Cuban food output stagnates, may decline in 2017

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuban food output stagnated during the first half of 2017, the government reported this week, and may decline this year because of damage from Hurricane Irma.

The non-sugar agricultural sector, which has stagnated for a decade, further suffered through June from a severe drought and less input from the financially strapped state.

Root and vegetable production was down 1.1 percent through June, the most productive part of the year, according to this week’s report, issued by the National Statistics Office (here).

The report said grains also declined with the exception of rice, fruit production improved with the exception of citrus, livestock was mixed and both milk and egg production fell.

The report did not provide an overall percentage for the sector.

Communist-run Cuba imports between 60 percent and 70 percent of the food it consumes at a cost of around $2 billion, mainly bulk cereals and grains such as rice, corn, soy and beans, as well as items such as powdered milk and chicken.

The government says it imports 80 percent of the food it distributes on a World War Two-like ration system that covers some basics such as rice, beans, sugar and a bit of chicken and cooking oil.

Hurricane Irma caused significant, but yet to be quantified, damage to agriculture in six rural provinces last month, ending the drought but flattening and flooding crops and downing citrus and other fruits.

“I do not think there will be any growth this year and perhaps a bit of a decline,” a local expert with intimate knowledge of the sector said, asking not to be identified because of a prohibition on talking with foreign journalists.

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.

President Raul Castro made increased food production and reducing the 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.

Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Steve Orlofsky