Agriculture (including fishing) employed 79 percent of the working population and contributed an estimated 14 percent of GDP in 1996. Much agricultural production goes to provide food for the families producing it. The major agricultural products are copra, taro, bread-fruit, sweet potatoes, and vegetables; fishing is another major source of food for I-Kiribati. The principal cash crop is coconuts yielding copra, which accounted for an estimated 60 percent of merchandise export earnings in 1998. Bananas, screw-pine, breadfruit (a round seedless fruit from the mulberry family whose texture resembles bread when cooked), and papaya are also cultivated as food crops. Seaweed provided an estimated 8 percent of domestic export earnings in 1998. Pigs, chickens, and cattle are the most common agricultural livestock. Most of the land is farmed, and agriculture accounts for 51 percent of land-usage.
Average annual rainfall varies greatly, from 3,000 millimeters (118 inches) in the northern islands to 1,500 millimeters (59 inches) in Tarawa and 700 millimeters (28 inches) in the Line Islands, but the rains are reliable and sufficient to provide stable agricultural conditions.
The closure of the state fishing company was announced in 1991, as a result of a dramatic decline in the fish catch. Fish provided only 2 percent of export earnings in 1996 (compared with 32 percent in 1990). However, earnings from exports of fish had recovered to an estimated 12 percent of domestic export earnings by 1998. Agricultural GDP grew at an average annual rate of 4.1 percent in 1990-98, comfortably faster than the rate of increase of the population. Kiribati allows other nations such as South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and the United States to fish in its territorial waters in exchange for license fees that amounted to US$28.3 million in 1998.