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  • Hugh Locke + Timote Georges

Unhealthy Levels of Arsenic Found in U.S. Rice Exports to Haiti

U.S. rice for sale at a Port-au-Prince market. Photo credit: Jacob Kushner/GlobalPost.

It is hard for moral outrage to coalesce around any one crisis in Haiti when there are so many to choose from, but news of U.S. rice exports to Haiti containing unhealthy levels of heavy metals surely warrants consideration in this regard.

 

A study published earlier this month by University of Michigan researchers, in partnership with the Community Organization for Haitian Agriculture, found that rice exported to Haiti—mostly from the U.S.—contains unhealthy levels of arsenic and cadmium, which can increase the risk of various cancers, heart disease, diabetes and other illnesses.

 

The study found that average arsenic and cadmium concentrations were nearly twice as high in imported rice compared to Haitian-grown rice. And nearly all imported rice in the study exceeded the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's recommendation for children's consumption. 

 

While this raises concerns about the domestic situation in the United States, there are even greater concerns when it comes to the vulnerable population of Haiti that is already dealing with food shortages and medical conditions brought on by malnutrition.

 

The situation is further compounded by the fact the U.S. has been allowed to flood and dominate the domestic Haitian rice market, making it nearly impossible for local farmers to sell their own more nutritious product.

 

The most recent publication about rice exports (updated in September, 2023) by the U.S. Department of Agriculture lists Haiti as its third largest international market. With a population of approximately 11.5 million people and a land area equivalent to Albania in southeastern Europe, Haiti imports 421,000 metric tons of U.S. rice a year. This puts it on par with the amount exported annually to the combined populations of Japan and South Korea, which total 177 million.

 

As recently as the mid-1980s, Haiti grew almost all the rice it consumed. Now it imports around 82% of its rice, and all but a fraction of that is from the U.S. There are three main reasons for this. First, American rice farmers are heavily subsidized by taxpayers (currently averaging around $600 million a year). Second, tariffs on rice coming into Haiti from the U.S. are artificially low (see pages 23 - 26 in The Haiti Experiment for details). Third, the infrastructure needed to support local production, packaging and distribution of Haitian rice is decades out of date. Together these factors make Haitian-grown rice significantly more expensive than imported "Miami rice," as it is known locally.

 

Now add to this the gang violence that has paralyzed the capital of Port-au-Prince and destabilized other urban areas.

 

Even in the face of these obstacles, the two of us are long-term optimists. The work of the Smallholder Farmers Alliance has continued without interruption through all the turmoil in recent years. It hasn’t been easy for sure, as our farmers continue to deal with inflation, fuel shortages and blocked access to markets… but they persevere.


A few of the 33 nurseries currently managed by SFA farmers that result in over one million trees a year being planted in Haiti.

We hope you will continue to support our 7,200 smallholder members as they valiantly strive to uphold our motto, “Farmers united to help feed and reforest Haiti.”

 

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Hugh Locke, President, SFA 

Timote Georges, Executive Director, SFA

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