The USDA is planning to ship 500 metric tons of dry-roasted U.S. peanuts to Haiti to feed schoolchildren this fall. Ask Haitian peanut farmer St. Abel Pierre her opinion, and she’ll tell you: she’s worried, and she isn’t alone.
Pierre is a lifelong resident of Kabay, an agricultural community set in the rolling hills of Haiti’s Artibonite Valley. She works with a group of ten other farmers in her area who come together to mitigate the effects of the region’s serious drought and worsening soil on their crops. These difficulties make peanut crops all the more important to farmers like her.
Peanuts are versatile, nutritious, and drought-resistant. Pierre makes protein-rich peanut butter for the family from her homegrown peanuts and packs sachets of grilled nuts to send with her grandchildren to school. Peanuts provide financial security and are a means to get cash quickly. For five pounds of peanuts she can get paid $4 – 6.50. By comparison, the same quantity of corn nets her just $.80. Fleurimond Conserve, another lifelong farmer from Kabay, summed it up this way: “Once you have a peanut plant, you have a heart at ease.”
Pierre and Conserve are just a few of an estimated 500,000 people who make up the Haitian peanut value chain. Merchants who sell snacks outside of schools ? primarily women small-business owners ? would be hit hard by the free snacks. So why would the USDA want to import U.S. peanuts to a country where they are already produced and vitally important for Haitian livelihoods?
The short answer is surplus. The 2014 U.S. Farm Bill incentivizes U.S. growers to increase peanut planting even when prices are in decline. This type of market intervention is nothing new. For decades, federal subsidies have encouraged farmers to overproduce and the excess crops end up stored by the USDA. The price of peanut storage could cost as much as $50 million a year over the next four years. USDA’s Stocks-for-Food initiative is a way to dispose of some of its excess peanuts through domestic and international food aid programs.
When USDA announced the Haiti peanut shipment in March in cooperation with the World Food Program and the Haitian Ministry of Agriculture, they said the peanut shipment wpuld serve 140,000 children in existing school feeding programs. They anticipated future shipments of similar sizes and pointed out that U.S. wheat, peas, and vegetable oil are already used in Haitian school feeding programs. Nonetheless, over 60 aid groups [including Grassroots International] did not mince words in a letter sent to the USDA criticizing the plan. The letter, signed by Partners in Health, Oxfam, and Haitian organization [and Grassroots’ partner] PAPDA among others, states “…[T]his program stands to become the latest in a long history of U.S-sponsored programs that have destabilized Haiti’s agricultural sector, driving the nation further into poverty while increasing its dependence on foreign aid.”
For Haitian farmers, the dumping of U.S. agricultural commodities has rocked their communities for decades. In the 1990s, foreign rice flooded Haitian markets when trade barriers were reduced at the U.S. government’s urging. To this day, cheap U.S. rice, flour, and beans dominate the Haitian marketplace, lessening demand for local produce and choking out smallholder farmers. When discussing the USDA peanut shipment, Pierre gave a knowing look and remarked, “It’s a strategy [by the USDA],” and offered a Haitian Creole proverb to sum things up: abitid se vis, habit is vice. Once you start doing something, it’s hard to stop ? so it’s better not to start in the first place!
The USDA argues that:
· The amount of shipped peanuts is so small its impact on local markets will be negligible;
· Haitian peanuts can be contaminated with aflatoxin if stored improperly;
· Specially-packaged peanuts intended for feeding programs won’t seep into local markets.
Opponents respond that:
· Locally sourced, toxin-free peanuts are available in sufficient quantities for feeding programs;
· USDA should help local farmers grow and store peanuts to prevent aflatoxin build up instead of undercutting them;
· Food aid always enters local markets despite best efforts at control.
Even with the criticism, the USDA has not canceled its plans for the first shipment but there are signs behind the scenes that subsequent shipments may be cancelled. This still isn’t enough.
Even if the shipment won’t overwhelm Haitian markets, and even if the U.S. peanuts reach their intended beneficiaries, the shipment reflects bad policy and outdated practice. Malnutrition is a serious problem in Haiti, but USDA’s approach is treating the disease with the wrong medicine. Redoubling efforts to support local farmers like St. Abel, as the U.S. government’s Agency for International Development is already doing and USDA claims to do, and procuring peanuts locally, are better answers than paying to package, ship, and distribute free peanuts to the detriment of Haitian peanut producers and sellers.
When Pierre and Conserve gathered with a group of 60 Kabay farmers to discuss the USDA plan, they wanted to send a message to the USDA: “No to free peanuts!” Haitian farmers have reaped undue hardship under U.S. agricultural policy, and they should not be made to do so again.
Photo: Peanut farmer Venocia Serant displays her harvest. Photo by Grassroots International.
Ted Oswald is a lawyer, policy analyst, and author of Because We Are: A Novel of Haiti. He is also a contributor to Huffington Post, which published this article.