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Kick-starting local food production
Lucila Horta
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Government implements important changes to reduce food imports.

One of the worst results of the severe economic crisis Cuba has suffered since the 1990s is the devastation of once promising programs for farming citrus, banana, potato and other crops, plus to sugar cane and the poultry and livestock sectors. Climactic disasters have also contributed to the agricultural woes, and the country now imports almost 80 percent of its food.

In 2007, US$1.4 billion was spent buying 3.4 million tons of food, and with the dizzying hike in food prices, this year the cost will rise by another $1 billion.

The situation caught Cuba in the midst of an internal economic rehabilitation, which has turned food production into “an issue of national security,” according to President Raúl Castro.

Top authorities throughout Cuba´s provinces are reviewing an agricultural reconstruction project that would increase the high production figures that Cuba had in the 1980s, when it did not have to resort to mass imports. For now, the island is working to reduce food purchases between 5 and 10 percent by 2009.

Authorities will have to “recover and make use of unused or poorly exploited lands and to apply the best scientific and technical methods,” said Vice President José Ramón Machado Ventura during the Cuban Communist Party Havana Provincial Committee´s evaluating assembly, on June 6.

The state-owned Guira de Melena Varied Crop Company, south of the capital, was held up as an example for the almost 140,000 metric tons of different agricultural goods it will produce this year as a result of a new process that correlates each farmer´s pay to his or her yield.

Wages according to yield
The new salary system was first applied in several agricultural sectors and has recently expanded to other sectors, breaking a scheme of wages based on qualification requirements and job type rather than productivity. All governmental agencies must implement the new system that throws out salary equality by financially rewarding those who produce more at a better quality by August.

Machado Ventura said that these higher wages should be fair as long as they translate into a greater yields, so close monitoring of greater quality and volume yields is required to ensure that these salaries are just.

The Cuban economy is moving between state, private and mixed companies and is now based on administrative decentralization, better prices to private producers, facilities to distribute resources and giving out land to those who are willing to farm it. There will be no limit on state farm workers´ wages and the Basic Units of Cooperative Production, or UBPC — managing 42 percent of the 3.5 million hectares (8.6 million acres) of the island’s arable land — will also see changes.

Vice Agriculture Minister Juan Pérez Lama said that the smaller UBPC units will be merged in order to strengthen their use of resources. Other types of cooperatives might also be restructured, if convenient, but in all cases the government will contribute to financing harvests, as well as other costs, to these private producers. The distribution of profits will be left for the producers to decide.

The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) representative in Cuba, Marcio Porto, praised the government´s willingness to give solutions to the food crisis at the Fourth International Rice Conference, held in Havana on June 2-4, where 16 countries exchanged ideas on rice, whose price has tripled in less than a year.

Porto also commended the Cuban government´s collaboration, through the FAO, with other Caribbean countries calling Cuba a positive example in the agricultural sector.

Dr. Carlos Borroto, from the Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology Center, gave a presentation at the conference on Cuba´s work toward promoting greater yields with improvements in hybridization and seed selection. Dr. Borroto also mentioned the use of molecular markers to increase efficiency by finding a rice-strain resistant to drought and salinity, which is being advanced in the South Jibaro Experimental Station in the central Sancti Spiritus province.

The island is trying to recuperate part of the 150,000 hectares (nearly 371,000 acres) that was used in the 1980s for rice production, of which only 107,000 hectares (264,000 acres) is used today, meeting only 20 percent of the need — 60 kilograms (132 pounds) per person each year.

One proposal is to add new farmland, including small family lots, so that there is no delay in producing at least half of what is currently imported — approximately 532,000 metric tons that costs $172.5 million — and at least 30 percent of country´s supply of beans.

Until the early 1990s, rice in Cuba was basically machine-run, from seed sowing by aircraft to machine-powered harvesting. But with the economy´s downturn, this will also become less common.

The country claims to have the seeds and material means to continue reviving rice areas in state-owned, cooperative or other agricultural sectors through investment, namely in modernizing windmills and grain dryers. Meanwhile, researchers work to achieve greater volumes per hectare through methods of low environmental impact, including fertilizers and organic compost, humus and “green compost” — resources used in traditional or urban farming. Over 400,000 metric tons of food —12 percent more than what was planned — was obtained through urban farming in the first trimester of 2008. Advances have also been made in poultry and pork farming.

Apart from monetary rewards, new organizational criteria and rescued practices from high-production eras are also encouraged. In the Havana district of Batabano, harvests and livestock raising were improved after farmers made better use of natural conditions and introducing soy to the animals´ diet.

Agricultural Minister María del Carmen Pérez explained that there are other projects as well, such as the bilateral venture with Venezuela in order to develop farm production in the city of Cienfuegos, to the island´s south, that will have a belt of farming cooperatives, experimental centers, seedbeds, micro dams and a number of resources.


Cooperative farms have a leading role in Cuban agriculture. (Photo: Bohemia)
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