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 planet.
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.
"The 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 citizens."
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.
"We 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."
Monsanto is perhaps best known for creating genetically modified crops, which draw fire from some environmental groups wherever they are introduced.
But the donated seeds are not genetically modified, says Christopher Abrams with the US Agency for International Development, which is helping to distribute them.
"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
Since 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.
It's a matter of weighing the pros and cons, says USAID's Abrams.
"If 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."
"Monsanto should have known"
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.
He 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.
He 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."
A 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.
Monsanto and 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 next season.
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.