14ymedio, Madrid, 16 January 2023 — Cuban authorities have not revealed the bad results of the 2022 rice production, but a note published on Sunday in Granma, the official daily, leads us to believe that is worse than expected. In February of that year, the harvest was 120,000 tons and they set a target for the following year of 180,000, a tiny portion of the nearly 700,000 needed for domestic consumption. Not even that was achieved, but official data are not available; an official stated that 2022 production was “a real sinkhole, the volume of food declined considerably.”
Oslando Linares Morell, director of the Rice Technology Division of the state run Agriculture Business Group, explains that in 2012, a program was created to develop this cereal which, in addition to being culturally a staple food in the Cuban diet, possesses several qualities which make it ideal for the situation on the Island, from its simple storage without processing to its high caloric value. The plan was to achieve complete self sufficiency in 2030 to suppress imports, but the failure has been monumental.
Cuba needs, the report states, 600,000 tons for the rationed food baskets and social consumption. The data are striking when in the last several years, including 2022, the amount required had been 700,000, which could suggest some relief following the exit of at least a quarter of a million people in the last 12 months.
To achieve self sufficiency, they’d need to sow 200,000 hectares annually, with a yield of six tons per hectare and 1,200,000 tons of wet cereal production, which would result in the desired 600,000. But, reality clashes with the dream.
“The plans created for 2023 are still quite low, with around 40% of what was expected at this stage of the development program. This means that we should sow 140,000 hectares, and this calendar year we’ve only managed to plant 68,000, a very poor number,” he said. With that they might manage to obtain, at best, 204,000 tons if we use official figures, which would still require importing at least 400,000 tons if everything turned out well.
The price of rice on the international market has increased in the past years and in Vietnam, the price per ton was at $437 the first week of 2023, which would require Cuba to spend $174.4 million to purchase the 400,000 tons from there. And this is if the expected results are achieved, which seems far from likely seeing that rice production continues to sink. In 2022, the Island should have used more than $300 million to purchase the product and to all these costs, one must add transport, since it “does not exactly [arrive] from nearby countries,” as Linares Morell reminds us.
In 2018, the national rice plans were marching along appropriately and although they were far from achieving the goal of self-sufficiency, the progress was good, until it reached an historic record that year of 304,000 tons. The collapse began in 2019 with 246,700 tons and later, with the pandemic, came the worst: 162,965 tons in 2020 and 120,000 in 2021.
The official spoke of the influence of COVID-19, the hardening of the embargo, the “spurious inclusion of Cuba on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism,” and the war in Ukraine as reasons for the thwarted plans. In addition, he highlighted that there are limitations on the Island’s ability to obtain pesticides, herbicides, fertilizer and fuel for the air and land machinery.
Despite all of this, Linares was optimistic and believes that in 2023 a new recovery could begin, especially if they use “science, technology, and innovation,” although when it comes to exposing what that would consist of, it did not go beyond the usual volunteerism and the “we must.”
“We rice growers have to get used to the new work conditions, use less chemical products and use a considerably larger number of bioproducts,” he added. The only tangible processes he explained were the development of four seed varieties, in addition to the 12 that exist with support from Vietnam and Japan — with shorter cycles that rely on fewer inputs.
In the Cuban markets, meanwhile, the price of rice does not cease to increase, when you can find it. The official inflation data indicates that in October the price of that product increased more than 4% and in November it once again increased more than 3.4.%
The so-called creole rice, domestically produced, does not have a good reputation among Cuban kitchens. The methods of harvesting, transport and storage make for a final grain product that is frequently broken and its cooking unsatisfactory. Consumers prefer products imported from Brazil or Uruguay, from where a more whole grain rice come, that expands when cooked and has a better flavor.
The rice from Vietnam is not very highly valued because it has been sold on the Island in the rationed markets and the percentage of broken grain is high and it is difficult to achieve a separated grain when cooked, one of the characteristics sought after in the Cuban culinary tradition, which rejects a product that is sticky or clumps.
Translated by: Silvia Suárez