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Cuba struggles for food self-sufficiency

Cuba struggles for food self-sufficiency

by: W. T. Whitney Jr.

June 27 2012

Responding to popular expectations, diminished worker productivity, the

U.S. blockade, and skyrocketing costs of imports – particularly food –

Cuba is restructuring its economy. Agricultural changes are part of the


In 2008, the government opened up idle land for long-term, independent

use by individuals and cooperatives. The action came in response to the

annual cost of food imports rising to above $1.5 billion and to the

reality that half of Cuba's arable land, 8.5 million acres, was idle.

Policymakers hoped many of the half million workers removed from state

jobs would take up farming.

Almost four years later, on May 17, agricultural official Pedro Olivera

reported that 163,000 farmers or cooperatives had received 3.8 million

acres of idle land, of which 79 percent was being farmed.

Many recipients say the process was long and tedious. Some found

contracts they were signing difficult to understand. Their farming

operations often were delayed due to non-availability of credit and

promised supplies. Transportation of products to market remains

problematic. Many farmers protest remaining state controls over food

distribution. Plans are afoot to restructure the Agricultural Ministry.

The government is trying to persuade young people and city dwellers to

take up farming. Renewed efforts to remove the invasive marabú plant

from idle land received a boost from increased use of that plant as

biomass for producing energy. Although new harvest and irrigation

techniques are being applied to sugar cane harvesting, holdover of

inefficient milling facilities hampers sugar production. Vietnam

continues to advise Cuba on rice production.

Led by successful rice and bean harvests, agricultural production

expanded 9.8 percent over the first four months of 2012, and Cuba is

having to import less rice than before from Vietnam, Cuba's main foreign

supplier. Yet overall 2012 production levels so far fall below those

achieved in 2005. Cuba's apparent inability to increase overall food

production is part of a long pattern of relatively low production levels.

In 2010 Cuba's rice production per acre, poultry production, and corn

production were all below the annual averages established over 50 years

for these food products. Cuba that year spent $159.9 million and $155.9

million to import poultry and corn, respectively. In world rankings

Cuba's current production levels for rice and corn are very low.

Cuba in 2010 had to import 40,000 tons of powdered milk costing $194,000

million. Milk and beef production is down, so far, in 2012. Analysts say

farmers' perennial difficulties in maintaining the health of their

cattle contribute to low production levels. Over half the new farmers

receiving land under the 2008 reforms plan to raise cattle.

Paradoxically, Cuba's agricultural reformation following the Soviet bloc

collapse and loss of its trading partners earned worldwide praise for

Cuban farmers' practice of sustainable agriculture. Cuba's 4.2 percent

average annual growth in agricultural production from 1996 through 2005

was tops in Latin America. Midway during the 1990s, the government began

to transfer small holdings to individual farmers for long-term use. City

and country populations alike applied ecological principles to

small-scale farming.

In their recent article "The Paradox of Cuban Agriculture," Miguel

Altieri and Fernando Funes-Monzote attribute agricultural success then

to decentralized controls and the newly ascendant role of individual

farmers and cooperatives. Small farmers in 2006 controlled only 25

percent of cultivated land in Cuba, but accounted for 65 percent of the

island's food production while reducing their use of chemical

fertilizers and pesticides.

The recent agricultural reforms came about in response to Cuba's burden,

as reported, of having to import 70 percent of its food. Altieri and

Funes-Monzote say that estimate refers to food provided through the

rationing system. They indicate data for the production and distribution

of some basic foods like seafood, many vegetables, eggs, and fruits are

less well known and that, in fact, Cuba may be approaching

self-sufficiency in these categories.

Agriculture seems to be evolving on parallel tracks in Cuba. Human and

animal powered organic farming coexists with signature tools of

industrial agriculture like genetically modified seeds, big farm

equipment, and elaborate irrigation systems. Yet if farmers' resiliency

after disastrous hurricanes and the economic collapse of the 1990s means

anything, Cuba may end up attaining a measure of food independence

sometime soon.

And importantly, Cubans don't go hungry. According to the United Nations

Agricultural and Food Organization, their average daily per-capita

caloric intake hovers around 3,200 calories – the highest in Latin America.

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June 2012
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