By Marc Frank
HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba is producing less food than it did five years ago despite efforts to increase agriculture production, the government reported on Friday.
Some export crops and farm output aimed at substituting food imports registered minor gains, but overall output last year remained below 2007 levels, according to a report issued by the National Statistics Office (http://www.one.cu/aec2011/esp/20080618_tabla_cuadro.htm.).
The government has also reported that food prices rose 20 percent in 2011.
Cuban President Raul Castro has made increasing food production a priority since he took over as president from his ailing brother, Fidel, in 2008.
The communist country imports up to 70 percent of its food and is investing hundreds of millions of dollars to boost production of rice, beans, coffee and milk and reduce imports.
Domestic production of two Cuban food staples has increased, the government said. Rice production reached 566,400 tonnes compared with 439,600 tonnes in 2007, and farmers produced 133,000 tonnes of beans with 97,200 tonnes in 2007.
To stimulate production, Castro has decentralized decision-making, opened up more space for farmers to sell directly to consumers and raised prices the state pays for produce. He has stopped short of allowing market forces to take hold and drive production.
Marino Murillo, who is leading efforts to steer Cuba's state-dominated economy in a more market-friendly direction, announced in July that a government effort to reduce state bureaucracy in the agriculture sector had recently been completed.
Speaking to the National Assembly, he outlined plans for separating quasi-cooperatives from the state and allowing them to operate like private cooperatives. These operations, formed by state-run companies in the mid-1990s on 30 percent of Cuba's arable land, have performed poorly.
Murillo also said at that time that a land-lease program begun in 2008 involving some 170,000 farmers would be expanded to allow up to five times more land per individual.
Private farmers produce the bulk of the food in Cuba on a fraction of the land. This has led farmers and agricultural experts inside and outside the country to call on the state to pull back further and let market forces drive the sector.
(Reporting By Marc Frank; Editing by Toni Reinhold)