WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S. — Faced with increasing demand for rice and stagnant production, Haiti is increasingly turning to imports to fill its need for the foodstuff, according to a February report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Economic Research Service (ERS).

Rice imports improved food availability, increasing per capita calorie availability by about 11% between 1985 and 2011, according to the Global Food Security Database compiled by the ERS. Large rice imports also changed the character of the Haitian diet, with rice now accounting for almost one-quarter of total calorie consumption.

The Haitian government, as well as international development organizations, is currently working to improve agricultural performance. However, even with significant productivity gains, Haiti is unlikely to achieve self-sufficiency in rice production and will continue to rely on imports.

Rice is a critical component of the Haitian diet, thus access to adequate supplies of rice is a vital food security objective of the Haitian government.

With elimination and changes in Haiti’s import tariffs, the volume of imports increased significantly from the 1980s to the 1990s.  By 1994, imports exceeded 140,000 tonnes, and domestic production stagnated. Haitian officials estimate that imports now account for 80% to 90% of rice consumption.

Haiti grows long-grain rice, producing two crops a year, a spring and fall crop, with the fall crop accounting for 60%-70% of total production. Since 2005-06, rice production (rough-basis) in Haiti has ranged from 91,000 tonnes to 142,000 tonnes, with an average of 114,400 tonnes, nearly unchanged from the previous decade’s average.

Rice yields have shown no upward trend since the mid-1980s. Yields have averaged just 1.83 tonnes per hectare, down from an average of 2.2 tonnes the previous decade.

Any expansion of rice production in Haiti faces severe constraints including a lack of access to working capital; poor seed quality; small farms that make efficient operation difficult; continuing conflicts over land ownership, which blocks any expansion or consolidation; and unclear water rights.

Haiti’s rice sector also suffers from a lack of skilled labor, mechanization, and storage facilities that would allow farmers to hold rice until prices are higher. Much is lost in the field, with pests destroying about 10% of the crop annually. Losses also occur during harvest due to improper harvesting techniques. Hurricane damage and severe flooding, common in the region, also contribute to losses.

The milling industry faces severe challenges as well. According to Haitian sources, the mills — of which there are hundreds — are old, extremely small, and use outdated technology, resulting in excessive levels of foreign matter in the milled rice and large numbers of broken kernels, which sell at a substantial discount compared to unbroken kernels.

A major goal of the Haitian government is to boost domestic rice output and reduce dependence on imports. Objectives include the improvement in irrigation and canal facilities; bringing uncultivated land into production; providing subsidized seed and fertilizers to producers; improving access to machinery; and strengthening agricultural advisory services.

To read the entire USDA ERS report, go to http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/2000883/rcs-16a-01.pdf.