A Future for Agriculture, A Future for Haiti

Beverly Bell, Yes! Magazine
What would it take to transform Haiti’s economy such that its role in the global economy is no longer that of providing cheap labor for sweatshops? What would it take for hunger to no longer be the norm, for the country no longer to depend on imports and hand-outs, and for Port-au-Prince’s slums no longer to contain 85 percent of the city’s residents? What would it take for the hundreds of thousands left homeless by the earthquake to have a secure life, with income?

According to Haitian peasant organizations, at the core of the solutions is a commitment on the part of government to support family agriculture, with policies to make the commitment a reality.

Haiti is the only country in the hemisphere that is still majority rural. Estimates of the percentage of Haiti’s citizens who are farmers span from 60.5 percent (UN, 2006) to 80 percent (the figure used by peasant groups).

Nevertheless, food imports currently constitute 57 percent of what Haitians consume (World Bank, 2008). It wasn’t always that way; policy choices made it so. In the 1980s, the U.S. and international financial institutions pressured Haiti to lower tariffs on food imports, leading to a flood of cheap food with which Haitian farmers could not compete. At the same time, USAID and others pressured Haiti to orient its production toward export, leaving farmers vulnerable to shifting costs of sugar and coffee on the world market.

If reinforced, agriculture could help feed the nation, which is currently suffering a dire food crisis. More than 2.4 million Haitians are estimated to be food-insecure. Nine percent of children under the age of five suffer from acute malnutrition, and 24 percent from chronic malnutrition (World Food Programme, 2010). That poverty is political in origin, largely due to World Bank and IMF conditions on loans which have squeezed the poor, and free trade policies which have made it impossible for farmers to grow enough food to meet the needs. Securing adequate and affordable Haitian-grown food is one step toward diminishing that poverty, while another is rejecting IMF prescriptions.

Alternatives to the trade and “aid” policies that displace farmers and increase hunger.
Agriculture could also offer a solution for the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people now residing in rural areas. In interviews with dozens of Port-au-Prince residents who are taking refuge in the Central Plateau, most say they would stay there if they could find a way to sustain themselves. If they could be given the land and resources necessary to begin farming, they would not need to return to city sweatshops, which do not provide a living wage, job security, or health or safety protections. Port-au-Prince could then become a livable city without overcrowded and inhumane conditions, without more than eight out of ten people residing in slums (as suggested by UN Human Settlements Program reports).

“We are meeting with different sectors to construct a Haiti where all Haitians feel like children of the land,” says Sylvain Henrilus of Tèt Kole. Peasant groups—even those with historic distrust of each other—and other allies are meeting regularly to plan their advocacy and mobilization for reorienting Haiti’s political economy in favor of agriculture, based on the following priorities:

  • Food sovereignty, the right of people to grow and consume their own food. With trade policies which support local production, Haiti’s levels of self-sufficiency could increase. Chavannes Jean-Baptiste of the Peasant Movement of Papay and the National Peasant Movement of the Papay Congress says, “the country has the right to determine its own agricultural policies, its own food production policies, to produce for family and for local consumption in healthy and simple agriculture which respects the environment, Mother Earth, as the mother of future generations.”
  • Decentralization of services. The “people outside,” as rural inhabitants are known, must have access to services equal to the people of Port-au-Prince. The ability to meet their needs where they are is the right of rural people as well as a way to keep Port-au-Prince from again becoming overcrowded. Rosnel Jean-Baptiste says, “We need to deconstruct the capital, bringing services into the country and helping people find jobs there.”
  • Technical support, especially for sustainable, ecological farming. Farmers in the region of the Artibonite, for example, stated that their melons, bananas, and tomatoes are not producing well, but they don’t know what the problem is or how to resolve it. They need advice from agronomists. They also need credit to help them buy equipment, as well as support with storage and marketing, reforestation, and irrigation and water management. Elio Youyoute, a member of a community peasant association in the south, says, “We are trying to grow enough food to feed the cities, but we need help from the state.”
  • Land reform. Those who work the land need secure tenure. Otherwise they will continue to be unable to support themselves on what Haitians call ‘a handkerchief of land,’ plots sometimes no larger than 15 feet square. Land reform must be not just a one-time hand-out, which would quickly revert to its previous concentration as struggling farmers are forced to sell their small gardens, but a change in tenure laws accompanied by technical support. Sylvain Henrilus of Tèt Kole says, “The land reform we need is not what Préval did in his first term, which was to just divide a bit of land into very small plots without any support, but where those who work the land have the right to that land with all the infrastructure and means – not just to adequately feed the people but to export as we used to do, to have our sovereignty in all dimensions.”
  • Seeds, what Doudou Pierre of Vía Campesina’s coordinating committee calls “the patrimony of humanity.” Haiti’s seed stock is not going towards the March planting season as intended, but rather toward feeding the flood of internally displaced people. Farmers need help in procuring seed supplies, which they insist not be genetically modified. Chavannes Jean-Baptiste insists that “If people start sending hybrid, GMO seeds, that’s the end of Haitian agriculture.”
  • A ban on food aid in the medium to long-term. U.S.A.I.D. alone is giving $113 million in food aid this year, according to an Associated Press article on February 26. Farmers agree that aid is critical in this moment of crisis, but say that the government needs to quickly do everything it can to shore up production so that domestic agriculture can begin replacing the aid. Otherwise, Haiti will grow even more dependent, and multinational food and seed companies will overtake Haiti’s market even more.

(4 Mar 2010)

Towards a more sustainable livestock sector

Urgent investments, major agricultural research efforts and robust governance are required to ensure that the world’s livestock sector responds to a growing demand for animal products and at the same time contributes to poverty reduction, food security, environmental sustainability and human health, FAO said today in a new edition of its flagship publication the State of Food and Agriculture (SOFA).

The report stresses that livestock is essential to the livelihoods of around one billion poor people. Livestock provides income, high-quality food, fuel, draught power, building material and fertilizer, thus contributing to food security and nutrition. For many small-scale farmers, livestock also provides an important safety net in times of need.

But the agency stressed the need for substantial investments and stronger institutions at global, regional, national and local levels, to ensure that continued growth of the livestock sector contributes to livelihoods, meets growing consumer demand and mitigates environmental and health concerns.

“The rapid transition of the livestock sector has been taking place in an institutional void,” said FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf in the foreword of the report. “The issue of governance is central. Identifying and defining the appropriate role of government, in its broadest sense, is the cornerstone on which future development of the livestock sector must build.”

Efforts are needed to ensure that this rapidly growing sector contributes fully to food security and poverty reduction, moving towards a ‘more responsible livestock sector’, Diouf said.

Driving force

The livestock sector is one of the fastest growing parts of the agricultural economy, the FAO report underlines. Livestock contributes 40 percent of the global value of agricultural production and supports the livelihoods and food security of almost one billion people. Globally, livestock contributes 15 percent of total food energy and 25 percent of dietary protein. Products from livestock provide essential micronutrients that are not easily obtained from other plant food products.

Rising incomes, population growth and urbanization are the driving forces behind a growing demand for meat products in developing countries—and they will continue to be important. To meet rising demand, global annual meat production is expected to expand from 228 currently to 463 million tonnes by 2050 with the cattle population estimated to grow from 1.5 billion to 2.6 billion and that of goats and sheep from 1.7 billion to 2.7 billion, according to FAO estimates.


Strong demand for animal food products offers significant opportunities for livestock to contribute to economic growth and poverty reduction. But many smallholders are facing several challenges in remaining competitive with larger, more intensive production systems. The report warns that “a widening gulf is emerging between those who can take advantage of growing demand for livestock products and those who cannot.”

FAO recommends that smallholders should be supported in taking advantage of the opportunities provided by an expanding livestock sector and in managing the risks associated with increasing competition. Broader rural development strategies creating off-farm jobs should help those that may be unable to adapt and compete in a rapidly modernizing sector. “Policy makers also need to recognize and protect livestock’s safety-net function for the very poor,” according to SOFA.


There is a need to enhance the efficiency of natural-resource use in the sector and to reduce the environmental footprint of livestock production, the report says. The goal is to ensure that continued growth in livestock production does not create undue pressure on ecosystems, biodiversity, land and forest resources and water quality and does not contribute to global warming. While some countries have made progress in reducing pollution and deforestation associated with livestock production, many more require appropriate policies and enforcement capacity. Market-based policies, such as taxes and fees for natural-resource use or payments for environmental services, would encourage producers to ensure that livestock production is carried out in a sustainable way.

Livestock can play an important role in both adapting to climate change and mitigating its effects on human welfare, FAO said. To realize the sector’s potential to contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation based on enhanced capacities to monitor, report and verify emissions from the livestock production new technologies will need to be developed.


Animal diseases pose systemic risks that must be addressed, FAO said. Since new pathogenic agents will continue to emerge, investments in national animal-health and food safety infrastructure are required to reduce the risks of animal diseases to humans. Poor livestock keepers need to be more engaged in disease-control efforts.
(18 February 2010)
The report can be accesseed here.

Red Menace: Stop the Ug99 Fungus Before Its Spores Bring Starvation

Brendan I. Koerner, Wired Magazine
As they queue to fill water jugs from a rusty communal tap, the women of Njoro can’t help but gawk at the odd scene across the road. In a wheat field ringed by barbed wire, a dozen men wearing white polyethylene jumpsuits stand in a tight huddle, eyes fixed on the green-and-amber stalks that graze their knees. They chat in foreign tongues — Urdu, Farsi, Chinese — that are rarely heard here amid the acacia trees and donkey carts of Kenya’s Rift Valley. The men’s hazmat-style safety gear suggests they might be hunting down one of the infamous viruses that flourish in this part of the world — Ebola, perhaps, or Marburg.

Then the leader of the huddle, Harbans Bariana, a rotund Australian in an undersize safari hat, begins reading aloud from his clipboard: “Wylah?” he asks.

His colleagues bend down to examine some flaccid plants flecked with red splotches. A lanky Pakistani with a salt-and-pepper beard rakes a finger along one of the mottled stalks; an iodine-like residue rubs off on his skin. “40 S,” he calls out.

The men move three steps right to a slightly more robust clump of wheat. The Australian asks: “Yandanooka?”

“25 MR?” comes the tentative reply from a mustachioed Nepali in a green baseball cap. They slide over to inspect another stalk, and then another.

To the women at the tap, faces scrunched in puzzlement, the call-and-response sounds like gibberish — and to most of the world, it is. But to the jumpsuited strangers in East Africa — a group of elite plant pathologists — these codenames and numbers are a lingua franca, describing just how badly a crop has been ravaged by disease. These specialists have come to Njoro on this autumn afternoon to study a scourge that is destroying acres of Kenyan fields. The enemy is Ug99, a fungus that causes stem rust, a calamitous disease of wheat. Its spores alight on a wheat leaf, then work their way into the flesh of the plant and hijack its metabolism, siphoning off nutrients that would otherwise fatten the grains. The pathogen makes its presence known to humans through crimson pustules on the plant’s stems and leaves. When those pustules burst, millions of spores flare out in search of fresh hosts. The ravaged plant then withers and dies, its grains shriveled into useless pebbles.

Stem rust is the polio of agriculture, a plague that was brought under control nearly half a century ago as part of the celebrated Green Revolution. After years of trial and error, scientists managed to breed wheat that contained genes capable of repelling the assaults of Puccinia graminis, the formal name of the fungus.

But now it’s clear: The triumph didn’t last. While languishing in the Ugandan highlands, a small population of P. graminis evolved the means to overcome mankind’s most ingenious genetic defenses. This distinct new race of P. graminis, dubbed Ug99 after its country of origin (Uganda) and year of christening (1999), is storming east, working its way through Africa and the Middle East and threatening India and China. More than a billion lives are at stake. “It’s an absolute game-changer,” says Brian Steffenson, a cereal-disease expert at the University of Minnesota who travels to Njoro regularly to observe the enemy in the wild. “The pathogen takes out pretty much everything we have.”..
(22 February 2010)

Is There Enough Food Out There For Nine Billion People?

Bradford Plumer, The New Republic
Sometime around 2050, there are going to be nine billion people roaming this planet—two billion more than there are today. It’s a safe bet that all those folks will want to eat. And that’s… an incredibly daunting prospect. Right now, an estimated one billion people go hungry each day. So add two billion more people, a limited supply of arable land, plus the fact that rising incomes will boost demand for meat and dairy products, plus the fact that many key natural resources (fisheries, say) are already being overexploited… and it’s hard to see the situation getting better. And that’s before we get into the fact that the planet’s heating up, which is expected to wreak havoc on agricultural yields.

Still, not everyone’s convinced that feeding nine billion people—and doing it in a sustainable fashion—is a totally impossible task. A new paper published this week in Science, written by Britain’s chief scientific adviser John Beddington along with nine other experts, outlines a way this could actually be done. The catch? Doing so would require “radical” changes to the current global food system. The paper’s a great synthesis of a wide range of different food issues, and I’ll just pull out the main ideas:

Boosting crop yields: If the supply of farmland is ultimately finite, then boosting yields is the only way we’ll get more food….

Stop tossing out so much food: The study estimates that 30 percent to 40 percent of the world’s food is thrown out each year…

Fewer hamburgers: Can’t imagine this one will go over well, but the authors do suggest that people will probably have to reduce their meat consumption slightly to feed nine billion people. ..

A slew of green technical stuff: Of course, all those other measures will only go so far. ..

P.S. Oh yes, forgot one: biofuels! It’s probably going to be hard to find enough food for nine billion people if we’re still diverting vast swaths of farmland for crop-based ethanol. ..
(3 February 2010)

Growing Your Own Wheat

Sara Pitzer, Mother Earth News
If you’re deep into gardening and self-sufficiency, sooner or later you’ll want to try growing wheat. Among other benefits, it allows you to get away from the commercial process that grows a perfectly good grain, then scrapes off the bran, peels out the germ, bleaches the flour and sells all those things back to you separately.

Shell beans include lima beans, runner beans, soup beans and cowpeas. Like most veggies, shell bean…
If you try, you will discover wheat is easy to grow almost anywhere in the United States, even as a wide-row crop in your garden. One gardener in Vermont attests to having planted 30 pounds of winter wheat on one-eighth of an acre and harvesting 250 pounds of grain in July. On a somewhat smaller scale, even if you have a front yard that’s 20 feet by 50 feet, you could plant 6 pounds of wheat and harvest nearly 50 pounds of grain.

Before you enthusiastically plan to put in enough wheat to make all your bread for the next year, start with a small trial area the first year. This test run will allow you to learn how the grain behaves, what its cultivation problems are, how long it takes you to handle it, how it’s affected by varying climate conditions, and more.

Different Types of Wheat
After you’ve decided how much wheat to plant, you’ll need to decide which type to plant. It’s easy to get confused about types of wheat. Winter wheat is planted in the fall and harvested from mid-May in the South to late July in the North. Spring wheat is planted in the spring and harvested in the fall. Both spring and winter wheat are further divided into soft wheat (lacking a high gluten content and used primarily for pastries and crackers), hard wheat (with a high gluten content and used for breads), and durum wheat (used for pasta). The variety you select will depend on where you live. Check with your local cooperative extension agent to learn which varieties are best for your region. (To find sources for small quantities of wheat seeds, try our Seed and Plant Finder, or check with your local farm stores.)
(February/March 2010)
Adapted from the Backyard Homestead edited by Carleen Madigan

Number of farms in state grows, report finds

Maureen O’Hagan, Seattle Times
Woe is the family farmer. They’ve got it tougher than just about anyone, what with their tanking profits and all the faceless agri-conglomerates gobbling up their land.

That seems to be the conventional wisdom. But key measurements in a new state report indicate farming in Washington has actually gotten rosier in some respects.

The report, by the state Office of Farmland Preservation, tracks a variety of indicators to see if the state’s efforts at supporting agriculture are working.

The idea is to quantify the state of farming, rather than just relying on the gut sense of farmers and officials, said Bob Hart, chairman of the task force behind the report.

The numbers may be surprising:

  • The number of farms in Washington rose 6 percent between 2000 and 2008 — with the upward trajectory steeper in the last two of those years. That means the state has about the same number of farms as it did in 1970, though the total acreage in farming has shrunk.
  • Ninety percent of the farms are owned by individuals or families.
  • There has been an increase in local food processors in the last few years, which helps lower transportation costs for small farmers, and thus helps keep agriculture economically viable.
  • Net farm income is higher than it’s been in nearly 20 years, rising 192 percent since a low in 1999, the report states.
  • The number of farmers markets has more than doubled since 1998.

(February 2010)