HAVANA, June 26 (Reuters) - More than half of Cuba’s arable land remains fallow nearly a decade after a government pledge to cultivate it, and food production is sluggish, according to a government report.
Cuba has yet to publish an overall figure for last year’s agricultural output. But the report released over the weekend by the National Statistics Office indicated only minor improvement in 2016 over the previous year.(www.one.cu/aec2016/09%20Agricultura%20Ganaderia%20Silvicultura%20Pesca.pdf)
The state owns 80 percent of the land and leases most of that to farmers and cooperatives. The remainder is owned by private family farmers and their cooperatives.
Despite the leasing of small parcels of land to some 200,000 would-be-farmers over the last decade, the report said just 2.7 million hectares (6.7 million acres) out of the 6.2 million hectares (15.3 million acres) of arable land available were under cultivation.
The Cuban government often blames bad weather, a lack of labor and capital for poor land use and production, while critics charge it is due to a lack of private property and foreign investment, rickety infrastructure and the Soviet-style bureaucracy.
President Raul Castro made increased food production and reducing the Communist-run Caribbean island’s dependence on imports his top priority after taking office in 2008 from his then ailing and now deceased brother, Fidel.
Castro began leasing land, decentralizing decision-making and introducing market mechanisms into the sector. But most of the effort has faltered and the state has backtracked on market reforms, once more assigning resources, setting prices and controlling most distribution.
Cash-strapped Cuba imports more than 60 percent of the food it consumes at a cost of around $2 billion annually, mainly for bulk cereals and grains such as rice, corn, soy and beans, as well as other items such as powdered milk and chicken.
Last year, $232 million of the imports came from the United States under an exception to the trade embargo that allows agricultural sales for cash.
The country does not produce wheat or soybeans, though experiments are underway to produce the latter. Over the last decade the government has poured millions of dollars into corn, rice, beans, meat and milk production in hopes of reducing imports, but with little success.
Unprocessed rice production was 514,000 tonnes in 2016, up more than 20 percent from the previous year. But that figure, representing just a third of national consumption, barely surpassed the 436,000 tonnes reported in 2008 and was less than the 642,000 produced five years ago.
Beans weighed in at 137,000 tonnes, up more than 15 percent from the previous year and compared with 117,000 in 2012, but little changed from the 2008 figure of 127,000 tonnes.
Corn, at 404,000 tonnes last year, was up some 10 percent over 2015 and the 360,000 output of 5 and 10 years ago, but again just a third of national consumption.
Pork and beef production have increased, while milk, chicken and egg production have stagnated.
Export crops, from coffee and citrus to tobacco and sugar cane, have not increased significantly, and in some cases declined.
Tonnage for root and garden vegetables has improved some 15 percent over the decade and reached 5.3 million tonnes last year, an increase of 200,000 tonnes. Bananas and plantains increased some 15 percent to a million tonnes in 2016 compared with an average of around 850,000 tonnes over the decade. (Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Dan Grebler)