The Haiti high fructose corn syrup connection

The troubled nation was once a major sugar exporter. It could be again, for its own benefit and American waistlines

By Andrew Leonard
Published January 21, 2010 12:40AM (EST)

Economist Tyler Cowen suggests that one way to help Haiti would be to "repeal tariffs on Haitian sugar." I'm guessing he doesn't expect this to be a short-term aid, because right now, under the crazy system of sugar import quotas employed by the United States to keep domestic sugar prices high, Haiti is actually permitted to export 7,258 metric tons of sugar to the U.S. every year. Except that, as of November 2009, according to data from the USDA, Haiti had exported exactly zero tons of sugar to the United States for the entire year. In fact, at numerous points over the last 30 years Haiti has been forced to import sugar.

Still, sugarcane is one of Haiti's few domestic cash crops, and the Dominican Republic, which shares the same island, is a huge sugar producer, enjoying the largest sugar quota granted any country in the world by the United States -- 20 times the size of Haiti's. So in principle Haiti could and should be a significant sugar exporter. Indeed, Michael Roberts wonders if disastrous economic disparity between the Dominican Republic and Haiti might be connected to the huge inequality in sugar quotas granted the two nations.

As Roberts suspected, that answer is hard to determine. The tribulations of Haiti's sugar industry -- which date all the way back to Christopher Columbus -- are embedded in a history of government mismanagement, foreign interference, and uneconomic farming practices that are challenging to untangle. But certainly, the U.S. habit of using sugar quotas as a foreign policy tool to reward or punish its trading partners hasn't helped.

The U.S. policy of subsidizing a few domestic sugar producers by artificially keeping local prices high is a crime against some of the poorest countries in the world. Even worse, the artificially high price of sugar in the United States is one of the forces that has encouraged U.S. food producers to substitute low priced corn-derived high fructose corn syrup for sugar in a vast array of processed foods.

Get rid of the sugar quota! Not just for Haiti, but for our own health.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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