By Amaury Valdivia (El Toque)
HAVANA TIMES – In 2021, Cuba spent 280 million USD on buying chicken from the United States, when Cuban farmers could have practically produced the same amount of pork with that same money.
Last year, Cuba imported approximately 307,000 tons of chicken from the US. Every money transfer cost $909, as there are no banking facilities. This money could have been used instead to import fodder and other feed necessary to revive “pork agreements” with producers, which used to cover most of the country’s demand for pork meat up until a few years ago.
ElTOQUE’s calculations on the subject are based on regulations for pork production issued by the Ministry of Agriculture (MINAG) and prices published by Cuba’s Office of Statistics and Information in its 2020 annual report (the latest one available).
Doing the numbers
According to manuals from the Ministry of Agriculture (MINAG), cited by Cubadebate in July 2020, 346 kg of food is needed to fatten each animal until it reaches 90 kg in weight.
Within the framework of pork agreements, the State used to give breeders the so-called “pre-fattening” pigs (piglets up to 18 kg) and 70% of the food they need to gain weight. In exchange, pig farmers promised to sell these animals back to the State, at a set price. These agreements allowed for Cuban pork production to grow on the island, and in 2018, it exceeded production of 352,000 tons in live weight.
However, since 2019, MINAG began to defend the theory that they shouldn’t be “depending on the ship” and launched a campaign to cut feed imports. In theory, Cuba could cover the needs of national pig farming with agricultural harvests and industrial waste.
Up until now, approximately 45% of these animals’ diet coming from the State was imported. Approximately 108 kg per animal, including those that included 62 kg of protein (up to 18% of total dietary needs), which experts consider essential for fattening pigs.
In 2020, pig farmers such as Villa Clara resident Orelvis Peñate – with over 20 years experience in the field -, warned about the possible consequences of giving up “imported protein”: “In the old days, pigs were reared with cassava and corn, but it would take 12 more months to fatten pigs up. When you calculate the cost of what they eat, you don’t earn anything in the end.” Even so, the new policy steamed ahead and this year, pigs for slaughter dropped by to 228,000 tons (35% less than in 2018).
Pig farmers consider soybeans are considered the best for protein. Animals’ diets are structured around it, and are complimented with fodder, liquid feed and other foods.
Although, it’s different to what most people understand as soybean in Cuba. Breeders use this name to call soy flour or soybean meal (“cakes”), a derivative of the industrial processing of beans, with high protein content and it’s recommended for intensive pig and cattle breeding.
Soybean “cakes” have the advantage of being almost a third cheaper than pure soy. In 2020 (the year we’ve taken as a reference point for this article), Cuba bought soybean “cakes” for an average price of $398 USD per ton. Maize, another key component of balanced animal feed, sold for $220 USD per ton.
Pigs can lose up to 40% of their weight after slaughter. In order to get 1000 kg of meat ready for consumption, you need to process approximately 1600 kg of live weight, approximately 18 animals if you bear in mind the average weight of pigs delivered to the State in recent years. In fattening them up, they’d consume approximately 6,400 kg of food, according to the efficiency rate outlined by MINAG. Out of this figure, just over 2000 kg was imported up until 2018; especially the 1200 kg of protein essential for animals’ muscle development.
If they’d only used soybean “cakes” for protein, they would have only needed to invest $447 USD, $308 USD less than what they paid per ton for chicken imports in 2020. If you take poultry prices in 2021 as a reference, savings would have been even greater: $432 USD per ton of chicken they didn’t import. The math works out even in the worst price scenario.
Analysts estimate that soybean “cakes” will have gone up to $451 USD per ton by July. In this event, savings from the poultry import substitute will drop, but still be at least $398 USD per ton of pork produced. These savings could be used to buy other imported foods or to support part of national pig feed production.
Food makes up 70% of all breeders’ expenses, worldwide; it isn’t strange that this stands at over 80% in Cuba. Many of those who gave up their agreements in recent years did so because they were forced to with expensive animal feed prices or the clear inability to get a hold of it. MINAG’s failure to meet these agreements – which by mid 2020, owed over 90,000 tons of feed – also had an effect.
“Frozen chicken diplomacy”
Between 2014 and 2018, Cuba imported $1.4 billion USD in soy and its derivatives (beans, oil and “cakes”). It was in this same period that pork production experienced gradual growth. The decision to cut purchases of this grain, and take a chance on pig farmers finding a replacement, without additional investment from MINAG, put at end to that trend. In 2021, less animals were delivered for slaughter, for approximately 221,500 tons less (37% less than in 2018).
Meanwhile, chicken imports from the US doubled from 2020 to 2021.
Everything indicates that this will continue to be the policy, despite the advantages dedicating some of this money, that fills US farmers’ pockets, would have on national production. The “favorable situation” in the old days “won’t return, because sustaining food production with mostly imports is a practice that goes against the objective of a country achieving food sovereignty,” President Miguel Diaz-Canel announced during a national plenary on pork production in April. It’s both a praiseworthy objective, as it is hard to achieve.
Farmers with outstanding performance were called to the meeting. Reynier de Jesus, a Pinar del Rio resident who used to take care of 2500-3000 pigs years ago, was one of them. The drop in imported supplies forced him to reduce his pigsty to just 1500 animals. Yet he couldn’t help but refer to the urgency of the situation, despite his presence as an “example”: “We need everything that is produced and not fit for human consumption to be given to us. It’s not enough with just what pig farmers can plant.”
His colleagues have been saying more or less the same thing since 2019, and statistics of Cuban pork production confirm this.
However, chicken imports from the US have a double face – trade and politics – which is hard for Revolution Palace to give up on. The US Agriculture Coalition for Cuba, comprised of mainly business owners from the southern US, are the most active advocates for eliminating sanctions against the island. “The blockade against Cuba significantly restricts trade.
The Third Agriculture Conference between the two countries took place in Havana in early April. In his opening remarks, the Coalition’s president, Paul Johnson noted, “The blockade against Cuba limits trade significantly, the presence of many representatives in this room proves that there is a willingness to work together to resolve problems in bilateral agricultural trade.”
Imports, borderline questions
A few weeks ago, the Las Tunas’ province newspaper anticipated the possibility for “the agreements to make a comeback”. The number of pig farmers in this eastern province with an agreement with the State dropped from 200 to 5, in the past three years.
Those interested in rejoining the program need to have land they can produce some of the crops they will use to feed their animals, the local coordinator of MINAG’s Innovation Program, Raquel Ruiz Reyes, explained. In the meantime, the State will provide piglets and some 30 kg of feed per animal, as well as bran and other nutritional supplements.
While this amount is less than half of what the State used to hand out as “imported protein”, reestablishing this practice implies the unspoken agreement that urgent changes need to be made in pork production management.
Cuba has been failing in harvesting soybeans and maize on the state farms for over a decade, and individual farmers aren’t seduced by the State’s low harvest purchasing prices. An alternative would be for breeders to buy their supplies abroad, but they are forced to negotiate via state import companies if they do, which up until now, have only proven to be more an obstacle than facilitator.
One of these companies is the MINAG’s Logistical Business Group (GELMA). In April, national TV broadcast a feature report in which they interviewed pig farmers such as Domingo Marco Rubio, who had to buy imported feed from GELMA in order to feed his dark-skinned pigs. “They have their commercial profit margin, but it’s really expensive for us at 950 MLC (similar to USD) per ton,” he lamented.
Especially given the fact that the same product doesn’t cost more than 360 USD per ton on online wholesale platforms such as Alibaba, and in Europe, prices were set below 400 USD per ton at the beginning of the year.
Wide profit margins given to state importing companies have motivated other articles by El Toque and are the reason for regular complaints. However neither MINAG or the Government have taken the hint so far. Nor are there any explanations of why Cuba’s priority is foreign trade of ready-to-consume products rather than raw materials Cuba could use for producing these goods on the island. In this context, they are choosing imported chicken instead of pig feed.