| PORT-AU-PRINCE |From the print edition
AID workers sometimes blame Haiti’s seemingly limitless supply of cheap imported rice for the country’s struggle to feed itself. More than half the population lives on the land, but still the country ships in half its food and 80% of its rice. Diri Miami, as imported rice from the United States is locally known, has become a staple over the past 30 years. The imports are prevalent partly because, at 3%, Haiti’s import tariffs on food are among the lowest in the Caribbean. This, combined with generous subsidies to farmers in the United States, means that the rice is cheaper than locally produced food. Many have argued for higher tariffs to protect local farmers. But a new drive to improve self-sufficiency aims not to raise tariffs but to make Haitian agriculture more efficient—and to change Haitian diets, too.
Michel Martelly, the president, has declared that within three years he wants Haiti to be producing 60% of its own food. So far higher duties are not on the agenda. Though it may undercut local farmers, cheap foreign produce at least means that “people have food on the table”, says Pierre Gary Mathieu, head of the government’s food-security unit. “A government has to make a choice: you have to feed people, or else there are political costs,” he says. In the short term, at least, raising tariffs could be disastrous in a country where three-quarters of the population lives on less than $2 a day. Already, one in ten people struggles to eat a daily meal and half eat only two meals, with little meat, vegetables, eggs or milk.
Haiti has pulled off agricultural successes in the past: during a farming boom in the 1980s, before the 1986 uprising that forced the dictator “Baby Doc” Jean Claude Duvalier out of office and triggered years of instability, a programme called “bon tè, bon teknik, bon rekolt” (“good soil, good technique, good harvest”) raised the average yield of haricot beans more than fivefold, according to Marcel Augustin, who ran the project and is now head of arable policy at the agriculture ministry.
But ramping up domestic production will take time. Even if Mr Martelly’s ambitious plan to double rice production succeeded, this would still produce barely half the rice that is consumed. In the boom of the 1980s, domestic rice production was equal to only about a third of today’s consumption. Mr Augustin says that turning the farming industry around could take two decades.
For that reason, he suggests, Haitians should be encouraged to change their eating habits and adopt the diets of their grandparents. Locally grown crops such as yam, manioc, sorghum, sweet potatoes and maize were the staples of previous generations, who had rice as a Sunday treat. They grow easily in Haiti and provide a nutritious alternative to rice, he says.
Foreign aid agencies are also changing their policies in a way that may benefit local farmers. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has distributed wheat, cooking oil and other food from the United States in Haiti, to the irritation of some local producers. That changed after the 2010 earthquake, which destroyed Haiti’s only flour mill, meaning that NGOs working with USAID could no longer sell American wheat to fund their work. Since then, more aid has been distributed in the form of cash vouchers, which can be spent on locally produced food. That programme is due to be expanded in September, when the agency will start to spend $12m a year on monthly $50 vouchers for the poorest families to spend on locally grown food. It is a small piece of good news for Haiti’s struggling farmers—and in time may boost Haitians’ meagre diets.