Cuba tries to keep rice on the table
59 minutes ago
By ANDREA RODRIGUEZ
(AP:BAHIA HONDA, Cuba) Soaring world rice prices have Cubans worried
about keeping the national dish of beans and rice on the table _ and
officials are scrambling to increase local production.
Raul Castro's government hopes to halve rice imports over the next five
years, according to Juan Perez Lamas, vice minister of agriculture. To
do that, it will have to more than double production _ currently about
200,000 metric tons of milled rice a year.
Rice-obsessed Cubans consume an average of 130 pounds (60 kilograms) of
it a year _ more than double the U.S. average. When rice disappeared for
periods during the lean times of the 1990s, some people cut spaghetti
into bits so it resemble their beloved grain.
Recent rumors that rice might vanish from cheap government rations led
to panic buying at farmers markets before officials assured they
wouldn't let stocks vanish.
Low prices a few years ago led Cuba to cut rice production, turning to
exports. But world prices have jumped from US$500 a ton to more than
US$1,200 a ton in just a few months. That means it makes more sense to
use local production, which costs about US$400 a ton, Perez Lamas told
reporters at a recent conference on rice.
Cuba now grows just a fourth of the 800,000 metric tons its 11 million
people consume annually.
Officials say they plan to bring abandoned rice fields back into
production, while investing in canals, land-leveling and other
technology to help boost output per acre (hectare). They plan to build
silos to help store the crop.
Some farmers like Jose Antonio Espinosa say they're already getting
world-class yields _ 17 metric tons of unmilled rice per acre (7 metric
tons of unmilled rice per hectare), up from the national average of less
than 10 per acre (4 per hectare).
Espinosa directs the Camilo Cienfuegos Agricultural Cooperative in the
western town of Bahia Honda. So far, only 14 of its 2,500 acres (1,000
hectares) are devoted to rice. But Espinosa says that could change.
"With the price tripling in recent months, I cannot conceive of someone
with a stream or small dam nearby who isn't growing rice," he said.
Members of the cooperative get part of the rice for their own use and
can sell the rest _ some of it to consumers at farmers markets.
Cuba's communist leaders so far have resisted raising prices to give
farmers a financial incentive to grow more rice_ though Ruben Alfonso, a
specialist at Cuba's Rice Research Institute, says that is under study.
The government has raised prices on some other goods.
Consumers at farmers markets pay 15 cents a pound (33 U.S. cents a
kilogram) _ roughly the same as last year and down sharply from prices
in the hardship years of the mid-1990s, when it could cost 59 cents a
pound (US$1.30 a kilogram) _ a large chunk of a monthly salary in those
Cuba also has struggled with drought and hurricanes, and the government
is trying to lure young people back to fields where increasingly
gray-haired farmers are nearing retirement age.
"It is a food security issue," Alfonso said.