EDITOR’S NOTE: In this guest commentary, Stacy Fitzgerald-Redd of USA Rice Federation responds to recent media reports that U.S. agriculture is to blame for the decline in rice production in Haiti.

Several media stories covering the devastation in Haiti following last month’s earthquake are pointing to U.S. farm and trade policy as the primary factor in driving Haiti’s rice farmers out of business and causing them to be dependent on U.S. rice to meet consumer demand.

The real story is that Haiti imports roughly 70 percent of its food needs (including rice) as a result of the basics of supply and demand — too little food to feed its growing population.

In the mid-1980s, Haiti’s rice production began to decline just as its population exploded. Since 1985, Haiti’s rice production has fluctuated, but generally declined to just under an average of 100,000 metric tons (MT) in the past three years. Over the same time period, its population grew from 6.4 million to 9.8 million — a 54 percent increase in just 25 years.

The population currently consumes an estimated 400,000 MT of rice annually — far above its production capacity.

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 the nutritional needs of its citizens. Increasing food imports are a natural result.

Several years ago, Haiti’s minister of agriculture admitted that while his country was “rice self-sufficient” when he was a child, rice was served only once a week in his home. Until the recent devastating earthquake, most Haitians had rice daily, as the country now imports rice at very competitive world prices.

One of the accusations in recent media reports was that imported rice was forced on Haiti as a result of reduced duties on agricultural imports. Duty cuts were part of economic reform and liberalization led by the International Monetary Fund in 1995, and a lower import duty accommodated the demand for rice by making rice imports cheaper and supplementing the inadequate domestic supply.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, rice imports in Haiti have increased by an average annual rate of 11 percent since 1985-86 while consumption has risen 6 percent over the same period.

The substantial drop in the official import duty from 50 percent to 3 percent in 1995 did reduce protection for Haiti’s rice farmers, but domestic production had failed to meet domestic demand long before the duty cut. Today’s effective duty protection is about 20 percent and reflects the addition by Haiti’s government of several import fees and charges.

Another significant factor that has dramatically affected Haiti’s ability to feed its citizens is the lack of investment in agricultural technology and production. This dearth of investment has crippled food production within the country and further exacerbated the population shift from rural to urban areas.

This position of food insecurity would wreak havoc on any nation, but it is particularly destructive in Haiti, where the average income is about $2 per day. Proper investment in agricultural research and development could improve Haiti’s ability to feed its citizens, boost income and employment, and lead to a more stable nation.

U.S. rice exports to Haiti have fed a growing nation unable to produce enough food on its own and are not responsible for driving Haitian rice farmers out of business. In the short term, U.S. rice farmers have provided critical food aid and rice donations to a hungry and devastated populace.

And as the country rebuilds, the U.S. rice industry will continue to support and encourage a revitalization that will offer Haiti a future that is eminently brighter than its past.

e-mail: sfitzgerald-redd@usarice.com