Agricultural Hero: Humberto Ríos Labrada
Each week One Earth is proud to feature an environmental activist and hero from around the globe who is working to create a world where humanity and nature can coexist in harmony.
As both a scientist and musician, Humberto Ríos Labrada believes that agriculture is art. Music is a part of his blood and his inspiration for his songs comes from his passion for seed diversity, which he also feels creates a diversity of thought. As a graduate student he was catapulted out of the lab and into the fields to work with farmers due to monumental food shortages, where they ended up creating an experiment in organic farming.
Cuba is a country with abundant rainfall which creates a crop-friendly climate. Before Spanish colonists went there in the 1700s to establish the mono-cultivation of sugarcane, the Indigenous flourished off the land that produced natural food sources. Agriculture has always been the basis of their economic wealth.
For more than 30 years, Cuba joined forces with the Soviet Union developing a chemical-intensive, highly-mechanized mono-culture that produced high yields and reduced labor needs, but depleted the farmland where more than fifty-percent of it was devoted to sugar cultivation. The industrial agricultural model relied on fossil fuels and agrochemicals, destroying natural resources and causing human health issues and led to a dependence on food imports. With the small portion of land farmer’s had left, they relied on very few choices for crop diversity only having access to a small amount of seeds.
When communism was dismantled in Europe, the Soviet Union ended their relationship with Cuba resulting in a loss of access to fertilizers and pesticides. Cuba’s agricultural sector halted and enormous food shortages ensued. The government, desperate to fix the problem, turned to small farm cooperatives who started rotating their crops resulting in renewed soil generation. It was at this point that Humberto entered the picture when he found the soil regenerating while doing research in the field. He traveled to other small farms that had gone back to pre-industrial farming practices and where he thought he would be the one teaching them, he soon realized that they would be the one to teach him how to develop better crop yields, thus breaking the cliche that scientists ‘think’ and the farmers ‘do’.
Ríos worked with the farmers forming partnerships that helped to create the world’s largest organic farming experiment. By using organic techniques combined with the diverse seeds Humberto brought to the farmers, the diverse seeds began bringing extraordinary yields. In a sense, the break with the Soviet Union was a blessing-in-disguise bringing new and creative ideas that culminated in healthier food and increased food production dramatically.
Humberto proceeded to initiate seed fairs three to four times a year, where farmers could come together and not only share seeds, but also knowledge about crop diversification. Where they once had a mere 2 or 3 seeds, they now have 200 varieties; and where they once had 25 people, they now have approximately 50,000 farmers involved nationwide.
Ríos believes that scientists must learn from the farmers where traditional knowledge about crop cultivation is passed down. When senior officials at the National Institute of Agricultural Sciences began taking notice that the few crop varieties had multiplied into many varieties of beans, rice, maize, and other crops, they realized the value of organic methods contributed to the sustainability of the land.
In 2012, Humberto became the Latin American representative for the International Centre for Research in Agriculture, a nonprofit organization focused on ending hunger by promoting sustainable resources. He has been a part of similar biodiversity projects in both Bolivia and Mexico. In 2010 he was awarded the Goldman Prize for his efforts.