Tackling salinity in Cuba with Dutch knowledge

Dutch knowledge is being deployed to improve agricultural production on saline agricultural land in Cuba. The short-term aim is to conduct trials on the island with salt-tolerant crops and improved agricultural practices. The results will be shared with Cuban farmers and agricultural extension officers.

For this aim, the agricultural team at the Dutch embassy in Mexico, also responsible for Cuba, approached the Netherlands-based company The Salt Doctors for this. At the beginning of March, the company visited Cuba for a first fact-finding mission.

Bodemonderzoek in perceel wortelen
Soil research

Cuban authorities

Hopes are high that this fact-finding mission will in a few months result in concrete agreements with the Cuban authorities and lead to financial commitments to set up follow-up activities, such as a pilot project. To this end, both before and during the visit of The Salt Doctors, contacts were established with representatives of the FAO and the EU who are active on the Caribbean island.

Food security

Agricultural Counselor Erik Plaisier is closely involved in the Dutch-Cuban collaboration in the search for solutions to the salinity problems in Cuba. He is convinced that food production can be significantly increased with Dutch knowledge, starting material and technology. “The Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality wants to contribute to food security and sustainable agriculture worldwide. That's what we want to do in Cuba as well. With the introduction of salt-tolerant crops and changes in agricultural practices, food production on saline soils can be significantly increased. The Netherlands has the knowledge for this.”

Arjen de Vos (links) bezoekt Finca Escuela
Arjen de Vos (left)

Adaptive Solutions

The Salt Doctors originated from the Salt Farm Texel, a pilot farm which ceased its activities in 2019. Arjen de Vos is one of a few experts from this pilot farm who are now using the knowledge gained at the Salt Farm Texel to set up projects in countries such as Bangladesh, Tunisia, Egypt and South Africa. The company's intention is not so much to prevent or reduce salinization, but rather to provide adaptive solutions to local problems.

Salinized agricultural area

In Cuba, approximately 1 million hectares of agricultural land is already affected by salinization, while an additional 1 million hectares may be affected in the future. After returning from Cuba, De Vos says: “The problem of salinization is larger than the Cuban authorities suspect. The concentrations of salts also seem to be higher. We have taken soil samples for this, which are now being examined in The Netherlands and Cuba.”

Bedrijfsbezoek tijdens onderzoeksmissie
Company visit

Lower yields due to salinization

Salinisation in key agricultural regions south of Havana is leading to lower yields of all agricultural crops, from potatoes to beets, carrots and cabbage. “So this is a huge problem for Cuba, which imports a lot of food. The great thing is that solutions are available.”

Salt-tolerant varieties

The subsoil rock, the intrusion of seawater and the use of brackish water for irrigation are important causes of salinization, and are already taking a heavy toll on agriculture. De Vos: “Potato yields in saline areas are about 22 tons per hectare, whereas – with the right measures - yields of 30 to 35 tons per hectare are possible. With salt-tolerant crop varieties and adapted growing techniques, production can increase considerably. With our experiences on Texel and in many other countries, we can offer the right mix of measures and crop varieties for this.”

One or more pilots

He hopes the recent mission will result in one or more pilots on the island. Potential locations have already been identified. He hopes to do trials here with The Salt Doctors with varieties that do well under saline conditions. “In the pilots we can also demonstrate low-tech agricultural techniques to farmers in the area, such as the use of compost and straw and other methods of sowing and irrigating. This is how things will start to change.”

Import starting material

Import of salt-tolerant starting material such as seeds and seed potatoes requires the cooperation of the Cuban government. De Vos is reasonably optimistic about this. “Employees of the Cuban Ministry of Agriculture participated in the mission and realize that measures are needed. They now know we can provide solutions.”

Financial means are also needed to carry out the pilots. De Vos hopes that such means will be made available by the FAO, the EU and the Dutch government.

Budget for follow-up

Agriculture Council Erik Plaisier, who took part in the mission himself, is quite optimistic about the follow-up. “During the mission, The Salt Doctors showed which solutions they have in-house. This made a good impression on the authorities, potential financiers such as the FAO and farmers. Together with my local agricultural colleague at the Embassy in Havana we are now working to obtain the necessary budget for the pilots. These pilots are needed to disseminate knowledge about saline agriculture among Cuban farmers.”

Contacts with the Netherlands

Plaisier expects the import of suitable starting material will not be problematic. “This is a pilot project meant for applied research and training, and import rules in Cuba are generally more flexible for such purposes. In addition, Dutch breeding companies, such as Rijk Zwaan, are already active on the island, so we have the necessary contacts and experiences with the authorities to make the import of starting material from the Netherlands possible”.

Interview with Mr Dagoberto Rodríguez Lozano, Ministry of Agriculture of Cuba

What is the main effect of soil salinization on food production in Cuba?

“Soil salinity affects the germination, growth and development of plants. In Cuba we see this leads to lower yields, especially in the country’s most productive soils with large-scale cultivation of roots, tubers (yucca, malanga, potatoes) and vegetables that are the basis of the Cuban population’s diets.”

There has been talk of setting up a pilot farm. What is the added value of this farm for the Cuban farmers?

“We have a farm that would be an ideal location for the implementation of a pilot project: on this site there have already been good experiences with the introduction of innovative technologies for the protection of natural resources. It is a kind of farmer field school, where producers from the surrounding areas come together to exchange experiences and receive training on topics related to the protection of soil, water and biodiversity.”

Salt Doctors is knowledgeable in managing salt-tolerant crop varieties. Would it be feasible for Cuba to implement a study to test new varieties in local conditions?

“Yes, we consider it feasible to carry out a study to introduce new salt-tolerant, as we have learned from The Salt Doctors about the results achieved with such varieties. We believe it will allow us to enhance food production in these conditions.”

More information

See vlog Erik Plaisier