Alexis Wiessler believes we have a lot to learn from Cuba.
Wiessler, a horticultural student, was one of six students who went to Cuba in October 2010, through an exchange program with the Institute for Sustainable Horticulture, to participate in field research at the University of Sancti Spiritus.
“I just thought going to Cuba and seeing how they do things would be really beneficial to my career further down the road,” she said.
Cuba is a leader in sustainable farming practices, which is using more environmentally friendly techniques to grow crops. Wiessler and some of her colleagues worked on a project using a fungus to fight different plant diseases. They also used plants to attract insects that are natural enemies of other insects that are harmful to crops.
Overall, she believed the research went well, but they did have some problems.
“There were always pigs and goats and turkeys in the fields eating everything,” she said.
For the 26-year-old, the exchange became more than just about sustainable farming. While she knew living in Cuba would be difficult, nothing could have prepared her for just how different things would be. Cramped living quarters and little variety of food were just a couple of the challenges she faced.
It was her brief glimpse into the lives of everyday Cubans that Wiessler will remember most. She said that despite the hardships the Cubans faced every day, they are still a happy, friendly people who appreciate what little they do have.
“It was really refreshing to see people who have so little just not being affected by it that much,” she said.
The biggest challenge for Wiessler was living in a socialist country. She said things we take for granted, such as freedom of speech, don’t happen in Cuba.
“It was kind of scary at times, because we didn’t really know if we were overstepping any bounds,” she said.
As difficult as the exchange was at times, Wiessler doesn’t regret going and encourages other students to go on similar exchanges and keep an open mind about new experiences.
“I always knew we were lucky in North America, but it’s totally a different thing living in another country and really see how lucky we are,” she said. “As hard as it was, I miss it a lot. I started to get really comfortable there.”
While it still hasn’t put its sign up, the Institute for Sustainable Horticulture lab, or ISH lab, is now up and running.
“I’m glad you came a year after opening … because when it opened we had an empty lab,” Dr. Deborah Henderson said.
Henderson has a PhD in entomology from UBC and a post doctorate in medical entomology from the University of Toronto. Before coming to Kwantlen, she had her own company, ES Crop Consulting Limited, a consulting company in agriculture that provided integrated pest management, monitoring services for farmers, and research and field trials in biological control products.
“It took far longer than I had ever thought to get it up and moving. But, we’re pretty functional now.”
While the ISH lab isn’t a teaching facility, its research project are very much integrated with Kwantlen’s School of Horticulture and the Environmental Protection Technology (EPT) program.
And one of the most important collaborations that the ISH lab has with the two programs is a project in Cuba.
Six students headed for Cuban farms
“There’s a food security project in Cuba and a number of field research trials going on there,” Henderson said. “So, we have six student going to Cuba at the end of October to spend three months working on bio control field trials on a cooperative farm. Two of them are EPT students and four of them are horticulture students.”
Henderson hopes to continue this project over the next three years.
“[W]e want to make it a regular program with Cuba, and integrate it into the new degrees that are in the School of Horticulture. So there could very well be in the future, a course that’s offered in Cuba in the winter term. The students would go down and take that course in Cuba and get credit here,” Henderson said.
According to Henderson, Cuba is the world leader in the use of biological controls, that is using fungi, viruses and other insects to control crop damaging insects.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s Cuba lost nearly 90 per cent of its imports, including food and petroleum products. As the country began to starve, the government enlisted the country’s farmers to find a solution to the food shortages. There answer was to turn much of the available space in the cities into organic vegetable gardens. Because the gardens were in the cities, the food was organically grown, with no chemical pesticides. Instead they used bio controls.
“They’re still using chemicals for some production out in the country,” Henderson said.
“So, the project that we’re working on is the conversion of large cooperative farms to ecological methods. And the students are going to be involved in that. [W]e have a 600-hectare farm that has agreed to convert to these ecological methods.”
Working closer to home
Closer to home, the ISH lab is also conducting research with biological controls. The biological controls the ISH lab works on are a naturally occurring part of the ecosystem. The lab isolates them, makes more of them and tests them to see how effective they are in controlling insects that damage food crops.
But, unlike other labs, Henderson wants their research to go one step further and take successful bio control products all the way to commercialization.
“We’ve got to get products in the hands of growers or else our research isn’t benefiting the people that need the research done,” Henderson said.
A major part of the lab’s work with bio controls has to do with horticultural sustainability. For the ISH lab, achieving sustainability will also focus on how climate change will affect food production, and looking into new production systems that are closer to market will reduce the use of fossil fuels to bring products from far away.
“We are very unsustainable as a species. We have to become sustainable. So any time we can replace unsustainable practices we’re a step towards that goal. And so my particular expertise and experience is doing exactly that,” Henderson said.
“[W]e are going to have to face the reality of climate change. We have a responsibility to take care of our own food security. How can we help anybody else when we can’t feed of ourselves. And right now we don’t feed of ourselves.”
British Columbians ‘want sustainable food production’
According to Henderson, only four per cent of B.C.’s land is arable, that is land that can be used for growing crops. But, Henderson believes British Columbians are sensitive to food security issues and want food production to be sustainable.
“I think we are in great shape. [W]e grow close to 250 crops in B.C. already. So, in that sense we have a pretty big advantage over the Prairies for instance,” Henderson said.
“Quite honestly I think there’s a big social benefit to growing your own food close to home and knowing where your food comes from … and not being so divorced from it that you think it comes from a grocery store.”
As part of being sustainable, the lab itself is doing its part.
“It’s a beautiful facility. It’s been made to be as energy efficient as possible. We’ve applied for LEED certification on it, that’s a designation for environmentally friendly buildings,” Henderson said.
The lab has two sides: microbiology, where they do the research on fungi, and entomology, where they do research with insects and insect viruses. The lab also has production facilities for making fungi and rearing predator and parasitoid insects.
Overall, Henderson seems pleased with the progress the lab has made over the past year, especially in its collaboration with Kwantlen’s horticulture and EPT programs.
“The kind of things we do now with students, I’ve written internships into all of our research proposals,” said Henderson.
“So many of our programs are applied focused … so our research is [also] applied focused. And they enhance each other.”
“We’ve got a little turf project where we’re going to look at compost on turf and so I’m going to communicate with the turf instructors to say, ‘Would you like to get your students involved? Here’s what I have in mind. Do you have any better ideas?’ And we’ll do it with them so that students can be involved.”