Blog Global Health Center

The inextricable nature of food insecurity: A deeper look at Haiti’s eroded and disturbed river ecosystems

Written by Kyle Tran, A.B. candidate in biology, microbiology at Washington University in St. Louis; and participant in the 2023 Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program

A neighborhood in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. Photo: Heather Suggitt on Unsplash

As a participant in the  Summer Research DIversity Program in Cardiovascular Disease & Hematology (RADIANCE) track, I was given the opportunity to attend a lecture titled, From Pearl of the Antilles to Peril in the Antilles: The Inextricable Nature of Food Insecurity in Haiti, given by Joe Steensma, EdD, MPH, MA, a professor of environmental health at WashU’s Brown School. Professor Steensma’s research focuses on the malnutrition and poverty affecting Haitians, and how these public health issues inevitably connect to an incredibly diverse and wide field of factors.

The professor addressed the historical events that heavily influenced the Haitian economy and farming practices, such as French colonization, slavery, the fight for independence, and the Haiti indemnity. The crippled economy and unsustainable farming practices led to soil erosion, deforestation, destruction of river ecosystems, and reliance on solid fuels. Steensma connected the erosion and disturbed river ecosystems to Haitian food insecurity and connected the deforestation and reliance on solid fuels to the carbon monoxide poisoning children face, which would lead to malnourishment (regardless of how well-fed the children were).

Steensma also addressed the effects of market and trade on food insecurity. Under President Bill Clinton, the overproduction of U.S. rice and U.S. trade policies destroyed the Haitian rice industry and kept the nation from being self-sufficient. Overfishing and the manipulation of the fish market have also prevented Haitians from having a reliable food supply that would also help develop the economy,

The biggest lesson from Steensma’s lecture is that the issue of food insecurity in Haiti, like public health, is incredibly complex and interwoven with a multitude of other policies and socioeconomic factors. To successfully address public health issues will require us to look at problems through a multidisciplinary lens.