US rice doesn’t help struggling Haitian farmers

Paisley Dodds writes in Business Week about the negative impact of U.S. rice imports on Haitian farmers. Here are some excerpts with the link to the full article below.

 Haiti’s rice farmers are dismayed. It’s nearly harvest time in this fertile valley where the bulk of Haiti’s food is grown, and they’re competing once again with cheap U.S. imported rice. Just down the road, vendors are undercutting them, selling the far less expensive grain. Subsidized U.S. rice has flooded Haiti for decades. Now, after the Jan. 12 quake, 15,000 metric tons of donated U.S. rice have arrived. “I can’t make any money off my rice with all the foreign rice there is now,” said Renan Reynold, a 37-year-old farmer who makes an average of about $600 a year. “If I can’t make any money, I can’t feed my family.”

Last month’s catastrophic earthquake that killed an estimated 200,000 people and spurred emergency food needs for more than 4 million has raised a familiar predicament for aid organizations — how to help without undermining Haiti’s fragile economy.

This nation born nearly 200 years out of a slave revolt hasn’t been able to feed itself for more than two decades and now imports most of its food. Since the quake, aid groups have spearheaded cash-for-work programs, some of which intend to help struggling farmers pay for seed. They’re also helping with irrigation and crop diversification projects and working with Haiti’s government to analyze soil.

But little is being done to change endemic problems, according to Jean Andre Victor, a Haitian agronomist. He is among analysts who believe Haiti needs radical agricultural reforms — not constant food aid. “There’s a long history in Haiti of groups like USAID flooding the market with rice and other imports,” said Victor. “This is not what we need. We need real help and that means completely changing the agricultural system.”

Agricultural production accounted for nearly half of gross domestic product in the 1970s. It now amounts to less than a third. And U.S. rice imports have long eclipsed Haitian production, due in part to smaller local yields because of environmental degradation and the lowest rice import tariffs in the Caribbean community.

The earthquake has only exacerbated needs in farming provinces. The government says more than a half-million people have fled the capital for provinces, which lack the infrastructure and food to sustain such a population surge. The coming rains will only make things worse.

When the earthquake hit, Haiti was recovering from about $1 billion in crop damage from 2008 tropical storms. Now, farmers lack cash to buy seeds for the planting season that begins in two weeks, and food prices have already risen 10 percent since the quake.

Aid organizations say families caring for displaced people are spending their savings to feed new arrivals and consuming food stocks.

“Rural areas experiencing the highest levels of displacement from Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas are the most affected,” said Dick Trenchard, Assessments Coordinator for the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization in Haiti.

. . .

But U.S. farmers also stand to benefit from the earthquake.

Last year, Washington paid farmers some $12.9 billion in subsidies, which critics say have unfairly deflated international prices. That makes it harder for poorer nations to develop their economies by expanding markets abroad.

Paul O’Brien of Oxfam America says the lessons of the harm of flooding a country like Haiti with subsidized rice should have been learned a long time ago.

“The days are gone when we can throw up our hands in terms of unintended consequences; we know now what these injections can do to markets,” he said. “The question we want asked is what is being done to guarantee long-term food security for Haitians.”

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5 thoughts on “US rice doesn’t help struggling Haitian farmers

  1. Your story about the plight of Haitian rice farmers addressed several reasons for Haiti’s dependence on imported rice, but missed a key point — that Haiti imports rice to meet the demands of its growing population.

    In the mid-1980s, Haiti’s rice production began to decline just as its population exploded. Since 1985, the country’s domestic rice yield has declined to just under 100,000 metric tons (MT) annually. Over the same time period, its population grew from 6.4 million to 9.8 million people — a 54 percent increase in 25 years. The population currently consumes an estimated 400,000 MT of rice annually — four times its annual production.

    Haiti’s mountainous terrain has 1.4 million acres of land available for cultivation — with an estimated 300,000 acres suitable for irrigation. Of those 300,000 acres, only 185,000 acres are irrigated. Even if all of those acres were dedicated to rice, production would be an estimated 200,000 MT of milled rice — just half of the country’s current consumption. Clearly, Haitian production cannot meet consumer demand.

    As a result of economic reforms initiated by the International Monetary Fund, the country’s rice export duty was reduced from 50 percent in 1994 to about 20 percent today. The substantial reduction in the official import duty may have contributed to a decrease in Haitian rice production, but domestic yield had failed to meet domestic demand long before the duty cut.

    U.S. rice farmers produce 20 billion pounds of rice each year — 50 percent of our rice crop is exported to foreign markets, such as Haiti. The proximity to Haiti and the ability of the United States to supply safe, affordable, abundant, high-quality rice have all factored into the increase in rice imports.

    After the Jan. 12 earthquake, both the U.S. Agency for International Development and the World Food Program procured rice for emergency humanitarian aid, providing much needed sustenance for the Haitian people at a time of desperate need. Thousands of earthquake victims without the means to buy rice needed aid urgently and the country’s rice producers alone could not meet that need.
    A natural solution to Haiti’s chronic food insecurity is increased agricultural production. Proper investment in agricultural technology and increasing crop yields would result in greater food security for all Haitians.
    The U.S. rice industry donated more than 1,300 MT of rice to the people of Haiti following the earthquake.

    1. Thank you for your comment, “The proximity to HAiti and the ability of the US to supply safe, affordable, abundant, high-quality rice…” I agree, except the most important factor, US white rice is made to export and feed mass people at the lowest cost. It is one of the least nutritious rices we can grow in the US and certainly doesn’t sustain the people like red, blue, and purple nutrient-rich rices that used to grow there.

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