After world food prices rose to a record level in February, World Bank President Robert Zoellick commented that food prices have risen to “dangerous levels and threaten tens of millions of poor people”. The FAO warned that, “The low-income food deficit countries are on the front line of the current surge in world prices.” Haiti, which imports nearly 50 percent of its food, according to the WFP, could be especially vulnerable. Already in Haiti, an estimated 2.5-3.3 million people are food insecure. The combination of the earthquake, rising international prices, the cholera epidemic and the upcoming rainy season could push this already too large a number, even higher.
Although the effects of the rise in prices will be felt in the short term, the problem of food sovereignty is a long term one. Haiti was not always a food-deficit country; although it now imports over 80 percent of rice consumed, in 1988 it was closer to 50 percent. After the rice market was opened up, cheap imports from the US flooded the market, devastating local production capabilities and discouraging investment. Just last year, Bill Clinton publicly apologized for the policies saying, “It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake,” adding, “I had to live everyday with the consequences of the loss of capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people because of what I did; nobody else.” Chief humanitarian officer of the UN John Holmes echoed this assessment, noting that, “A combination of food aid, but also cheap imports have ... resulted in a lack of investment in Haitian farming, and that has to be reversed.”
Despite these high profile endorsements for investment in agriculture, little has been done. The 2010 UN humanitarian appeal included nearly $60 million for the agricultural sector, yet despite the overall appeal being 75 percent funded, the agriculture sector was just 54 percent funded, a lower percent than 10 of the 13 sectors. In comparison to the $30 million in funding for agriculture, an astonishing $365 million was given for food aid, which predominantly comes in the form of foreign foodstuffs and has a negative effect on the productivity of local farmers. Proposals for food aid that would simultaneously give Haitian rice production a boost have been passed over so far. The UN launched a new funding drive for 2011 in December 2010 and is asking for an additional $43 million for agriculture. Thus far, only $500,000 has been funded. Despite the urgent need for investment in agriculture, which accounts for nearly 25 percent of Haiti’s GDP, the sector grew just 0.03 percent last year. It is clear that much more needs to be done to secure the investment that is needed for long term food security.
In the short term, however, a number of factors have converged that may lead to acute problems. Even before the run-up in international food prices, prices in Haiti had risen since the earthquake. The Associated Press reported in March of last year that the price of imported rice had already risen 25 percent since the earthquake. More recently this trend has only been exacerbated. From September 2010 to February prices for imported rice have increased by around 50 percent. The Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET), in their most recent update, noted that:
Food prices in general, and rice prices in particular, are currently above 2008 prices. The largest fluctuations are in prices for local rice and red bean crops, averaging close to 10 percent and 11 percent a year, respectively. Prices for these crops have gradually climbed back up to their post-quake levels and, in less than a month, have outstripped December 2009 prices by 15 to 20 percent. These rising prices will erode the ability to access food, and thus the food security, of poor urban and rural households which normally depend on the market for their food needs.
Adding to the pressure are the effects of Hurricane Thomas and the cholera epidemic. The epidemic, which has killed over 4,000 and infected hundreds of thousands, was particularly prevalent in the rice growing regions of Haiti. The Globe and Mail reported on the effects this has had on food prices and availability two weeks ago:
Farmers and the labourers they rely on to harvest rice are refusing to go into the marsh-like paddies because they fear cholera will infect them.
This is causing ripples across the country, from markets in Port-au-Prince, where there is less food available for purchase, to families in Haiti’s northern regions who travel south for farm jobs during harvest but are afraid to risk wading into the fields.
In the Artibonite itself, nearly 90 per cent of respondents to a recent Haitian government survey said they have felt the effects of the link between water and cholera. Meat prices in local markets have tripled because people are afraid to eat fish from the river. Labourers willing to work in the fields are charging a premium, cutting into farmers’ already thin margins.
The reduced production not only will exacerbate short-term shortages, but also will have lasting effects. The Globe and Mail note that, “The impact of the cholera scare will likely be felt throughout the coming year. Farmers who weren’t able to sell at market over the past few months will plant less this spring. Then when that crop is harvested, they will have less to sell.”
This perfect storm of food insecurity is coming at a particularly bad time for Haiti, where the months of April and May are generally the least food secure months of the year. FEWS NET’s seasonal calendar shows that at this time of the year the harvest from the fall crop is coming to an end, and the new planting season is about to begin at the onset of the upcoming rainy season in April. The timing has led FEWS NET to warn that:
The size of the food insecure population will be larger than usual, peaking in April/May, when food reserves are at their lowest level of the year. Even after the June harvests, there will still be higher than average levels of food insecurity due to expected shortfalls in crop production as a result of the socioeconomic effects of the cholera outbreak and the damage caused by Hurricane Thomas.
Although aid work in the rural agricultural lands of Haiti may not be as appealing to large NGOs as the high-profile work in the camps around the capital, it is clear that urgent work must be done to prepare for and mitigate what could potentially be the next calamity in Haiti.