While this prospect is a bleak one for the domestic rice industry, others view it as a long-overdue change. For years, organizations from Oxfam to the Cato Institute have harshly criticized American rice subsidies for enabling the United States to dump its product in developing countries at depressed prices, making it difficult for small-scale farmers to export their own rice or compete in their local markets. As these critics see it, taxpayer dollars have inflated America's competitiveness in global markets while destroying agriculture sectors in countries from Ghana to Indonesia.
Perhaps the most devastating example of this trade distortion, critics say, is Haiti. Since 1995, when it dropped its import tariffs on rice from 50 to 3 percent as part of a structural adjustment program run by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, Haiti has steadily increased its imports of rice from the north. Today it is the fifth-largest importer of American rice in the world despite having a population of just 10 million. Much of Haiti's rice comes from Arkansas; each year, Riceland Foods and Producers Rice Mill send millions of tons of rice down the Mississippi river on barges to New Orleans, where the rice is loaded onto container ships, taken to port in Haiti, and packaged as popular brands such as Tchaco or Mega Rice. Haiti today imports over 80 percent of its rice from the United States, making it a critical market for farmers in Arkansas.
Development experts argue that while U.S. exports may feed people cheaply in the short run, they have exacerbated poverty and food insecurity over time, and subsidies are largely to blame. "The support that U.S. rice producers receive is a big factor in why they are a big player in the global rice market and the leading source of imported rice in Haiti," said Marc Cohen, a senior researcher on humanitarian policy and climate change at Oxfam America. "If governments that preached trade liberalization in Geneva would practice it -- and that includes reducing domestic support measures that affect trade -- if everything was on a level playing field, that would be very helpful to Haiti."
"You have a country which is 70 percent farmers and you're importing 60 to 70 percent of your food," added Regine Barjon, the marketing director of the Miami-based Haitian-American Chamber of Commerce, in reference to Haiti. The country may have 700,000 hectares of underutilized arable land, according to Barjon's estimate, but it nevertheless maintains chronic trade deficits and has levels of food security that are only slightly better than those of Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Still, changes to U.S. farm subsidy policy could arguably destabilize Haiti's food security if American agricultural products can't be replaced by equally cheap imports or the country's farmers cannot increase their own production. One ton of Haitian rice is around $300 more expensive than American rice on the Haitian market, according to Haitian importers. If imports drop and prices rise, not only will there not be enough local product to feed the population, but it will likely be difficult for average Haitian citizens, 75 percent of whom live on less than $2 a day, to afford the household staple. Keith Glover of Producers Rice Mill likened American rice in Haiti to a Wal-Mart in a small southern town. "It hurts some people there and it helps other people have more purchasing power," he said. "We are able to ship rice at a better price that gives the average family in Haiti more purchasing power." But in 2011, the World Food Program reported Haitians' purchasing power fell by 10 percent because of rising food prices and widespread unemployment, raising questions about whether the Wal-Mart model is what Haitians need to ensure the country's food security.
Others don't see food security as the goal, they want food sovereignty -- Haitians feeding Haitians, like they used to. "When I was growing up, Haiti exported rice, sugar, coffee, beans, a lot of things," said Josette Perard, who runs an organization in Port-au-Prince called the Lambi Fund that funnels money for development to farmer collectives in the countryside. Like a lot of Haitians, the 72-year-old Perard is keenly aware of the history that has contributed to the dismal state of agriculture today -- a reality that she says has its roots in Haiti's declaration of independence from France in 1804, when foreign nations refused to trade with a country run by former slaves. "The United States, the British, the French, the Spanish, and the Portuguese had slaves in their colonies," Perard explained. "They were afraid that Haiti would export its revolution."