Cuba struggles for food self-sufficiency

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 process.

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.

Photo: Cybersquare // CC 2.0



W. T. Whitney Jr.
W. T. Whitney Jr.

W.T. Whitney Jr. grew up on a dairy farm in Vermont and now lives in rural Maine. He practiced and taught pediatrics for 35 years and long ago joined the Cuba solidarity movement, working with Let Cuba Live of Maine, Pastors for Peace, and the Venceremos Brigade. He writes on Latin America and health issues for the People's World.