Food Sovereignty in Haiti – Part Two

his is the second installment of a two-part article. Click here to read part one.


The gangs running rampant in Haiti have created a blockade that is starving the country. Due to their targeting of the main ports, no ships have been able to dock for more than a month. This spells disaster for a nation that imports around 60% of all food and more than 80% of rice, its most important staple. Adding to the problem is that much of the food already in the country is subject to looting or is unable to be delivered as gang violence and massive protests paralyze the nation.

Just when it seemed that it couldn’t get any worse, the World Food Programme announced last Friday that hunger has reached a “catastrophic level” for the first time ever in Haiti. While 4.7 million people (up from the 4.5 million reported earlier) already do not have enough to eat and 1.8 million are at the emergency stage of hunger, there are now 19,000 in the capital’s Cité Soleil neighborhood at this catastrophic level. The practical translation of this term is the very real possibility of death by starvation unless these people can be reached with emergency food.


The government’s latest appeal for foreign military assistance reflects the overall severity of the situation. It comes amidst a period so dark that many wonder if Haiti will ever again realize the potential enshrined in its hard-won independence back in 1804. Much needs to happen on the political and security fronts in the coming months, or perhaps years, to nurture hope for that realization. But just as clearly there are things that can be set in motion right now to help rebuild agriculture to once again become the mainstay of Haiti’s economy.


In this second installment of a two-part article, we would like to look to that future. Specifically, we are convinced that Haiti could achieve national food sovereignty by making the country an international showcase for engaging and supporting its one million smallholder farmers to set a new global standard for sustainability, self-reliance and prosperity.


Throughout the developing world there are some 500 million smallholder family farms of 2 hectares (5 acres) or less. The people living and working on those farms add up to 2.5 billion, which turns out to be one third of humanity. Collectively they have come to be recognized as the largest under-performing segment of the global economy.


There is a burgeoning worldwide movement to engage these smallholders to improve their productivity and incomes, and in the process become a major force in addressing the interconnected global challenges of climate change, food security and sovereignty, and mass migration to name a few.


Herein lies a unique opportunity for Haiti to become a global leader in the smallholder revolution already gathering momentum throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America.


This is an admittedly ambitious plan and will require extensive consultation with smallholders, government ministries (when they are functioning again), NGOs, donor governments and other relevant stakeholders. Meanwhile, on behalf of the Smallholder Farmers Alliance (SFA), we would like to begin the consultation with some observations, suggestions and experiences that we hope can contribute to rallying support for this concept.


For those readers who may not be ready for the deep dive into agriculture and food sovereignty that follows, here is a summary of the subjects covered:


  • Local Seed Sourcing: Food sovereignty starts with smallholders owning and managing the source of their own open-pollinated, non-hybrid and non-GMO seed in the form of ‘seed banks’.


  • Local Food Purchasing: Having the World Food Programme and other providers of school meals and emergency food purchase more locally is a start, but they are handicapped by their own donor restrictions.


  • Ask the Farmers: The first survey of its kind in Haiti gathered extraordinarily detailed information on farm practices from close to 27,000 smallholders, and the results read like a roadmap for transforming the agricultural sector of the Haitian economy.
  • Fix the U.S. Farm Bill: This U.S. legislation places arcane restrictions on USAID when establishing programs to improve smallholder farming in Haiti and other countries.


  • Invest in Regenerative: While not yet a household name, regenerative agriculture is emerging as the new global gold standard for sustainable farming. Haiti is already involved and could take on an even greater role.


  • Working for Gender Equity: Providing micro loans to women farmers is one of the SFA’s most successful programs and has lessons for improving agriculture through gender equity.


At this point we are going past ‘article’ and into ‘treatise’ territory in terms of page length, but we are passionate about these issues and hope readers will bear with us for the duration.


Local Seed Sourcing


No matter where in the world you go to learn about the changing role of smallholder farmers, the story always starts with seeds. How you get the seeds, what kind of seeds are involved, how the seed gets replenished following harvest, and who owns and manages the overall seed system.


There are infinite local variations, but the basic SFA model follows a universal norm. Farmers receive seed from a seed bank which they own and manage. They return the same amount after harvesting, adding 10% more in weight as long as it has been a good season.


In Haiti, it generally takes around 3 years to get a seed bank operating at peak efficiency, but from that point on it can be a perpetual source of high-quality seed for grains and pulses with very few additional inputs.


The SFA’s version of the bank starts with good quality open-pollinated, non-hybrid seed that is distributed to farmers. Then we provide high quality hand tools along with agricultural training in both organic and regenerative systems. The quality of what is returned to the seed bank continues to improve, and by the third year it is ready to be used as seed for planting. Before that point the germination rate and quality can be uneven.


The local variation that makes us different relates to the core SFA mode of operation. Smallholder members grow, transplant and look after trees (close to 10 million since our inception in 2010) in order to be part of our seed bank and the related tool supply and training programs.


Farmer-owned and operated seed banks can only work with non-hybrid seed. Conventional large-scale farming is based on hybrid and/or GMO seeds, neither of which will yield the same results from saved seed. When smallholders are forced to grow hybrids, they are automatically outside the seed bank system and will always be dependent on outside sources for both the seed itself and the chemical inputs necessary to grow the hybrids.


Seed banks represent the great divide between smallholder farming and large-scale conventional agriculture. When seed is local and managed by farmers themselves, it lays the foundation for food sovereignty.


During these very turbulent times in Haiti, SFA farmers who are part of local seed banks know that seed is already there for the next planting season at no out-of-pocket cost to them. Many of their neighbors, on the other hand, are uncertain where their seed will come from, what it might cost, or if it will be available at all.


One proviso here is that we are not saying that all hybrids are inherently bad. There are some that can work well with organic farming systems, but they are the exception rather than the norm.


Local Food Purchasing


Haiti will never have food sovereignty until it is weaned off food imports. It can’t happen all at once, but a practical place to start is with the various international institutions and NGOs that provide food for school meals and emergency food for the most vulnerable in the population.


The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) provides hot meals to close to 300,000 children a day across more than 1,000 schools (although most are closed at the moment due to the security situation), making it the largest food safety net in the country. The best estimate is that taken together, WFP, other UN agencies, and NGOs like Food For The Poor, collectively represent up to 5% of all food imported to Haiti. Conversely, the combined percentage of what they purchase locally is less that 2% of what they distribute.


Here is the moral dilemma that all in this category face: their donors provide most of their support in kind as food, and the very limited amount they receive in cash for local purchase must be used to purchase the maximum amount of food possible. That puts Haitian smallholders at a disadvantage in two ways. First, if the product being purchased is rice, local farmers cannot compete with subsidized imported rice from the USA. Second, even though there is a desire to purchase locally, as long as the price is right, smallholders are generally not organized sufficiently to be able to offer the volumes necessary to achieve lower unit costs. In addition, smallholders struggle with issues like organizational structure, temporary storage, transportation and other features of a food supply chain that international institutions and NGOs require.


What is needed are creative partnerships that provide targeted support for building the capacity of smallholder food supply chains to international standards, and then linking those supply chains with purchasers who want local produce for school meals and emergency feeding. It is not fair to ask the purchasers to cover the cost of both parts of that equation.


It also needs to be said that many of the foreign government donors supporting smallholder agriculture in Haiti are hell bent on imposing hybrid seeds and chemical inputs. They start by subsidizing both with the expectation that farmers will get used to this system and pay full price after the subsidies run out. There are almost certainly some successes in this approach out there, but they have alluded almost all who have gone looking for them over a period of years.


Ask the Farmers


Here is a novel concept: ask farmers themselves what they need to farm more efficiently.


The SFA and Acceso did just that when we jointly led the Haiti Food Security Survey that was published last October. This groundbreaking undertaking represents input from close to 27,000 smallholders throughout Haiti as to what they need to improve their farming and significantly increase food production.


Together those surveyed cultivate close to 13,000 hectares of agricultural land, and the organizations they are members of, or are connected with, employ 252 agronomists and 2,255 seasonal field workers. While these numbers are modest, it was felt the survey pool was a large enough sample to be representative of the sector.


There are many indicators in the survey results that address issues related to food security and sovereignty, notably that farmers indicated they could increase each area of food production by an average of 50% with additional support. The survey includes a detailed breakdown and ranking of exactly what categories of support they are looking for.


Fix the U.S. Farm Bill


In the first installment of this two-part article, we were clear that we are not suggesting that hardworking American farmers set out to create a rice market for themselves 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. This applies to rice in particular and food as a U.S. domestic political tool in general.


Following is a case in point. And please read to the end before passing judgement on USAID.


In February of this year, USAID awarded a grant of US$50 million, spread over five years, to an organization that will use the funds to train smallholder farmers in one area of Haiti in order to improve productivity and household income. For all the groups that originally applied for the grant, it was stipulated that half the total, or $25 million, was to be used to purchase food from U.S. farmers (a large portion would be for rice) for distribution for free in Haiti, including in the same areas where farmers would be helped to grow more food to sell in local markets. Of that $25 million for U.S. food purchase, up to 40% could be used to cover shipping and handling in order to get the food in question to Haiti.


In response to the jaws that have dropped in reading the above: no, we are not making this up. And no, this is not a one-time bureaucratic error. This is policy and it happens in many other parts of the world where USAID provides grants for agricultural improvement.


However, this is not being done because USAID has chosen this as an optimum way to operate. It is because of something called the U.S. Farm Bill that was conceived in the 1930s as a way to protect both American farmers and consumers. That original bill has been revised and renewed periodically since its inception, with provisions added that link overseas aid to the purchase of U.S. grown food, even when it makes absolutely no sense to do so and is a colossal waste of taxpayer money.


Invest in Regenerative


There is a quiet transformation underway in agriculture, which has long been a major contributor to climate change. While not yet a household name, regenerative agriculture is emerging as the new global gold standard for sustainable farming. Rather than contributing to climate change, this holistic system of land management actually helps to reverse it by making measurable improvements to farmland, biodiversity and the environment in the course of producing nutritious food, fiber and other products. The regenerative approach also tracks the impact of agriculture on the farmers, their families and their communities.


The SFA is host to an important trial in Haiti for regenerative cotton, and the results are expected to be adopted by smallholder farmers outside our borders. There is a significant opportunity to expand this trial to include food crops and to work with other groups of smallholders across the country.


For more information check out the YouTube recording of a recent panel “Where is Regenerative Agriculture Headed” that took place at Columbia University in New York City. You may also want to check out an issue of The Lydion Magazine that has several articles exploring the intersection of smallholder farming, data economics and regenerative agriculture.


Working for Gender Equity


The SFA began a microcredit loan program in 2012. With support from the Raising Haiti Foundation, it has steadily grown and to date we have provided 1,344 loans to 538 beneficiaries, 95% of whom are women. And we have maintained a 100% repayment record without a single default.


We attribute the success of the program to the fact that the loans are managed by women farmers themselves, and this is a lesson that can inform other agricultural services targeted for women.


In the microcredit operation, women form into small groups that are responsible for deciding who gets a loan from within the group. They are then collectively responsible for making sure each loan is repaid. Loans range from US$50 to $500 and are used to finance small side businesses to supplement farm income as well as to make farm improvements.


Going Forward


Obviously the first priority in the coming months must be to stabilize Haiti and take back power from the gangs. However, smallholder farming is having a global moment and now is the time to start taking advantage of that situation for the benefit of Haitian farmers and the nation.


Author: `