Tuesday, July 6, 2010
To saddle hungry Haitians with American romanticism about agriculture is the worst kind of imperialism.
Monsanto Company, the Missouri-based biotechnology firm, has donated seeds to Haiti to help kickstart food production in the earthquake-ravaged country. In so doing, they’ve stirred up the kind of controversy that seems to follow the company. The 475-ton donation has sparked a storm of protest not only in Haiti but also in the United States. A coalition of Haitian peasant groups organized a protest march in June and have vowed to burn the donated seed.
This is not Monsanto's first rodeo, as we Missourians would say, so the company has made it clear that no genetically modified seeds were included in the donation. This delicacy did not impress the marchers, who protested under banners of "Down with GMO and hybrid seeds." Genetically modified seeds have long been controversial, but it's a surprise to find that hybridization, around since Gregor Mendel's time in the 1800s, can also inspire protest marches. Somehow, it doesn't seem obvious that hybrid broccoli seeds are the 82nd Airborne of cultural imperialism.
To consign Haitians to lives of hunger and poverty, because you disapprove of the kind of ‘industrial’ agriculture practiced in the United States, is immoral.
The peasant groups are indigenous in theory, but not when it comes to money, as they rely on U.S. donors for funding. Corresponding sympathetic demonstrations were held in the United States. Groups marched on the Gates Foundation in Seattle (the group is not properly mortified by biotechnology, hence the protests); protesters burned genetically modified seed in Chicago and organized a march in Missoula, Montana; and the Organic Consumers of America sent out 10,000 emails protesting Monsanto's magnanimity.
Doudou Pierre, whose title is the "national coordinating committee member for the National Haitian Network for Food Sovereignty and Food Security," explains the protests this way: "We're for seeds that have never been touched by multinationals." The idea of local seed is driving the protests, as writer Beverly Bell explains: “Haitian social movements’ concern is not just about the dangers of the chemicals and the possibility of future GMOs imports. They claim that the future of Haiti depends on local production with local food for local consumption, in what is called food sovereignty."
Hybrid seeds will increase yields over open pollinated seeds, whether purchased fertilizer is applied or not. This is why U.S. farmers adopted hybrids a generation before the widespread availability of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
One in four Haitians is hungry and, even before the earthquake, the average caloric intake in the country was far below United Nations-recommended levels. But that, of course, is of no consequence when compared to the importance of planting seeds untouched by multinational hands. Better starvation than accepting gifts from a company as evil as Monsanto.
Not to worry, as a coalition of church groups in the United States is providing 13,300 machetes and 9,200 hoes for the Haitian peasants. The groups are also supplying local and organic seeds, as many Haitian farmers are too poor to purchase seeds of any kind, even local and organic seeds. By all means, protect the “sovereignty” and integrity of the Haitian food system: hoes, machetes, and local and organic seeds have done such a good job of feeding Haitians in the past.
Hybrid seeds don't breed true (reproduce their characteristics faithfully in their offspring) so farmers usually purchase them each year rather than save their seed and risk a worse crop from the offspring. Hybrids will germinate, however, and the farmer can save the seed if he wants to (not only that, but the seeds have been treated with chemicals to protect them against bacterial disease and fungus, improving germination). This fact undermines the outlandish claims made by the peasant groups and their supporters. According to the critics, purchasing seed is very bad because it might provide a market for seed companies. Supporters of food sovereignty believe farmers ought not buy supplies, but be totally self-sustaining. Importing productive seeds will lead directly to the kind of "industrial" farming found in the United States. Next thing you know, those Haitian farmers will drive gas guzzling, four-wheel-drive pickups and lust after John Deere tractors.
The groups organizing against the gift are quite certain that Haitian farmers can't possibly be trained to handle the seeds safely. That's the worst sort of condescension.
Just like the local drug pusher handing out free samples or cigarette companies slipping teenagers smokes, Monsanto's motives are not perceived as altruistic, but rather as an intrusion into the lives of Haitian peasants, enticing the indigent farmers to trade their future and sovereignty for the temporary fix of evil corporate seeds.
The groups organizing against the gift are quite certain that Haitian farmers can't possibly be trained to handle the seeds safely. That's the worst sort of condescension; the seed treatments are the same as those used widely and safely for decades in the United States. There’s no reason Haitian farmers couldn’t use them as well.
Critics also worry that the hybrid seeds won't grow without fertilizer and chemicals, which the peasant farmers can't afford. Nothing could be further from the truth. Hybrid seeds will increase yields over open-pollinated seeds, whether purchased fertilizer is applied or not. This is why U.S. farmers adopted hybrids a generation before the widespread availability of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Having said that, an increase in the use of purchased fertilizers by Haitian agriculture would increase output. When people are starving, that is a worthwhile goal.
Somehow, it doesn't seem obvious that hybrid broccoli seeds are the 82nd Airborne of cultural imperialism.
Haiti desperately needs a productive agriculture, and farmers there have been hurt in the past by donations of western food, which can devastate local markets. Monsanto's donation is different. Monsanto is offering tools that can increase the productivity of Haitian agriculture, and the Haitian government has sensibly accepted the gift. If the seeds can avoid national coordinating committee members bearing torches and are actually planted in Haitian fields, yields will improve and hunger will be lessened.
One wonders why U.S. groups are so interested in protecting the existing agriculture in Haiti, which has so clearly failed. To consign Haitians to lives of hunger and poverty, because you disapprove of the kind of "industrial" agriculture practiced in the United States, is immoral. Monsanto has been harshly criticized for its actions, both in the developing world and here in the states, but their shortcomings pale by comparison with the harm that could be done by those who would block progress in Haiti. To saddle hungry Haitians with American romanticism about agriculture is the worst kind of imperialism. Haiti doesn't have that luxury; its people are hungry and need food.
Blake Hurst is a Missouri farmer.
FURTHER READING: Hurst provided a glimpse into the soul of farming in “Give Thanks for This Harvest” and reviewed a book about indigenous white farmers during South African land reform in “‘The First White Farmer Had Been Murdered.’” Last July, Hurst wrote “The Omnivore’s Delusion: Against the Agri-intellectuals,” countering opponents of industrial farming. In an American Enterprise Outlook, C. Peter Timmer questions the existence of “A World Without Agriculture.”
Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group.