Haiti's farmers are being urged to burn seeds donated by U.S.
agriculture giant Monsanto.
The American company donated $4 million worth of seeds to Haiti to
help the country rebuild after January's devastating earthquake. The
seeds promise to help farmers in the hungry nation increase the amount
of food they can grow.
But the powerful Haitian peasant group
that's telling farmers to burn the donations says the seeds will change
the way most Haitian peasants farm, tying them to multinational
corporations and threatening the environment.
It's the latest
example of the worldwide ideological struggle over how to feed a hungry
Even before the earthquake, more than half Haiti's
population was undernourished. The earthquake forced hundreds of
thousands of people out of the capital, Port-au-Prince, and into the
rural areas. They arrived with nothing but their appetites, the Haitian
saying goes, putting extra strain on rural farmers.
right thing to do"
"Monsanto made this donation, simply
put, because it's the right thing to do," said company spokesman Darren
Wallis. "The needs in Haiti are significant and we have seeds that could
help farmers not only grow food for themselves but, with an ample
harvest, significantly impact the food security of other Haitian
So it may come as a suprise that Chavannes
Jean-Baptiste, the head of Haiti's Peasant Movement of Papaye
(abbreviated MPP in Creole), wants the seeds destroyed.
consider introducing poisonous seeds in our country as a major attack,"
he says. "We want to say clearly to Monsanto, the American government
who supports the idea, as well as the Haitian government. We want them
to hear the voice of the peasants who say no."
is perhaps best known for creating genetically modified crops, which
draw fire from some environmental groups wherever they are introduced.
the donated seeds are not genetically modified, says Christopher Abrams
with the US Agency for International Development, which is helping to
"The immediate association with genetically
modified organisms versus what we were doing was unfortunately
incorrect," he says. "But since then, it's created many, many opinions
out there on what this means."
What it means, according to MPP
chief Jean-Baptiste, is that, "Our farmers will stop being independent
and rely on a multinational like Monsanto or any other multinationals
that sell seeds."
Saving seeds vs. buying better seeds
the dawn of agriculture, farmers have saved seeds from the previous
season to start the next crop.
That began to change in the early
20th century. Researchers developed new techniques to select crop
varieties that produce especially large harvests, resistance to diseases
or drought, or other valuable traits.
The downside, however,
is that the offspring of these varieties don't perform as well as their
parents. So farmers have to buy new seeds every season.
matter of weighing the pros and cons, says USAID's Abrams.
you have a good hybrid seed that works in Haiti that produces a good
yield but it costs you a bit more on the front end, that becomes an
economic choice that the farmer makes."
While Abrams was surprised by the MPP's
reaction, Robert Paarlberg, an agricultural policy expert at Wellesley
College, was not.
"Monsanto probably should have known in
advance that any gift of its hybrid seeds…would encounter resistance in
Haiti, where activist leaders of this local peasant movement view
Monsanto as an evil, alien multinational corporation," says Paarlberg.
notes that the MPP is one of several grassroots organizations worldwide
that opposes efforts encouraging farmers to use hybrid seeds and the
nitrogen fertilizer that helps them perform at their peak.
acknowledges that excessive fertilizer use has contributed to water
pollution and other environmental problems in many parts of the world.
But, he says, "Wherever farmers have refused to use hybrid seeds, their
crop yields have remained much lower, and their income has remained much
lower, and their access to food has remained much lower."
matter of choice
"The trick is to make sure that
farmers have a choice of either using their traditional varieties or, if
they wish, using hybrid seed varieties," he adds.
USAID are offering that choice by making the seeds available through
stores operated by Haitian farmers' associations. The stores sell the
donated seeds at a discount and use the proceeds to buy supplies for the
So farmers would have to buy the seeds before they
could burn them in protest. Asked if he knew of any farmers who were
burning Monsanto's donated seeds, the MPP's Jean-Baptiste said no, but
he wishes they would.