The Importance of Local Food – Lessons from Haiti

Last month, on March 20, the Washington Post ran an interesting article titled "With Cheap Food Imports, Haiti Can’t Feed Itself". After reading the article, I realized that our national agricultural situation in the United States is similar in several ways to Haiti – we import about half of the food that we eat, and the cheap food imports have caused many farmers to go out of business. As a nation, we can no longer feed ourselves.

Thirty years ago, Haiti imported only 19 percent of its food and produced enough rice to export. It was able to do that in part as a result of protective tariffs on rice of 50 percent which were set by the father-son dictators Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier.

When their reign ended, the United States and Europe pushed Haiti to tear those market barriers down in the interest of "free trade". In 1994, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was freshly reinstalled to power by Bill Clinton, cut the rice tariff to 3 percent.

The Haitian farmers, unable to compete with the billions of dollars in subsidies paid by the U.S. to its growers, abandoned their farms and moved to the cities. Today, Haiti depends on other countries for 51% of the food that it needs and 80% of the rice. For the Haitians, their dependence on imported food has been a disaster.

Last month, after being in Haiti, Bill Clinton publicly apologized for championing policies that destroyed Haiti’s rice production. On March 10, Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake. I had to live everyday with the consequences of the loss of capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people because of what I did; nobody else." Clinton is to be commended for seeing the consequences of a failed policy, apologizing for it, and now working to rebuild the agriculture in Haiti.

Here in the United States, the same "free trade" policies have destroyed our ability to feed ourselves. Like Haiti, we import close to half of all our food. When I was young, America was called the bread basket of the world. Today, cheap imports from China and other countries have forced many American farmers out of business. Many of the farms that remain are large farms that are heavily subsidized by the US government.

The difference between the food situation in Haiti and here in the United States is that we have money to feed ourselves and we have not had a national disaster. A war, or a breakdown in relations with China could change our food situation rather quickly.

Fortunately, millions of Americans in recent years have realized the importance of supporting small local farms and eating locally produced food. The demand has grown considerably for locally produced food. However, it is still difficult for small local farms to compete with cheap imported food and food produced by big corporations. As a result, there are few new farms starting up. Currently in the U.S. there are millions of unemployed people. Our high unemployment problem could be ended if we brought our food production and manufacturing back home. Support your local farmers. They need you and you need them. Let’s learn an important lesson from Haiti – it is important that we, as a nation, are able to feed ourselves.

A link to the AP article: “With Cheap Food Imports, Haiti Can’t Feed Itself”

A related article is one I wrote in our newsletter two years ago " Creative Destruction Related to Farms". In it are some excerpts from the Federal Reserve describing how they used financial engineering to reduce the number of farms and factories in an attempt to create a higher standard of living for Americans.

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