The right to choose – for farmers in Haiti
By Paul Driessen
The Monsanto Company is learning a valuable lesson in Haiti: no good deed goes unpunished at the hands of radical anti-corporate elements of Western society.
Like so many other concerned citizens, Monsanto responded to the tragic January 12 earthquake that further devastated this impoverished country. It worked for months with Haiti's Agricultural Ministry to select seeds best suited to local climates, needs and practices, and to handle the donation so as to support, rather than undermine, the country's agricultural and economic infrastructure.
From Monsanto's extensive inventory, they jointly chose conventionally bred hybrid (not biotech / genetically modified / GM) varieties of field corn and seven vegetables: cabbage, carrots, eggplants, onions, tomatoes, spinach and melons. Instead of giving the seeds to farmers, the company worked with the USAID-funded WINNER program, to donate the seeds to stores owned and managed by Haitian farmer associations. The 475 tons of hybrid seeds will then be sold to many thousands of farmers at steep discounts, and all revenues will be reinvested in local agriculture.
Other companies and donors are providing fertilizers, insecticide and herbicides that will likewise be sold at a discount. The companies, Agricultural Ministry, farmers associations and other experts will also provide technical advice and assistance – much as the USDA's Cooperative Extension System does – on how, when and whether to use the various hybrids, fertilizers, and weed and insect-control chemicals.
The goal is simple. Help get the country and its farmers back on their feet, improve farming practices, crop yields and nutrition levels, and increase incomes and living standards.
The reaction of anti-corporate activists was instantaneous, intense, perverse, patronizing and hypocritical. Monsanto wants to turn Haiti back into "a slave colony," ranted Organic Consumers Association founder Ronnie Cummins. Hybrid and GM seeds will destroy our diversity, small-farmer agriculture and "what is left of our environment," raged Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, leader of the Peasant Movement of Papaye.
Other self-anointed "peasant representatives" waded in. The seeds are genetically modified and "will exterminate our people." Farmers won't be able to afford the seeds or feed their children. The fertilizers are carcinogenic. Fungicides on the seeds are toxic poisons. "Seeds are the patrimony of humanity." We support "food and seed sovereignty." Traditional seeds and farming practices "provide stable employment" for the 70% of Haitians who are small farmers. And of course, "Down with Monsanto."
Various U.S. churches and foundations chimbed in. "Spontaneous" protests were organized in several Haitian and American cities. At one, hundreds of marchers wore identical shirts and hats, which even at a combined value of just $5 represented two weeks' income for average Haitian farmers: 40 cents a day. One wonders how many would have shown up without these inducements.
Indeed, this abysmal income underscores the terrible reality of life in this island nation, even before the earthquake, and the perversity of this campaign against "corporate control of the food system." Instead of "seed sovereignty," the activists are ensuring eco-imperialism and poverty sovereignty.
Forty years ago, Haiti was largely self-sufficient in food production and actually exported coffee, sugar and mangoes. Today, the country imports 80% of its rice and 97% of the 31 million eggs it consumes monthly. Two-thirds of Haiti's people are farmers (roughly equivalent to the United States just after the Civil War), but their crop yields are among the lowest in the Western Hemisphere.
Few of Haiti's rural families have running water or electricity, and women spend hours a day cooking over open fires. Many contract serious lung diseases as a result, and life expectancy is twelve years lower than for people on the Dominican Republic side of the island.
Google satellite images reveal a lush green eastern DR two-thirds of Hispaniola – in stark contrast to the deforested, rutted, brown, impoverished Haitian side, from which enormous quantities of soil are washed into the ocean every year. Roads are so rutted and awful that Peace Corps workers report traveling four hours by truck to go 60 miles. Many rural people cannot afford to feed their children, leaving hundreds of kids in poor highland areas literally starving to death.
Hybrid seeds can help Haitians climb out of this morass. They're no silver bullet, but they are one of the cheapest, easiest and best investments a farmer can make. By simply planting different seeds and adding fertilizer, farmers can dramatically increase crop yields. A similar Monsanto donation of hybrid maize (corn) seeds and fertilizer to Malawi farmers in 2006 generated a 500% increase in yields and helped feed a million people for a year.
In the United States, organic and conventional farmers alike plant numerous hybrids. They cost more than traditional, open-pollinated seeds, but the payoff in yield, revenue, and uniformity of size, quality and ripening time makes the investment decision easy. Between 1933 and 2000, U.S. corn yields likewise expanded fivefold – thanks to hybrids, fertilizer, irrigation and innovative crop management practices – and today, hybrid or GM hybrid crops are planted on virtually every American field.
Some of the Haitian corn donation will be used to improve chicken farming and egg production. Most will likely be used in staples like sauce pois – corn mush topped with black or red beans combined with coconut milk, hot peppers, onions, garlic and oil. The thickness of the bean sauce reflects a family's income, and "wealthy" families often accompany the sauce with rice, instead of corn mush. The veggie seeds will add variety to family diets, and provide a source of income via sales at local markets.
The hybrids will also help Haiti adopt truly sustainable farming practices: higher crop yields, greater revenues and better nutrition for more people, at lower cost, from less land, using less water and fewer pesticides, requiring less time in fields, and enabling more farmers to specialize in other trades and send their children to school. In short, greater opportunity and prosperity for millions.
And yet, activists continue to spew forth invective, preposterous claims and disinformation – primarily through the Huffington Post and several other websites. Hybrid seeds don't regenerate, they assert; wrong – they do and can be replanted, though they will not pass all their best traits down to subsequent generations, which is one reason farmers typically buy new seeds. The seeds are poisonous, they fume; false – the seeds are treated with fungicides that are used safely all over the USA, Western Europe and Latin America, to keep seeds from being destroyed by fungus before they germinate.
(For additional information and discussions, see plant geneticist Anastasia Bodnar's Biofortified website.)
Monsanto will not force farmers to plant hybrid seeds – or say they can't replant what they collect from previous harvests. Indeed, hybrids were widely just 30 years ago by Haitian farmers, who know what they are looking for in a crop, how to assess what they have planted and harvested, and whether they want to invest in specific seeds. They should be allowed to make their own decisions – just as others should be permitted to plant whatever traditional, heirloom or open-pollinated seeds they wish.
"We reject Monsanto seeds," say anti-hybrid activists. They might, and that's fine. But thousands of other Haitian farmers want to plant Monsanto seeds. Their right to choose must also be respected – not denied by intolerant protesters, who are largely funded and guided by well-fed First World campaigners.
After years of vicious assaults by agro and eco purists, Monsanto's corporate skin is probably thick enough to survive these lies and often highly personal attacks. Other companies, however, might lack the fortitude to provide their expertise and technology after future disasters, in the face of such attacks.
That is almost certainly an objective for many of these anti-technology, anti-corporate groups. Monsanto has no maize financial interests in Haiti and only a tiny vegetable operation, and I have no financial interest in Monsanto. But for the world's most destitute people, it would be a tragedy of epic proportions.
Paul Driessen is senior policy advisor for the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow and author of Eco-Imperialism: Green Power - Black Death.
Get weekly updates about new issues of ESR!