U.S. plan to dump peanuts is a potential disaster, aid groups warn

Drying Peanuts. (credit: Alex Proimos/flickr)

The announcement that the U.S. will ship 500 metric tons of packaged, dry-roasted peanuts to Haiti later this year has been met with a swift backlash. The program amounts to a goods dump that could cause more harm than good, more than 60 Haitian and U.S. organizations warned, calling it “a plan of death” for Haiti’s farmers. It hearkens back to policies during the 1980s and 1990s where U.S. goods flooded markets in developing countries and crippled domestic industries.

“We are extremely concerned that the proposed USDA peanut program will destroy the incomes of vast numbers of Haiti’s rural families, rolling back years of progress and hard work by Haitian farmers. The U.S. should focus any aid to Haiti on supporting local production and local procurement,” according to the open letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). “We therefore call on you to immediately cancel plans to ship U.S. peanuts to Haiti; and instead to prioritize a model of cooperation that respects the self-determination and economic independence of the Republic of Haiti.”

The deal led by the USDA will bring the peanuts to children with little access to food. It is being described as a humanitarian program that will help to cut hunger and improve nutrition. The peanuts come from government food stocks surpluses, and a program started in 2007 allows for the transfer for humanitarian reasons. The peanuts will help feed nearly 140,000 malnourished children, according to the USDA.

While it will help feed children, it would also undercut the existing peanut market in the country. Peanuts were specifically chosen for Haiti because it commonly eaten there. It is also widely grown there, too. Partners in Health, for example, buys peanuts from Haitian farmers to make ready-to-use therapeutic food for children with severe malnutrition.

A man sorts peanuts at the Meds & Food for Kids Factory in Cap-Haitien, Haiti, on Nov. 28, 2011. USAID provided heavy equipment for the factory, which produces nutritional peanut butter that fights malnutrition. (Credit: Kendra Helmer/USAID)

A man sorts peanuts at the Meds & Food for Kids Factory in Cap-Haitien, Haiti, on Nov. 28, 2011. USAID provided heavy equipment for the factory, which produces nutritional peanut butter that fights malnutrition. (Credit: Kendra Helmer/USAID)

By buying locally, Partners in Health can double the impact of its program –  supporting businesses and supporting child nutrition. It is the kind of win-win that international development experts encourage. And it is something that would be undermined when free or cheap peanuts arrive in the country.

We know that it can be problematic because it has happened before in Haiti. During the Bill Clinton era, his administration pressed on the Haitian government to cut its tariffs on imported rice to close to nothing. When the policy was enacted, rice much cheaper than what was being grown in Haiti made its way into the markets. Consumers naturally favored the cheaper rice, hurting Haitian rice farmers. It was a disaster for the local economy.

“It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake,” Clinton admitted to reporters in Haiti after its 2010 earthquake. “I have to live every day with the consequences of the lost capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people, because of what I did.”

We could see the same damaging cycle if the peanuts make it to Haiti. Five hundred metric tons is less than 2 percent of the total peanut crop produced in the country each year. What is worrisome is whether the one-off distribution would lead to the opening up of selling peanuts in Haiti, as was done with rice.

“Given the experience with rice in Haiti, I think that is a big reason for concern,” said Marc Cohen, senior researcher for aid effectiveness at Oxfam America, in an interview with Humanosphere. “If peanuts were to go the way of rice, it would be quite negative for Haiti.”

According to the USDA, Haiti is in need because of the ongoing drought caused by El Niño. Malnutrition rates are up as a result. However, Cohen points out that there is a flaw in their logic. The peanuts will go to schoolchildren, a group that is less affected by malnutrition compared to infants. It is the development in the first five years when malnutrition can cause life-long problems like stunted growth and reduced cognitive development.

Haitian peanut farmers. (Credit: Alex Proimos/flickr)

Haitian peanut farmers. (Credit: Alex Proimos/flickr)

“Generally speaking you don’t use school meals to combat childhood malnutrition,” Cohen said.

Haiti may need food assistance to deal with the drought, but that would come more effectively through purchasing food in-country or regionally. The donation of peanuts is the result of a U.S. problem. Food subsidies to the peanut industry are contributing to overproduction and a surplus in peanuts grown.

The USDA bought 113,000 metric tons of peanuts in 2015, well more than the 16,000 metric tons it needs to stock. As a result, the U.S. is faced with the high price of storing more peanuts than it actually needs. Since the idea of cutting the subsidy, which could be anywhere between $960 million and $1.9 billion through 2018, is not in the cards, it is better to just give away the peanuts.

Haiti is close, loves peanuts and needs food – it appears to be a great match. But that doesn’t solve the core issue. U.S. peanut farmers are making more peanuts than they can sell. If the government continues propping up the industry, it could start looking into market-based solutions to the problem. One could be selling peanuts to Haiti.

Not only would that harm farmers, it undercuts the work the U.S. is funding in Haiti. Feed the Future and other programs run or backed by the U.S. Agency for International development are helping Haitian farmers. Cohen says it could undercut the efforts to improve productivity for farmers and quality of the crops they produce.

“We urge that the USDA to reverse its decision to send U.S. surplus peanuts to Haiti,” said Partners in Health, in a statement. “Dumping peanuts will undermine the price local peanut farmers will receive for their goods, diminishing their ability to subsist and eliminating their livelihoods. Instead, Haiti needs humanitarian support that does not undermine the livelihoods of the rural poor.”

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.