On the evening of Jan. 12, the capital city of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, suffered a devastating earthquake. The natural disaster caused more than 200,000 people to perish and left nearly 1 million homeless, according to Haitian government estimates.

When a massive international relief effort was mounted to help the citizens of Haiti, the USA Rice Federation quickly responded to aid U.S. government humanitarian relief efforts.

Two days after the earthquake struck, USA Rice’s Food Aid Subcommittee met to decide how to accelerate the delivery of food, specifically rice, to the population of Haiti, where rice is a daily staple.

To expedite the food aid, the subcommittee requested that members be polled to determine the amount of rice stocks in Haiti and whether any rice might be in transit or in an exportable position. The panel urged USA Rice to contact the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Agency for International Development with polling results.

Late that afternoon, five members had responded with details about the amount of rice that was in Haiti or in an exportable position. USA Rice compiled the results, including contact information for the primary decision-makers involved. This information was sent to the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service and to the USDA Kansas City Commodity Office, which purchases commodities for both USDA and USAID. The reaction was very positive.

Over the ensuing three-day Martin Luther King holiday weekend, the Kansas City Commodity Office purchased 6,500 metric tons of U.S. rice in Haiti and another 6,500 metric tons at an export terminal in Louisiana. This rice was procured by the U.S. government to provide an immediate food supply to the people of Haiti in the wake of the tragedy.

Rice industry outreach

In a further demonstration of the U.S. rice industry’s commitment to humanitarian relief for Haiti, USA Rice initiated an industry campaign for donations for the purchase of rice for Haitian food relief. The donation effort provided the opportunity for individual members to help the citizens of Haiti and raised $15,850 to purchase rice.

It was donated to Operation USA, which assists developing communities in the United States and abroad in addressing problems related to natural and man-made disasters and chronic poverty.

In addition, USA Rice member companies and affiliated organizations have directly donated funds and rice valued at $653,000 for Haitian relief efforts.

“The U.S. rice industry has great good will and compassion for the affected citizens of Haiti, and the success of this fundraising demonstrates that,” USA Rice President and CEO Betsy Ward said. “We know that recovery efforts will be ongoing for some time, and USA Rice will continue to support donations and food aid for the Haitian people.”

Population boom, rice bust

Several news media stories covering the devastation in Haiti after the earthquake have seized on U.S. farm and trade policy and actions of the International Monetary Fund in the mid-1990s as the primary factors driving Haiti’s rice farmers out of business and causing the country to become dependent on U.S. rice to meet basic human needs. But a closer look at Haiti’s agricultural production capacity and population growth is needed to fully understand its rice production decline.

Haiti’s mountainous terrain has 1.4 million acres of land available for cultivation, including an estimated 300,000 acres suitable for irrigation. Of those 300,000 acres, only 185,000 are irrigated. Even if all 300,000 were dedicated to rice, production would be an estimated 200,000 metric tons of milled rice — just half of the country’s current consumption.

Haitian production cannot meet the minimum nutritional needs of the country’s citizens. Increasing food imports are a natural result.

Haiti imports roughly 70 percent of its food needs, including rice, as a result of the basic rules of supply and demand: It has 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 between 60,000 and 100,000 metric tons, but has generally declined to an average of 68,000 metric tons in recent years, with one notable exception in 2009. Over the same period, Haiti’s population has grown from 5.7 million to 10.2 million — an 80 percent increase.

The population consumes an estimated 400,000 metric tons of rice annually — far above the country’s production capacity. Despite its deficiency in rice production there is one example that demonstrates the potential to help Haiti become more rice self-sufficient — its rice production last year.

While the January earthquake put an international spotlight on Haiti’s agricultural situation, it was cyclones Gustav, Hanna and Ike in 2008 that helped boost Haiti’s rice production in 2009. Investments in agriculture following those natural disasters helped increase local food production last year increased by 25 percent overall, to cover 50 percent of the population’s needs while imports accounted for 47 percent and food aid comprised 3 percent, according to the USAID’s Family Early Warning Network System News report released in February.

Total rice production increased from 80,000 metric tons in 2008 to 125,000 metric tons last year as a result, the report says.

The structure of the agricultural sector and lack of investment in agricultural technology and production has dramatically affected Haiti’s ability to feed its citizens. The lack of investment has crippled food production within the country and further exacerbated the population shift from rural to urban areas. However, as last year’s Haitian food production rates have shown, increasing local production by training farmers in effective agricultural practices can help the country produce more of its own food, which is vitally important to Haiti, which has an average income of roughly $2 per day and an 80 percent poverty rate.

Policy and pragmatism

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

The substantial drop in 1995 in the applied import duty, from 50 percent to 3 percent, did reduce protection for Haiti’s rice farmers, but domestic production had failed to meet domestic demand long before that.

Today’s effective duty is about 20 percent, reflecting the addition by Haiti’s government of several import fees and charges. Import duties are a major source of government revenue. Increasing import duties on food to protect an inefficient farming sector, when 80 percent of the population exists on an average income of $2 a day, has the perverse effect of rewarding inefficiency and driving up the cost of basic food staples.

U.S. rice exports to Haiti have fed a growing nation that is unable to produce enough food on its own, and they 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.

Since the earthquake, the U.S. government has purchased 68,200 metric tons of U.S. rice for use in Haitian relief efforts. In addition, the United Nations World Food Program has purchased 12,700 metric tons.

As Haiti recovers from the earthquake and the international community rallies to long-term solutions to help Haiti become more self-sufficient, the U.S. rice industry looks forward to opportunities to work with the U.S. government and other international aid organizations in their efforts to stabilize food security in Haiti and to enhance the country’s agricultural production capacity.