WASHINGTON — Large agriculture companies in the United States are rapidly mounting lobbying campaigns to capitalize on loosening trade restrictions with Cuba, sparking worry that as more barriers fall Cuba’s culture of small organic farms could be overrun by outsiders.
Ag-giants such as Cargill want Congress and the Obama administration to completely lift the trade embargo, so they can export many more US farm goods to Cuba and import meat and produce from the Caribbean nation.
“Agriculture is front and center,” said Matthew Aho , whose law firm, Akerman LLP, represents several US companies already approved to sell to Cuba, as well others “looking to engage in newly licensed activities under the new framework.”
But their push to do more business in Cuba is sparking concern about the potential impact on the island’s fragile ecosystem. Some are especially concerned about potential damage to the network of small organic farms, the “organopanico” movement that sprouted up several decades ago to address the poor nation’s acute shortages of food and fuel.
“I think those large industrial agriculture conglomerates are interested in going back to the ‘50s, where Cuban farmers have to lease seeds from Monsanto, just like many farmers around the United States have to,” said Jared Carter , the Cuba program director at Burlington College in Vermont.
He was referring to the period before the 1959 communist revolution, when US companies operated much of Cuba’s economy.
“I don’t think they are particularly interested in Cubans deciding the way that their future goes,” Carter added.
The small Vermont college has sent hundreds of students to Cuba in recent years to study and share knowledge from a US state that consumes more locally grown food per capita than any other state and boasts many economically viable organic farms and cooperatives. Its specialists are urging US and Cuban policy makers to consider ways to build on the island’s current approach to agriculture.
Cuba’s network of organic farms, like its broader economy, is overseen by the government. But as food shortages have grown more acute the government has allowed citizens more independence to grow their own food. The organic farm movement was among Cuba’s first limited experiments with the free market.
Still, Cuba needs food. The United States alone exported to Cuba nearly $400 million worth of agricultural products — nearly half of it chicken — under exemptions to the trade embargo approved by Congress in 2000, when the Cuban economy was in deep distress after losing its chief benefactor, the Soviet Union.
The new rules no longer require US agriculture companies licensed to sell to Cuba to route transactions through banks based in other countries or to get paid in cash upfront.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsak said that US companies are better positioned than those in other countries to serve Cuba’s $1.7 billion market for food and other commodities.
“Ninety miles offshore, it is very close to several major ports where agricultural commodities — bulk and processed — are shipped, so we would be extremely competitive on a wide range of products: rice, beef, poultry, pork, corn, soy, wheat.”
Vilsak rejected assertions Cuba’s organic production would be displaced by industrial agricultural practices from the United States.
“I honestly don’t think folks should be worried or concerned about compromising organic production,” Vilsak said, “because it remains a very high value-added opportunity which the Cubans will want to maintain.”
The industry’s lobbying effort geared up rapidly after Obama’s announcement: Companies organized a new trade group, the US Agriculture Coalition for Cuba, which boasts some 30 members and is cochaired by an executive from Cargill, one of the largest US food and agricultural conglomerates.
The group’s goal is to persuade Congress to build on Obama’s new policy and lift the US trade embargo, thus permitting US banks to extend credit to Cuba and US companies to invest there.
“We need to allow for economic development,” said Paul Johnson, the coalition’s vice chairman, who runs Chicago Foods International LLC, a food exporter. “The current agricultural system in Cuba has a lot of merits but it is not sufficient to feed the nation. It doesn’t have the reach, the distribution, the capital, the equipment, the seeds. It should be improved upon.”
Others say increasing exports to Cuba is just the beginning.
“My guess is if the embargo were lifted, there will certainly be investment in Cuba to try to advance its agriculture sector,” said Randy Russell, a Washington, D.C.-based consultant for agriculture companies. “It imports about 80 percent of its food right now. That wasn’t the case before. I think there would be investment . . . to rebuild.”
If the US embargo is lifted, however, it remains unclear how much US investment Cuba’s communist government would permit.
“Even after post-embargo, the Cuban government could have — and many countries have — strict limits on foreign direct investment,” said former ambassador Islam Siddiqui, who stepped down last year as the US trade representative for agriculture.
The government of Cuba, which last year enacted a foreign investment law, declined to comment about its plans to manage economic ties with the United States.
Industry representatives and US officials reject the claim that American business wants to take over Cuba’s agriculture or replace its current processes.
“I don’t think DuPont or Cargill or Monsanto are necessarily interested in owning farms or even operating farms,” Vilsak added.
“But they may very well be interested in selling seed and other products to those who do farm in Cuba. That is a significantly different approach than what was occurring in the ’40s and ’50s down there.”
Johnson, of the US Agriculture Coalition for Cuba, said the country needs big agricultural operations to help feed its people.
“Whatever organic system they have now in Cuba, it is not enough. People do not eat three meals a day in Cuba,” he said.
“To use Cuba as a social experiment is unfair to Cubans. It doesn’t allow them access to the global market.”
Bryan Bender can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeBender.