Will the U.S. Drought and Tropical Storm Isaac Trigger a Food Crisis in Haiti?

The United States is facing its worst drought in nearly 50 years. Not alone in its extreme weather, parts of Africa, Australia, Europe, Asia (especially India) and South America are in the same boat. And while the drought certainly affects people in these nations directly, the impact may be felt as much – if not more – in the small Caribbean nation of Haiti, for reasons as complex and numerous as import-dependent food systems, lack of agricultural investment, and just plain bad luck and timing (from earthquakes to floods to global climate disruption).

Let’s start with the impact of global and climate disruption.
Right now, 33 states across the U.S. have reported drought conditions in at least one county. Most of these states fall into what is considered the United States’ breadbasket—the Midwest—where corn, soy and wheat are grown for domestic and international consumption. Though the majority of these crops feed people domestically and internationally (the U.S. is the largest grain exporter in the world), over the past few decades an increasing percentage of the soy and corn yield also feed livestock and produce biofuels (corn for ethanol). Experts now predict that not only will the drought persist through at least late October, but it will also spread – depleting farm yield and ultimately reducing food available to people in Haiti.
It’s too soon to determine the causes of this year’s drought, but climate experts have been warning us for years that drastic weather patterns will make life extremely difficult if the causes of climate change are not addressed -- including droughts as well as increasing hurricanes and tropical storms, such as Tropical Storm Isaac that inundated Haiti with drenching rain.
In the Western Hemisphere, no other country seems more exposed to the vagaries of nature and humankind. In the summer and fall Haiti is vulnerable to tropical storms and hurricanes. For instance, August 24-25, 2012, Tropical Storm Isaac wreaked havoc throughout Haiti – flooding neighborhoods, destroying homes and farms, and leaving 24 people dead in its wake. In 2010, Haiti suffered a massive earthquake (from which it is still trying to recover), and we learned that the nation sits on several fault lines. Shortly thereafter, U.N. peacekeepers introduced cholera into Haiti (the recent storm-induced flooding raises concern that incidences of cholera will spike). And, Haiti’s environment through a combination of poor governance and extreme poverty is at risk of soil erosion and mudslides both of which stem from intensive, widespread deforestation throughout the country.
As if that were not enough, Haiti faces a chronic agricultural problem. Namely, the inability of successive governments to develop a comprehensive national agricultural policy in conjunction with peasants and small producers and the peasant organizations that works with them. For the past 17 years, Grassroots International partner Haitian Platform to Advocate Alternative Development (PAPDA) has championed greater investment in the agricultural sector and the small farmers and peasants who produce 50 percent of Haiti’s food. Real investment in Haiti’s agricultural sector would include land reform, irrigation networks, agricultural credit, insurance, education, and higher taxes on artificially cheap agricultural imports. Haiti currently has the lowest agricultural tariffs in the Caribbean, which means Haitian farmers are forced to unfairly compete with cheap, and heavily subsidized agricultural imports from the U.S.
Since Haiti produces only 50 percent of its food domestically, the remaining 50 percent is imported predominantly from the U.S. and to a lesser extent from neighboring Dominican Republic. Therefore, the current drought in the United States will be felt acutely throughout Haiti. Poor yields this agricultural season in the United States will result in decreasing agricultural export from the U.S. and potentially higher costs of foodstuff internationally.  
The ripple effects are significant. As other countries grapple with higher than expected prices, countries that would normally export their surplus will hedge against another bad agricultural season by keeping their surplus at home. As more and more countries follow suit, what could have been a simple (for those who can accord it!) increase in food prices transforms into a global shortage in essential grains and other foodstuff. This is what happened in 2007-2008, when food prices skyrocketed globally. Back then, the combination of rapid increase in grain prices and shortage of grains, especially rice, led to food riots in Port-au-Prince and other parts of the country, which almost destabilized the country by toppling then-president Rene Preval.
The conditions which led to the food riots in Haiti in 2007-2008 have only been exacerbated by the earthquake. Now, nearly 400,000 people are essentially homeless, barely able to purchase food at current prices, let alone any increases that will result from the U.S. drought. Moreover, Chavannes Jean-Baptiste of the Peasant Movement of Papaye (MPP), a Grassroots International partner, reports that the yields from Haiti’s first planting season this year, March, fell below expectations because Haiti, too, experienced lower than expected rain levels during that period.
Farmers were hoping that yields from the August planting season would be more abundant, but it all depended on slow, steady rain. In that regard, Tropical Storm Isaac was devastating. Isaac left no part of the country untouched, but the brunt of the storm washed away homes, farms, trees and livestock in the south and southeast. MPP and other peasant organizations are still assessing the damage from the storm. But, according to Chavannes, this planting season is essentially lost; especially considering hurricane season ends in November. A preliminary report released by the Government of Haiti seems to support Chavannes’ view. According to the report, Tropical Storm Isaac affected 81,250 hectares of farmland nationally. Another related report estimates the agricultural sector suffered $242 million in damages from the storm.
Losing this planting season on the heels of poor yields from the first planting season could be catastrophic for Haiti. This year more than ever, Haiti’s domestic agricultural production needed to hit or slightly surpass 50 percent in case imports fell short due to drought in the U.S. and elsewhere. A food shortage in the country could quickly lead to malnutrition and starvation. It’s unclear if Haitian farmers will have any surpluses from 2011 that survived the hurricane season. Chavannes thinks the real danger now lies in “a food crisis induced by U.S. drought, flooding in Haiti and rapid increase in food prices due to food speculation.”
Haiti’s dependence on food imports is a national crisis—a crisis that the First Lady of Haiti, Sophia Martelly, acknowledged during an interview with Voice of America on August 8, 2012. The interview, conducted in Haitian Creole, is available here. For years, Grassroots International partners and grantees, including PAPDA, MPP, National Congress of Papaye Peasant Movement (MPNKP), Tet Kole Ti Peyizan (Tet Kole) and Coordination of the Organizations of the South-East (KROS) have demanded that the Haitian government and people take the issue of food sovereignty seriously. As they see it, a sovereign nation cannot depend on others to feeds its people. What happens when the imports don’t arrive or the prices of those imports are beyond the reach of 90 percent of the population?
In Haiti, we may learn the answer to that question all-too-soon.
Photo by: HL/ HaïtiLibre