What’s the best way to feed Haiti’s starving masses?
By Diane Hatz
The earthquake that devastated Haiti on January 12th shocked the world. Immediate relief efforts must continue for as long as necessary and need to focus on providing food, shelter and medical care for the millions of Haitians affected. But, at the same time, experts must start looking at ways to rebuild the country, and a strong focus needs to be put on agriculture and the country’s food system.
The United Nation’s Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) has called for $23 million for agriculture to support farms, backyard gardens, urban agriculture and rural development. And to be most effective, a sustainable system of agriculture needs to be introduced, where many farmers work small plots of land to yield many types of crops, and minimal to no pesticides or fertilizers are used.
In addition, the government needs to rebuild infrastructure such as roads and canals, provide subsidies for Haitian farmers, reforest destroyed land and increase tariffs on imported foods. Efforts must be made to help Haitians become self-sufficient so food riots like in April 2008 do not happen again.
This is vital to the rebuilding of Haiti. According to the United Nation’s World Food Programme, 76% of Haitians live on less than $2 day and 56% on less than $1 a day. The FAO reports that around 80% of Haitians are involved with agriculture, but they do not have the necessary expertise or equipment. Haitians need to be given the tools – training, seeds, hand tools, livestock such as pigs and chickens – in order to rebuild their food system.
In a developing country such as Haiti, expensive inputs such as chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides need to be replaced with natural ways to grow food – compost, beneficial insects, crop rotation, diversified crops. These types of inputs are low to no cost and are more practical for the type of farming that needs to be done in the country. Because of the rugged mountainsides, large machinery is not feasible which saves on costs for parts and oil.
Haiti should look to its neighbor Cuba for inspiration. Before the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba imported over 50% of its food and had an industrial-based agriculture system. After the Soviet Union disbanded in 1991, Cuba had nowhere to export and nowhere to get their pesticides, chemicals and industrial inputs from, so they were forced to create a sustainable food system.
Large farms were broken up into smaller plots and urban agriculture was introduced on a large scale. According to Food First, by 1999 sustainable urban agriculture produced 65% of Cuba’s rice, 46% of fresh vegetables, 38% of non-citrus fruits, 13% of roots, tubers and plantains, and 6% of eggs. Farmers and researchers from around the world now visit Cuba to learn more about their sustainable food system.
The planting season in Haiti is March, and the hurricane season begins in June. With so much effort now needed to provide emergency food relief and secure shelter for the upcoming storm season, there isn’t much focus on providing Haitians ways to produce their own food in the long term. But it is necessary. They need to plant as many crops as possible come March and also to look at how they can become a food secure country.
About Diane Hatz
DIANE HATZ is the Co-Founder & Director of The Glynwood Institute for Sustainable Food and Farming (www.glynwoodinstitute), a creative action tank that supports leaders in the sustainable food movement while solving critical problems in food and farming. She was previously founder of Sustainable Table, Executive Producer of The Meatrix movies and co-Founder of the Eat Well Guide.
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