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UF And Cuban Agricultural Economists Discuss Impact Of Lifting Trade Embargo

By:
Chuck Woods (352) 392-1773 x 281

Source(s):
Bill Messina messina@fred.ifas.ufl.edu, (352) 392-1881 ext. 308

GAINESVILLE—Politics aside, Florida agriculture — especially sugar cane, vegetables and citrus — could face yet another serious challenge from abroad if or when the U.S. embargo against Cuba is lifted, say University of Florida agricultural economists who have been studying the issue for more than four years.

In fact, the long-term impact on Florida agriculture could be more significant than the 1995 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), said Bill Messina with the UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Messina heads a team of UF researchers who have been working with faculty at the University of Havana’s Center for Research on the International Economy since 1994 to study the agricultural and fisheries sectors in Cuba and assess the potential impact that lifting the embargo may have on Florida, United States and Cuban agriculture.

Conclusions from the study will be presented by UF and University of Havana researchers during a daylong research conference in Washington, D.C., Tuesday (Mar. 31). The research was funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in Chicago.

“It’s important to point out that our research on the Cuban agricultural sector does not address the politics of lifting the embargo,” Messina said. “The embargo has been in place since 1960, and no one knows if it will be lifted, but we need to get a handle on what’s going on in Cuba’s agricultural sector.

“After the devastating effects that NAFTA and the devaluation of the Mexican peso have had on segments of Florida agriculture, we must be prepared for the challenges and opportunities that will come with the end of the embargo, whenever that may be,” he said.

The research project on Cuban agriculture began in 1992 while faculty in the UF food and resource economics department were studying the potential impact of NAFTA on Florida agriculture.

“UF has an obligation to respond to the needs of Florida agriculture and consumers,” Messina said. “When we were conducting our NAFTA research, we began to look ahead to identify other trade-related issues with potentially important implications for Florida agriculture.

“Resumption of trade with Cuba is clearly one of those issues when you consider the geographic proximity of Cuba and Florida, the tremendous similarity of our agricultural production and the extensive volume of agricultural trade between the United States and Cuba prior to 1960.”

The research has the strong support of many Florida agricultural interests, including industry organizations such as the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, the Florida Sugarcane League, Florida Department of Citrus, Florida Farm Bureau and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Messina said five commodity sectors — sugar, citrus, vegetables, tropical fruits and fisheries — have been identified as the most likely candidates for trade and/or investment once commercial relations between the two countries are resumed.

“If Cuba comes back online, sugar is clearly an issue of real importance,” he said. “Cuba’s sugar export quota before the 1960 embargo was about twice the size of the entire U.S. sugar import quota now, so there has been a huge shift in the structure of the U.S. sweetener industry. Obviously, there would be some tough foreign policy issues to deal with here.

“Our research has identified several policy options which may help address these difficult issues without placing any additional burden on countries which presently hold quotas to export sugar to the U.S., or on domestic producers,” Messina said.

Cuba has the potential to become a major player in the world citrus market, but yields and fruit quality are quite low by Florida standards, he said. Vegetables and tropical fruits are also potential growth areas, but yields are low there as well. Before any trade could be resumed, Cuban exports would have to meet strict U.S. Department of Agriculture standards and regulations.

“Our estimate of Cuba’s citrus acreage in 1996 was about 238,000 acres, about one-fourth of Florida’s acreage,” he said. “The actual productive acreage in Cuba is probably less.”

Messina said segments of the fishery industries in the two countries might complement each other because some harvesting seasons in Cuba are different from those in the U.S.

He emphasized the research was aimed at providing objective information on Cuba’s agricultural and fisheries sectors to state and federal legislators, government agencies, private firms, consumer groups and others. The conference has attracted registrants from USDA, the State Department, the Congressional Research Service, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the International Monetary Fund and many agricultural industry organizations and companies.

The conference, which will be held at The Cosmos Club, is sponsored by the UF’s International Agricultural Trade and Development Center and co-sponsored by the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy in Washington, D.C.

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