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
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
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.