At the peak of Cuba's "Special Period," the time after the Soviet Union's collapse brought the import-reliant island's economy to a halt, President Fidel Castro realized that domestic ingenuity was the only hope for a timely turnaround. As food producers struggled to feed an increasingly famished and angry nation, Castro made a phone call to Humberto Ríos Labrada, a young researcher who was searching for more efficient crop seeds.
Ríos, then a Ph.D. student studying pumpkins, was told, "We need to improve the vitamin A content to feed people." He answered Castro's call by collecting experiences from rural farmers who for several years had already been forced to raise nutritious crops without expensive, fossil fuel-dependent farm inputs. "I did it, but not through the scientific way," he said during an interview hours before accepting a 2010 Goldman Environment Prize in Washington, D.C. last month. "It was through the farmers."
The Goldman award, considered the Nobel Prize for grassroots environmentalists, recognized Ríos for his role in Cuba's rapidly spreading organic farming movement. In the face of economic crisis, thousands of Cuban farmers have boosted their yields in recent years without adding pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. The breakthrough has been due in large part to the use of new seed varieties provided by Ríos through his network of experimental farmers.
"We started with two to three crops and 25 farmers, and now we are working together with more than 20 crops at the same time with 50,000 farmers," Ríos said. "Varieties of seeds are multiplying all over the place and farmers are incorporating them in the process."
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