July 8, 2010


Green Menace (Blake Hurst, July 6, 2010, American)

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.

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.

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.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 8, 2010 5:17 PM
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