For a plate of less bitter rice

Technology transference agreements with Brazil and Vietnam and a strong investment programme are seeking to expand rice production, which last year registered a national record of 320,792 tons ready for consumption.

Rice is one of the few agricultural products that have been displaying a strong and sustained growth in the last three years.

Cuba continues exporting most of the basic food of its diet, rice. The recent negotiations of a Vietnamese business forum in Havana, parallel to a visit by an official Cuban delegation to Hanoi, confirmed both parties’ interest in maintaining trade relations in diverse fields: industry, biotechnology, tourism and agriculture and, as part of the latter, the purchase of the cereal and the technical advice from the Indochinese nation hold a relevant place.

The president of the Chamber of Commerce of Cuba, Estrella Madrigal, said that Vietnam is the principal supplier of rice for this Caribbean nation. General trade between both nations, which annually amounts to some 500 million dollars, took a 50 percent leap in the first semester of 2013, Madrigal added, which ratifies that country as Havana’s second trade partner in the region of Asia and Oceania.

Another important supplier of the cereal is Brazil. Cuban consumers usually do the rounds of markets in search of Brazilian rice, which they identify among their preferences. They usually rank national rice, as this expanding alternative is called in the agricultural markets, in third place.

The ties with the two supplying countries are not limited to passive imports. The strategy promoted by President Raúl Castro in person of advancing toward food autonomy has targeted the cereal among the priorities, under the principle that it is a common crop in climates and soils like those of Cuba, which makes it unsustainable to import most of the 700,000 tons consumed every year by the islanders.

In early September, the Cuban Institute for the Research of Grains and the Brazilian Rio Grande do Sul rice institute (IRGA) signed a collaboration agreement for the transference of technology and know-how for a period of five years. Parallel to this, the Vietnam-Cuba Cooperation Project has expanded to almost all the provinces in order to raise rice yields and quality.

The agreements can point to that sector as one of the few that have a sustained growth in agriculture. Despite the measures implemented gradually in the sector, other agricultural productions display irregularities throughout the most recent five-year period. Rice is an exception.Cuba has started an investment programme worth millions of dollars which has included the purchase of harvesters and agricultural aircraft to give a boost to rice production.

Rice crops have shown a clear rising tendency, though it is far from covering the national demand and resolving all its problems. In 2012, humid husk rice (not processed in driers and mills) registered a 13.3 percent increase as compared to the previous year, to up to 641,600 tons, according to the National Office of Statistics and Information (ONEI).

Compared to other agricultural productions that shrank, or grew less than what had been planned, rice surpassed the plan by 2 percent last year and registered the biggest harvest in history, with 320,792 tons ready for consumption, according to the balance meeting of the Grains Agribusiness Group. The figure surpassed by 52,000 tons or 19.3 percent the 2011 total.

Though with less drive, 2013 also began with positive figures: rice increased by 2.5 percent in the first trimester, according to a preliminary ONEI report.

The boost has actually been given by the non-state sector, which as a whole increased its harvest by 20 percent in 2012 as compared to the previous year, with the private producers in the lead: they harvested 25 percent more than in 2011.

Rice farming is one of the activities that have most attracted the farmers who requested idle land in usufruct. A tour of the highways that cross the island reveals rice fields in the most unexpected corners of the geography.

In contrast, the state sector did not achieve all the expected results in 2012. The biggest non-fulfilments were registered by the Los Palacios grains agribusiness group in the western province of Pinar del Río as well as its parallel in the province of Las Tunas in eastern Cuba.

The setbacks were due to bad organisation of the sowing and mistakes in planning, official sources admitted. The delay in the supply of inputs aggravates the technological limitations. The opportune shortage of harvesters and other equipment, and the non-fulfilments in the collection of the harvested cereal are some of the common complaints of rice growers.

To cover that gap, the Cuban government has undertaken an investment programme worth millions of dollars (agricultural aircraft, harvesters, tractors, wagons, storage silos and dryers), initially concentrated in those provinces and enterprises where it can benefit the most. One of the favoured enterprises is Sur del Jibaro, Sancti Spíritus province, in the centre of the country, a national leader in rice yields, production and efficiency.

Who is financing the investments? “We have the required financial resources, the same that we spend today on imports,” President Raúl Castro said when he reiterated the call to strengthen the food programme in a message sent to a meeting of the Agricultural Workers Union last September 14.

For the current year, the Grains Agribusiness Group has planned a new record of around 394,000 tons. It would later continue expanding the sowing areas and yields to round off more than 500,000 tons in 2016. If achieved, the inevitable plate of rice on the table of the majority of Cubans would have a less bitter taste for the national accounts. (2013)

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