potatoes with an improved amino-acid balance are being developed. Development of transgenic sugar cane with a lower lignin content and a higher sugar yield is under way, as sugar cane fibres are used widely for paper and animal feed, and a high lignin content reduces their suitability.

Field tests on some of these crops were reportedly being performed in 2008, but were apparently completed by 2011. But in July of 2015, Manuel Rodriguez, CEO of the Cuban Ministry of Agriculture, the company that produces seeds for Cuba, announced that Cuba has no further plans to work with transgenic seeds:

To date we haven’t even considered working with Monsanto. The policy of the country thus far is to not negotiate with anyone to produce transgenic seeds…A GM program was established at some point. It advanced a little and it was stopped.

Cuba’s current farming practices, by necessity and not ideology, have been principally organic since the 1990s. The impetus of this was the fall of the Soviet Union, which left the country without its main supplier of fuel, pesticides and fertilizers. Many activists have praised the country’s organic farming practices and have claimed Cuba is proof that organic farming can sustain an entire nation. However, this is actually not the case, and in reality more than 80 percent of Cuba’s food is imported from other countries, mostly from the United States–and a large percentage of it is genetically modified.

But what about the embargo? It is a misconception that the embargo has blocked all trade with Cuba. The U.S. has been allowed to export medical supplies and food to Cuba. A report from the United States Department of Agriculture notes that the U.S., a major GMO producer, has been Cuba’s largest food trading partner, having represented the largest share of the country’s agriculture imports nine out of the last 11 years.

Brazil and Argentina — both major GMO corn growers — were the top two exporters to Cuba of corn, with the United States number three. These three nations were among Cuba’s suppliers of soybeans too, which are mostly genetically modified. While this has been economically beneficial to America, the USDA sees room for more growth:

Both USDA analysis and a study conducted out by Texas A&M University for the American Farm Bureau Federation indicate that the full liberalization of trade with Cuba would create new opportunities for U.S. agricultural exports. The lifting of restrictions on travel and capital flow, and the ability for USDA to conduct market development and credit guarantee programs in Cuba, would enhance U.S. export competitiveness, drive Cuban demand for U.S. agricultural products, and help the U.S. recapture market share.

Could Cuba grow their own?

This all means that GMOs are already ubiquitous on the Caribbean island, and as more restrictions are dropped, Cuba could receive more GMOs from the United States. But it’s also possible Cuba will begin growing their own genetically engineered crops because of the changes in its relationship with America. During Obama’s visit, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack met with his Cuban counterpart, Minster of Agriculture Gustavo Rodriguez Rollero, to discuss future cooperation between the two country’s agricultural departments. According to a press release from the USDA:

Secretary Vilsack announced that USDA will allow the 22 industry-funded Research and Promotion Programs and 18 Marketing Order organizations to conduct authorized research and information exchange activities with Cuba.

The two agricultural leaders also signed a Memorandum of Understanding that outlines how the two countries expect to share ideas and research. Vilsack said of the partnership:

U.S. producers are eager to help meet Cuba’s need for healthy, safe, nutritious food…The agreements we reached with our Cuban counterparts on this historic trip, and the ability for our agriculture sector leaders to communicate with Cuban businesses, will help U.S. agricultural interests better understand the Cuban market, while also providing the Cuban people with science-based information as they grow their own agriculture sector.

While there is no specific mention of genetically engineered crops, it’s probable that these “science-based” collaborations will include such research. Secretary Vilsack is a long time supporter of the technology, as are the vast majority of U.S. scientists. Certainly with Cuba’s strong history of embracing biotech in other areas, as well as its previous work with transgenic crops, domestically produced GMOs in Cuba are a good bet for the near future.

Will the Cuban people embrace the cultivation of GMOs? Around the world, and in particular in Europe and the US, activists have stigmatized genetically engineered foods. Resistance of this nature in Cuba could stop or slow down GMO cultivation there too and with the influx of American tourism and American ideology that will come along with it, the public’s perception of genetic engineering may be influenced by sentiment from other countries.

Currently, according to one recent survey, 73 percent of Cubans do not know about the existence of GMOs. So the country would be, in a sense, working with a blank slate on public perception of GMOs. Manuel Limonta, who was the first and long-time director of the Cuban Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, told Nature: “People trust science; they’ve seen how it has improved their lives.” The introduction of GMOs will test those beliefs.

Nicholas Staropoli is the associate director of GLP and director of the Epigenetics Literacy Project. He has an M.A. in biology from DePaul University and a B.S. in biomedical sciences from Marist College. Follow him on twitter @NickfrmBoston.

The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

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