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How U.S. Agricultural Dumping Affects Global Farmers

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This is a good piece on how U.S. farmers dumping surplus peanuts on the Haitian market in the guide of “humanitarian aid” actually just undermines Haitian peanut farmers who can’t compete because they don’t have access to fertilizer and machinery. This of course then drives those farmers off their land and into the cities where they either become even poorer or become the cheap, desperate labor for the outsourced factories of global capitalism. Or alternatively, they migrate to the Dominican Republic, where they are subject to racism and violence. This is a very similar story to what NAFTA did to Mexican farmers, undermining the corn cultures of rural Mexico and forcing those farmers into the maquiladoras, into Mexico City, or to cross the border without papers to work for very low wages in often dangerous industries like meatpacking and construction.

This sort of dumping as foreign aid might seem to serve U.S. foreign policy interests and make Americans feel good but it’s actually pretty disastrous for a nation like Haiti, where masses of poor don’t have food security. What it really does is create a sort of U.S. in 1932 scenario. Remember that in the Great Depression, agricultural overproduction forced the Roosevelt administration to implement the Agricultural Adjustment Administration that notoriously dumped milk and killed young farm animals to reduce supplies and raise prices in order to achieve some level of rural stability through price floors. Well, when the U.S. dumps its surpluses on Mexico or Haiti or wherever, it effectively creates the conditions where the AAA was necessary. Our agricultural policy should consider creating domestic food stability among our allies.

And it’s easy to say “well, those poor people need our food. We should give it to them.” But there’s a history here, including in Haiti, of the long-term effects of these sorts of programs.

The troubled history of U.S. involvement in Haitian agricultural policy has done nothing to ease these suspicions.

In the early 1980s, fearing Haiti’s Creole pigs could spread African swine fever amid a deadly outbreak, the U.S. Congress authorized $23 million to slaughter local pigs and replace them with hybrid pigs from Iowa. The imported pigs struggled to adapt, often became sick and had few litters.

For Haitians, the most bitterly remembered example is the collapse of the local rice market.

Haiti was largely self-sufficient in rice by the mid-1980s. But in subsequent years, Haiti repeatedly slashed tariffs on cheaper imported rice at the behest of the U.S. and the World Bank. As a result, U.S. subsidized rice inundated the market and the Caribbean country roughly the size of Maryland is now the second-biggest export destination for American rice growers, according to the USA Rice Federation.

“If the U.S. really wanted to help Haiti they would focus on serious work improving irrigation and farmers’ access to credit,” said Haitian economist and activist Camille Chalmers, who argues that the peanut aid is mainly about drawing down the U.S. stockpile and benefiting American agribusiness.

But efforts to lead Haiti to self-sufficiency face a slew of chronic obstacles, including political gridlock or instability, severe environmental degradation and neglected rural infrastructure. Although almost 80 percent of rural households farm, the agriculture sector with its persistent litany of natural disasters receives less than 4 percent of Haiti’s budget.

There is of course no question of the difficulties of Haiti, difficulties it should be remembered France and the United States are largely responsible for through isolating the nation of ex-slaves through much of the 19th century, dooming what was formerly the world’s wealthiest colony to poverty. But dumping our surpluses isn’t really helping.

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  • Not to mention the fact that U.S. agriculture is sucking the aquifers dry in order to unsustainably produce all this excess food.

  • AMK

    if Haiti is anything like the rest of the developing world, I would venture a guess that explosive population growth affects the food equation….supply and demand as well as factors like land and water available for cultivation. The best thing for countries like Haiti (and many parts of the US, for that matter) would be to send condoms with the peanuts.

    • DrDick

      Population growth has been rapidly declining in the developing world since the 1960s. Haiti’s growth rate has declined more than most.

      • sonamib

        Gotta second that, the developing world is far from being a monolith. In some countries the population growth is slow (China, Brazil), in others it’s high (Nigeria, Congo). It’s useful not to generalize.

        Anyway it sounds pretty implausible to me that Haiti has to import food because thay lack space to produce it. If Bangladesh, with a super-high population density, manages to be self-sufficient… Granted, the Bengal delta is an incredibly fertile area, but I don’t think Haiti’s soil is particularly poor for agriculture. The French did use it quite intensively.

        • Haiti does have soil problems due to deforestation and erosion. But it also can still grow a lot of its own food.

        • sonamib

          the Bengal delta

          Oops I meant the Ganges delta. Bengal is the name of the region. That’ll teach me to fact check on Wikipedia before talking about places I know next-to-nothing about.

  • DrDick

    Neocolonialism is the same as old fashioned colonialism. Destroy the economies and self sufficiency of the colonized and make them dependent on the colonizers.

  • Srsly Dad Y

    “well, those poor people need our food money. We should give it to them.”

    • apogean

      in my view the primary cause of poverty is that poor people don’t have enough money

      we should solve this by giving poor people more money

  • dr. fancypants

    My dad has done a lot of work with corn farmers in Haiti, whom he’s seen be similarly affected by “aid” in the form of surplus U.S. corn.

  • Lost Left Coaster

    This is a classic story that we have seen time and time again. I just did a bit of research for a project on agriculture in Bolivia. During the Cold War, the USA flooded Bolivia with wheat “aid” that more or less killed homegrown nutritious crops like quinoa for decades. And if you look at Bolivian agriculture today, it is heavily shaped by decades of US aid and intervention which promoted mechanized agriculture and big commodity crops.

  • Tyro

    You’re forgetting how beneficial this is for Haitians because it allows them to get cheap access to cheetos.

  • LFC

    This post points to the broader problem that the US still gives its food aid, for the most part, in kind (i.e. the actual commodities), whereas most other donor countries give it in cash earmarked for the purchase of food. The latter is usu. preferable, for fairly obvs. reasons.

    • Bruce Vail

      Well, ‘usually preferable’ is a matter of debate.

      In the case of cash aid, the food commodities must be purchased somewhere, and the unintended effect of disrupting local agriculture remains a possibility, and may be entirely unavoidable in some cases.

      With 50 years of experience, USAID should be able to make good judgments on when the donation of food commodities will have harmful effects in the local agricultural economy. Part of the problem may lie in that USAID is an arm of the State Department, whose top priority is making friends with local elites, not fighting hunger.

      I’d sort of like to hear ex Sec of State Hillary Clinton talk about reforming the USAID…

      • LFC

        @Bruce Vail
        This is really not about USAID. It is about the US Congress, which sets the basic terms of the US food aid program (I think, though cd be wrong, that it’s still PL-480, though that may be a dated reference). Anyway, the pt is that Congress wants food aid to be given as actual commodities and subsidizes US farmers to make that feasible/possible, even though, except in cases of drought or insufficient local production, in-kind aid harms local producers.

        The pt is made succinctly in William Munro’s review of Jennifer Clapp’s Hunger in the Balance — in Perspectives on Politics, March 2014.

        • LFC

          p.s. which I cited in something I wrote a couple of years ago (see note 13 and the accompanying passage):
          http://s-usih.org/2014/07/roundtable-u-s-foreign-policy-and-the-left-chapter-1.html

        • Bruce Vail

          All well and good. Agreed that Congress sets the terms of foreign food aid, so they have the ability to support the status quo or to make meaningful changes.

          That said, a lot of foreign aid, especially food aid, is entrusted to USAID, so it is about them to a significant degree.

  • apogean

    In-kind food aid only makes sense in the context of a famine or drought when not enough food is being produced locally to meet demand. Even then you could double bang for your buck by buying food from other low-income countries and shipping it to the affected area.

    Sadly, USAID has many other priorities in front of maximizing humanitarian benefit. Or, more charitably, they’re strongly constrained in ways that make it unfeasible for them to maximize humanitarian benefit.

  • LFC

    they’re strongly constrained in ways that make it unfeasible for them to maximize humanitarian benefit

    Yes, in this case constrained by Congress, which likes in-kind aid b/c it benefits U.S. producers.

    (p.s. I meant to thread this under apogean’s comment.)

    • apogean

      Yeah, exactly. I don’t doubt there are a bunch of sober-minded humanitarians at USAID (these days; probably less so during the halcyon days of the Cold War) but clearly the structural incentives to act in ways that benefit US producers are overwhelming.

  • Bill Murray

    Dos Haiti still sell most of its food to pay for World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank loans their fine dictators took out?

    Also, I wonder whether Alcoa/aluminum producers could be induced to chime in on this?

  • bernard

    Is the issue here the exports, or the US subsidies?

    Offhand, it seems doubtful to me that, without government subsidies, US growers could deliver rice to Haiti for less than it costs local farmers to do so .

    • Juicy_Joel

      The presumably large differences in agricultural efficiency between American and Haitian farms would suggest that American rice/peanuts/wheat whatever would still be cheaper than domestically produced crops even ex-subsidies.

      Even if Haiti had the most efficient farms on the planet they still couldn’t get the marginal cost of peanuts down to free.

      • bernard

        That could be right. I don’t know.

        I did think that in the case of rice, at least, US producers benefit greatly from stupidly low water prices. That may not count as a direct subsidy, but it surely matters to costs, not to mention contributing to wasteful use of water in the US.

  • Mtrost

    Bit off-topic but related:

    Mike Duncan of History of Rome podcast-fame wrapped up his Haitian revolution episodes with a lengthy episode about the history of Haiti from 1806 to the present day.

    Was well worth my time and yours too I hope.

    • apogean

      The history of Haiti was a bit rushed, I thought (he mostly brought up major themes without really getting into them, but I guess that’s a bit of the point, to encourage people to pursue those topics on their own). The actual history of the Haitian revolution was excellent, though.

      Another tangent: I’ve been listening to David Crowther’s “History of England” podcast, and while it starts off pretty uneven in quality by the time he gets to William the Conqueror it’s really excellently done (similar to History of Rome, really). I was never interested in English history specifically before, and I’m really enjoying it.

      • Mtrost

        Rushed it was, that’s true, but nevertheless a great primer.

        I will check out the History of England podcast, thanks for the recommendation.

    • Schadenboner

      Oh hey, now: Hati, next: Bolivar. Two things I know fuckall about but wish I didn’t.

      Thanks!

  • Bruce Vail

    Worth noting here that the Washington Post has fallen hook line and sinker for the Oxfam line that donor countries shouldn’t give food aid, but should give money instead, money that would then be controlled by Oxfam and other NGOs.

    This is problematic in the extreme. The Heritage Foundation, for example, has endorsed the Oxfam line, which should send red flags flying for all of us. (see http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2013/04/us-food-aid-should-focus-on-combating-hunger-and-malnutrition-in-poor-nations )

    There is a strong argument that the US government should maintain close control over its food aid programs and not outsource them to unknown and unaccountable groups. I’d be careful not to conclude too much from the story of the Haitian peanuts…

    • Tyro

      I regard Oxfam as generally pretty trustworthy…

      • LFC

        I regard Oxfam as generally pretty trustworthy…

        Same here. (Haven’t read the Heritage report, so can’t say anything spec. about it.)

    • Schadenboner

      I’ve also never heard much bad about Oxfam, and “send cash not stuff” is apparently a pretty fundamental rule for food aid, even for food pantries and disaster relief stuff here in the US. The food is too heavy to profitably transport, money (on the other hand) is light as air.

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