Food Sovereignty in Haiti – Part One

This is the first of a two-part article.

Haiti is dependent on food from outside the country, despite being a nation of farmers with tremendous untapped agricultural potential. Now that imported food can’t get through due to escalating gang violence in urban areas, including at the country’s main port, this fragile nation is on the precipice of a major food catastrophe.

Understanding what led to this situation is key to coming up with solutions regarding food. However, that explanation needs to be prefaced by definitions of two key terms: food security and food sovereignty.

Food security is when systems are in place for any country, Haiti included, to obtain and distribute enough food to feed its citizens. The source of that food can be domestic or imported, but the important thing is that the source and the means of distribution are both reliable and protected.

Food sovereignty, in turn, means that a country has a domestic food system that local farmers, producers and distributors have all been involved in shaping. The classic definition of food sovereignty also requires that what is produced is healthy, culturally appropriate, and grown using ecologically sound and sustainable methods.

Rather than food security, Haiti has the opposite. For decades they have imported around 60 percent of all the country’s food. When supplies were flowing, they had an approximation of food security, even though it was never enough to adequately feed everyone. Disruptions in international shipping during the pandemic caused periodic delays, but now the ships carrying food are unable to unload because gangs are blocking access to the main port. The result is that Haiti has one of the highest levels of food insecurity in the world. The United Nations reports that 4.5 million Haitians, or nearly half the population, are facing crisis or emergency hunger levels.

As recently as the mid-1980s Haiti had a relative level of food sovereignty. That is no longer the case because so much of its food is imported. In addition, the country’s estimated one million smallholder farms (approximately one farm for every 11 citizens) have long been left without agricultural support and on average produce less than half their potential yield.

How the situation got to this point goes all the way back to independence in 1804, but the story can also be told by tracking just one food item, namely rice, and going back just over three decades.

That was the last time Haiti grew close to 100% of the rice it needed, and there was enough being produced to export as well. Now more than 80% of all rice consumed in Haiti is purchased from U.S. farmers1. That rice is sold in local markets the length and breadth of Haiti, and in every one of those markets the imported U.S. rice is cheaper than the small amount of locally grown rice that is for sale.

This disparity in pricing is the result of U.S. taxpayers paying for subsidies to rice farmers, which averaged around $400 million annually from 2004 to 20182, as well as a lowering of the tariff from 50 to 3% on imported rice that was imposed on Haiti by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The international average tariff for imported rice is 10.3%, although it is higher in countries that are protecting their domestic rice farmers such as South Korea (511%), Japan (274%) and Taiwan (248%) to name a few3.

It is hard to believe that a country so poor could be so essential to American rice producers. Haiti has for many years been the largest foreign market for U.S. long grain milled rice in the world, and the third largest market for all categories of rice combined4. This is all the more bizarre when you consider that Haiti has a population of 11.4 million, making it roughly on par with the state of Ohio.

In describing this rice scenario, we are not trying to cast aspersions on hardworking American farmers. Neither are we suggesting that there was a master plan to cripple agriculture in Haiti. But the plain truth is that a series of incremental decisions, made over decades and which for the most part were protectionist rather than predatory at their inception, can now be seen as cumulatively and unequivocally wrong and destructive.

We also want to differentiate between U.S. rice imported on a purely commercial basis and rice that is imported as food aid by the World Food Programme (WFP) and various NGOs. Humanitarian rice comes from several countries of origin and is distributed free of charge to those most in need; it is also the source for the majority of school feeding programs throughout the country. WFP is the largest provider in this humanitarian category and they represent around 4% of total rice imports to Haiti.

Adding further to the country’s food insecurity of late is that two out of WFP’s four warehouses were looted in recent weeks by gangs, reducing food stocks (the majority of which was rice) by one third.

Haiti is dependent on food from outside the country, but it could largely feed itself if smallholders there were given the right guidance, training, and access to local markets free from the effects of foreign farm subsidies and artificially low import tariffs. Fixing these things will not fix the lawlessness and gang violence gripping the country at present, but it is certainly worth starting now to work on long term solutions to address food sovereignty.

In part two of this article, to be sent out soon, we will propose some steps that could be taken in the short term that could lay the foundation for a broader long-term plan for the future.




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