True cost of “free” peanuts

Peanuts have taken center stage in Haiti, after the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that a surplus of peanuts in the U.S. would be shipped to Haitian school children. It has ignited a lively debate between proponents of food assistance, Haitian development organizations and farmer coalitions, and international organizations with years of experience working in Haiti.

Many do not want the peanuts to go to Haiti, and at first glance, pushing back on USDA can seem counter-intuitive because:

  1. Haitians are experiencing the worst drought in decades.
  2. Many children in Haiti suffer from long-term hunger
  3. The U.S. has a surplus of peanuts
  4. Haitians produce and eat lots of peanuts

So, why not send the peanuts to Haiti?

The problem lies with #4–that Haitians do, in fact, produce and eat a lot of peanuts. There is a strong peanut market in Haiti. Peanuts are valued for their drought-resistant properties and peanut processing sustains a lot of people’s incomes, especially women.

It is important to recognize that many large producers of crops (like peanuts) in the U.S. benefit from agriculture subsidy programs, making their products much cheaper on the international market, and imparting an advantage that small farmers in other countries do not have.

The proposed peanut program for Haiti is

“reminiscent of numerous instances in which the United States has intervened in Haiti’s agriculture to devastating effect.  In the 1980s and 1990s the US exported huge amounts of rice into Haiti, which had previously been self-sufficient in rice.  The result was a flood of cheap rice that undercut Haitian farmers, destroying their livelihoods.  Former president Bill Clinton later apologized for the consequences of these actions, saying, “It may have helped some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it was a mistake.”

MCC has long been part of food assistance programs around the world, especially in response to emergencies, such as earthquakes, hurricanes, or displacement due to violent conflict. But an important tenet of emergency food aid is purchasing food locally, when possible, to support local farmers and economies. This is something that MCC has increased in long and short-term disaster response programs.

As with all development and food security projects in Haiti, the US should support local purchasing and prioritize a model of cooperation that respects self-determination and the economic independence of Haiti.

Read the full letter to USDA and USAID that MCC signed, along with 60 other organizations: Peanut letter 05.02.2016

Check out other resources on the peanut debate: Oxfam blog | Partners in Health

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