Food Insecurity in Haiti: Reimagining Agriculture for Food and Climate Resilience

Facing the grand challenges of climate change and food insecurity, Haiti must integrate agriculture into its resiliency plans to enable a prosperous economic future

The Ivey Business Review is a student publication conceived, designed and managed by Honors Business Administration students at the Ivey Business School.

Decay at the Root Level

The future may appear bright for Haiti, an island country with a relatively young population and one of the fastest urbanization rates in the Carribean. However, severe food insecurity and a lack of climate preparedness have hindered the country’s development outlook; in the last decade, Haiti has been a beneficiary of over $13.5 billion in support from both governments and private donors but remains the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. In the decade ahead, Haiti will continue to see the escalating effects of food insecurity and extreme natural disasters unless concrete action is taken. 

At any given time, one in three Haitians requires urgent food assistance. The greatest obstacles to development are a lack of access to capital, lack of farming education, and poor soil qualitya condition known as infertility. Soil infertility and erosion are particularly problematic as Haiti’s steep elevations are exacerbated by widespread deforestation and overfarming. Another major contributor to food insecurity is Haiti’s heavy reliance on imported food, which makes up over 50 percent of all food consumed in the country; this leaves Haiti exposed to inflation and extreme price fluctuations caused by international markets. As a result, Haitians pay 30 to 77 percent more for food than other people living in Latin America and the Caribbean region, and 49 percent of Haiti’s population is undernourished. Chronic malnutrition, a condition that affects 22 percent of Haiti’s children, occurs when the required amount of nutrients are not consumed during the first three years of life, causing irreversible detrimental effects on cognitive and physical development. With 60 percent of Haitians under the age of 30, these issues have profoundly negative effects on livelihoods, the country’s future economic prospects, and an already floundering health care system.

In addition to food insecurity, Haiti also struggles with susceptibility to damage caused by climate change. Haiti currently ranks third among the countries most affected by extreme weather events on the 2020 Climate Risk Index and has continually experienced natural disasters, including severe storms, floods, droughts, and multiple devastating earthquakes. These disasters damage critical infrastructure that Haiti needs to develop economically and to engage in international trade. Inaction in mitigating these natural disasters has in turn led to deepening economic issues, increased food insecurity, and prolonged recovery when disaster strikes. 

Haiti has taken a reactive approach to food insecurity and climate risk mitigation: The Haitian government has made few investments to increase local food production. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, 1.6 million Haitians have been thrust into poverty and the country has continued to rely heavily on international aid, foreign supply chains, and partnerships with organizations such as the World Food Programme (WFP) for basic food assistance. To reduce climate change risk, projects in Haiti have been focused on the creation of national flood plans and emergency systems. While these plans save lives and are important in the short term, they are ultimately band-aid solutions that do little to prevent or reduce the long-term impact of natural disasters.

Seeds for the Future

Any solution to Haiti’s food insecurity must meet four key objectives: increase local food production and lower the cost of food, increase accessibility, reduce the country’s reliance on other nations, and set the groundwork for a larger climate resiliency plan. Therefore, the government should focus on increasing education and farming cooperatives, intercropping (with a focus on beans), and undertaking tree planting initiatives. The Haitian government should build upon existing partnerships with the WFP to effectively enact these recommendations.

Cultivation in Cuba

Urban agriculture (UA) has proven to be an effective tool to combat food insecurity and reduce import dependency in other jurisdictions. One of the major success stories in this space has been Cuba, a country similar to Haiti in latitude, climate, and population. Facing starvation after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba ensured it had a self-reliant fresh food supply. This resulted in the creation of food gardens in metropolis regions such as Havana. Due to space constraints, governments developed a UA growing system called Organoponicos, in which farmers planted seeds into low-hanging and intertwined concrete walls filled with soil and organic matter. The Cuban government supported these aspiring urban farmers by providing technical support, subsidizing agricultural stores, and creating a community composting program. In 2018, there were more than 300,000 urban farms and gardens in Cuba, producing approximately 50 percent of the island’s fresh produce. 

There are considerable differences between the countries’ governance models, urbanization rates, and country sizes; however, the Organoponicos method and the bottom-up approach to tackling food insecurity are transferable from Cuba’s UA strategy. Similarly, the Haitian government should work alongside local partners on the ground to create farming cooperatives where those interested in growing their own food will be supported in doing so. Technical support should also be provided by the local Ministry of Agriculture. To inspire the next generation of farmers and increase appreciation of locally grown food, Haiti should also include horticultural education in school curricula. 

These strategies will help grow existing Haitian urban gardens like Jarden Tap Tap in Port-au-Prince, which is currently small and can only feed around 250 people. Additionally, it will reduce barriers preventing other Haitians from having sovereignty over their food. 

Planting New Roots

Tree planting initiatives can provide countless benefits by providing food, reducing erosion, increasing soil fertility, and regulating water cycles. Research has also shown that trees planted in close proximity to buildings help redistribute seismic waves, providing additional stability to the ground during extreme weather events such as earthquakes. Trees should be selected based on their ability to provide food and nutrients, environmental suitability (elevation, climate, soil, etc.), ease of growth, and resiliency to weather conditions and infertile soil. 

The tree species with significant potential for food insecurity mitigation and increased nutrition in Haiti are the moringa (Moringa oleifera), desert date (Balanites aegyptiacus), jujube (Ziziphus mauritiana), and African fan palm (Borassus aethiopum).  In urban settings, trees should be planted alongside existing roads, and buildings, and integrated into urban planning projects. Comprehensive research and a localized approach are critical to picking the most suitable trees for each location, and to achieve the goal of optimizing yields and soil health.

The WFP has a school feeding program delivering nearly 300,000 hot meals every day to children in Haiti and is working with the government towards a nationally-owned iteration of the program. Yields from the tree planting initiative should be incorporated into these services to help supplement meals. Providing tree seeds and agricultural education to students will bestow them with the resources and knowledge to feed their households. This plan aligns with the goal of the WFP in Haiti “to build sustainable systems to address the root causes of food insecurity and promote resilience.”

Navigating a Policy Maize

Only one-third of Haiti is composed of soil suitable for agriculture, with nitrogen levels restricting production potential. Maize, more commonly known as corn in Western countries,  is grown on 350 percent more land area than the land used to grow legumes in Haiti. These monocultural practices are problematic given that maize drains the soil of nutrients. Conversely, crop residues of cultivated legumes actually restore nutrients that revitalize soil and help increase future yields. While maize is a Haitian staple, crop production needs to be done more effectively and other crops like legumes should be prioritized. Otherwise, yields will decrease while the national population increases. 

Although the issue was previously identified by the Haitian Ministry of Agriculture,  which tried to increase maize production between 2008 and 2011 by using a fertilizer subsidy policy, it was ultimately ineffective. The initiative was expected to increase production by over 70 percent; while this goal was achieved, yield per hectare only increased by four percent and is still 16 percent lower than what it was in 1961. Evidently, such maize-focused strategies are not sustainable and will continue to degrade the soil without solving structural population and climate concerns. 

To prevent the effects of unsustainable agriculture, intercropping farming methods should be used. This involves planting two or more crops together in a mutually beneficial way. Intercropping increases soil nutrient levels, reduces yield fluctuations, and helps prevent pests and weeds. Planting more legumes by intercropping maize with pigeon peas (C.Cajan) and cowpeas (Vigna unguiculata), for instance, could help improve soil conditions. Pigeon pea grows well even in degraded soil and cowpea is incredibly drought tolerant, making these ideal crops to grow in Haiti. The WFP and the government should jointly provide a training program showing farmers how to improve the health of their soil in a cost-effective way, drawing on simple solutions like intercropping. These training programs will help to increase overall yields, yield stability, and soil fertility, allowing the soil to be used sustainably for years to come. 

Measuring the Growth

These agriculture recommendations should lead to lower rates of food insecurity and malnutrition, thereby increasing life expectancy in Haiti while increasing its climate resiliency. Key performance indicators to track include increased nutrient levels in the soil and crop yield. The efficacy of climate resiliency can be determined by looking at disaster impact and recovery when natural disasters strike. Success would be indicated by a reduction in external financial aid required for recovery and the secondary impacts of disasters, such as lost jobs.

Sowing the Seeds

In 2020, COVID-19 pushed an additional 1.6 million Haitians into food insecurity. While COVID-19 will subside, Haiti should not wait for another pandemic or natural disaster like the 2010 earthquake to begin internalizing production. Facing mounting challenges, the Haitian government must now sow new seeds to create a prosperous future.