There is some very good news today from Haiti with the announcement of a new groundbreaking national Food Security Survey that will use agricultural data to help significantly increase agricultural productivity over the next 12 months and beyond. The bad news is that this initiative is in direct response to a growing food crisis that is both national and international in scope. But let’s start with the good news.
A broad coalition of organizations has come together under the joint leadership of the Smallholder Farmers Alliance and Acceso, and in collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Rural Development. We are setting out to do something that has never been attempted before in Haiti. Our goal is to gather precise data regarding the smallholder food production already planned for the coming year, while at the same time finding out exactly how much more could be grown (by crop, by month and by region of the country) with the right additional inputs.
We are matching this information with details about smallholder seed banks that currently collect and store good quality local seeds for farmers. From them we are asking about both current plans and potential expansion in order to understand where the seed will come from for an increase in food production.
Also included in the survey are the organizations involved in food distribution, both ongoing programs such as school feeding as well as emergency distributions during natural disasters. From these groups we are asking for details about how much local produce they currently purchase, as well as a breakdown of the obstacles that currently hinder them from purchasing more from Haitian farmers.
Once the survey is completed, we will have an extraordinary level of detail regarding 47 different smallholder crops that are broken down by cereals, legumes, vegetables, tubers and fruit. There is also a section covering dairy product and aquaculture.
So, how does data help to fend off a food crisis? Because for the first time we will know exactly what it will take to significantly increase local food production, where to find the seeds needed for that expansion, and how to connect this increased output with food distribution organizations.
We will not have every one of Haiti’s estimated 500,000 smallholder farms included in the initial survey. But if we can get 10 or even 15% of them covered in the first round, that will be enough for the coalition of sponsoring organizations to start convening to determine the best way to use and share this data to address the food crisis in a manner that also builds long-term capacity.
|A French version of this ad will appear in Le Nouvelliste daily newspaper in Haiti over the next month.|
Ok, now for the bad news, which comes in two parts: first the international situation and then a Haiti-specific focus. While I am admittedly going on a bit here, I feel compelled to give some background to the international food crisis in order to understand how the Haitian version of this same crisis is impacted by the same forces that are at work in other developing countries.
Global Food Crisis
You will not have heard much yet about the global food crisis because headline space is already so crowded with the Covid-19 pandemic and the worldwide economic recession. However, there is near unanimous consensus among experts that the world is in the early stages of what will soon become the worst food crisis in the past half century. At the end of this article I have included a selection of recent food crisis headlines that did make it through this crowded field of contenders for our attention.
Our planet produces enough food to feed everyone. The issue is that food production–and particularly the staples of wheat, rice, corn and soybeans–is consolidated in a handful of countries and domestic agriculture in most developing nations has been marginalized for the past 60 years. The original plan to centralize the production of huge volumes of staple crops on large industrial-scale farms using hybrid seeds and chemical inputs did indeed work for decades. But that time has passed as we deal with the environmental legacy of how that food is grown and the economic and social implications of having developing countries dependent on imported food.
Then along comes the combined impact of a pandemic and a recession, and the global food supply chain has been disrupted at the same time as buying power in developing nations is reduced through massive job loss and economic instability. As less food is available for export, it becomes more expensive. Consumers in developing countries have less income with which to buy this more expensive food, but at the same time many of their currencies are being devalued because of the recession. Less money with less buying power makes imported food exorbitantly expensive.
Who will be affected by the food crisis? Based on UN sources, there were already some 135 million people facing acute hunger before the pandemic, but that number is projected to double in the coming months. By December, more than a quarter of a billion people throughout the developing world will not have enough to eat and many among them will be edging from acute hunger towards famine and a full-scale humanitarian catastrophe. The greatest impact will be in developing countries with three characteristics in common:
- they are net importers of food, or close to it, despite having the conditions necessary for growing large quantities of food within their borders, with the entire continent of Africa being a prime example of a collective net importer of food since the mid-1970s to the present day;
- they all have large numbers of smallholder farms per capita, although the majority of these farms produce significantly below-average yields per hectare compared to comparable crop yields on better-managed farms; and
- they all have resident international organizations–including the UN’s World Food Programme and a range of NGOs–that are tasked with the essential service of supporting school feeding programs and providing food to at-risk segments of the population on a regular basis. These same organizations are on standby to distribute food to those affected by natural disasters, with most of the food in their overall combined operations being imported.
Just as we know the food crisis is coming, we can also predict with certainty there will be new calls for increasing food production in developing nations and for building stronger regional markets to reduce dependence on imports from other parts of the world. There will be calls at the same time for food distribution organizations to purchase more food locally as they engage in much needed emergency responses. It is also fair to say that there will be a new focus on smallholder farmers in developing countries as having the greatest potential to increase domestic food production.
Who exactly are these smallholders? By definition these are farms under 2 hectares (5 acres) in size that are run largely by the extended family living on the farm. There are now some 500 million smallholder farms throughout the developing world. Add up the people who live and work on those farms and it comes to 2.5 billion, which is one third of humanity.
But herein lies the challenge. Smallholders are indeed key in responding to the food crisis, but at the same time they have been systematically ignored, marginalized and denied resources for the past 60 years. Most are cut off from research, agricultural training, high quality seed, financial tools and any benefits from subsidies. They are largely dependent on local community markets for sales or barter, and rarely have access to national or export markets.
Haiti’s Food Crisis
Haiti is the poster child for the three characteristics listed above and which make it vulnerable to a food crisis: it is a net importer of food (between 55 and 60%), it has high numbers of under-performing smallholder farmers, and local conditions make it absolutely essential for the World Food Programme and specialized NGOs to have a major ongoing role in food distribution combined with the capacity for emergency distributions when disaster hits.
In an article I co-authored with Timote Georges and Robert Johnson in early May titled Integrating Emergency Food With Smallholder Recovery in Haiti, we wrote:
Last November it was estimated that by March of this year, over 4 million Haitians, or more than 40% of the population, would be in need of emergency food assistance. Here we are in early May and close to 3 million people are now at the crisis stage of food insecurity (Phase 3), and over 1 million more are at the humanitarian emergency stage (Phase 4). The only other category is Phase 5: famine/humanitarian catastrophe, and there are some parts of the North West where this is already the case.
Domestic agriculture accounts for around 40% of Haiti’s food needs. Last year national agricultural production was down 12% from the previous year. Pre-Covid-19, the prediction was for a further reduction this year because of a combination of ongoing regional drought conditions, the high cost and limited availability of seed, and market uncertainties resulting from continued insecurity throughout the country coupled with the historic depreciation of the gourde. Now added to this list is Covid-19. And regardless of the scale of the outbreak, it is going to further reduce domestic production.
At the same time, international support for food assistance in Haiti is unlikely to increase from current levels in the short term because of the increased need in every developing country being impacted by the coronavirus. This support is likely to further decline in the medium to long term as Covid-19 disrupts the global food supply chain and the coming economic crisis puts pressure on donor government aid programs.
I will end with another excerpt from that same article:
These are unprecedented times for food systems around the world, and even more so in Haiti because of the precarious situation of the country and its farmers. Now is the time to align the diverse stakeholders that support smallholder farmers and farm communities. Now is the time to forge new partnerships that can help in building a more sustainable, resilient and productive rural economy.