Domestic Production vs. Imports for Rice in Haiti: A Delicate Balance to Strike
At the end of May, I visited Haiti with a team from CGSD and CEISIN to explore some of the current constraints and opportunities in the agriculture sector. The problems faced by Haitian farmers have been well documented; small land plots, limited access to agricultural inputs and improved technologies, disputed land tenure rights, degraded watersheds and low levels of government investment in agricultural research are among the many factors that have weakened the sector’s output over the last few decades. In a country where agriculture occupies a central role for the economy – most Haitians live in rural areas and agriculture employs over 60% of the population – the country remains reliant on imports to meet its national food needs, importing 60% of its total food for consumption.
Rice stands out as Haiti’s most significant food import. Once self-sufficient in its rice production, Haiti now imports approximately 80% of its rice. As we passed through the bustling market places in Haiti, we saw firsthand how they were teeming with USA branded sacks of rice. It’s easy to understand why US rice occupies such a dominant place in the market – it’s cheap. With US rice only subject to import tariffs of 3% (down from 50% before the mid 1990s), imported US rice significantly undercuts the national product. Plus, rice that is grown and milled efficiently in the US can keep up with the increasing demand in Haiti for the product.
To better understand the current state of local rice production, we visited the plains of Haiti’s lower Artibonite valley (also known as Haiti’s “rice bowl”), where up to 80% of Haiti domestic rice is produced. Across the board we heard how the local varieties of rice tend to be highly preferred by Haitians (I found it fascinating that people could even specify their favorite varieties such as Sheila or Madame Gousgouse) but due to the limited supplies and higher prices, it tends to be viewed as a luxury product compared to the cheaper US varieties.
Encouragingly, there is great potential to boost domestic rice yields in Haiti. One small-holder farmer in Torbeck proudly showed us his plot, which thanks to improved agricultural inputs from a Taiwanese development project, achieved a bumper yield of approximately 6MT/hectare (up from an average of 2.5MT/hectare). With the right practices and strategic investments employed at a large scale, average yields in Haiti can be significant increased and if combined with a shift in tariff policies could allow for Haiti to become more self-sufficient in its rice needs.
However, the challenge in Haiti is not as simple as that. Careful consideration needs to be paid to determine how Haiti can gradually reduce its dependence on cheap US imports whilst also increasing national rice supplies to keep up with the soaring demand for the product. The food prices riots in the pre-earthquake Port au Prince in 2008 illustrated the sheer fragility of settings such as Haiti where any increases in food prices can shake a society to its core. Balancing the price of staple food products, which so many millions of Haitians depend on, with boosting local production and improving rural livelihoods is a central question that has to be addressed in any sustainable development strategy for the country.