Chile aims to double agricultural exports in a decade

Chile is aiming to double its agricultural and livestock exports over the next decade to as much as $35 billion per year as it increases investments in dams and improves access to overseas markets, Agriculture Minister Carlos Furche said on Wednesday.

While the Andean country's mining sector, the hub of its economy, has seen firms scale back production and cut jobs due to a prolonged slump in the copper price, its agricultural industry has kept growing.

Chile, the world's top exporter of fresh grapes and blueberries, posted record exports of food, including fruit, livestock, wine and salmon, of just over $16 billion last year. That was about three times what it shipped abroad 10 years ago.

The country also is a key exporter of wine, cherries and walnuts.

"Demand for food has no place to go but grow because the (global) population continues to expand ... it is realistic and possible over the next 10 years to put as our target a doubling of the value of exports to between $30 billion and $35 billion," Furche told Reuters in an interview in Santiago.

The minister, who is a member of the ruling Socialist Party and trained as an agricultural engineer, added that the value of agricultural exports could reach $18 billion next year and be as high as $20 billion by the end of this decade.

Those exports, however, are forecast to fall by between 5 percent and 8 percent this year in step with falling prices for some products.

To achieve its agricultural export goals, Chile is investing up to $250 million annually to build 10 new dams and repair others, a move made urgent by reduced rainfall in its main farming belt in the central part of the country.

"We can't keep looking at drought as an emergency, we have to incorporate this as a structural reality," Furche said.

He added that irrigation of about half the country's 1.2 million hectares of agricultural land could be improved by expanding new technologies that could double the efficiency of water usage.

Chile is a signatory to the ambitious 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which officials says should boost food exports.

Dairy producers will gain better access to markets in Japan and Canada, and citrus exporters will get a better foothold in Japan, Furche said.