HINCHE – A seed donation, last May, by giant multinational Monsanto to impoverished, earthquake-stricken Haiti stirred thousands of farmers to protest. It also sparked debate over the country’s aid policies and agricultural future.
At the center of the controversy is a $ 4 million worth donation of hybrid seeds to Haiti’s Ministry of Agriculture, distributed to 10,000 farmers through the USAID-sponsored WINNER initiative. Critics say the donation damages local farmers – some 70 percent of the population – by making unaware peasants dependent on products they will not be able to afford in the future.
“This is a gift of death,” leader of Haiti’s peasant movement Jean-Baptiste Chavannes told the crowd rallying in the central plateau town of Hinche, last June. “It is against our environment and against the rights of future generations.”
The argument over Monsanto’s offer highlights the opposing beliefs of those involved in Haiti’s rural development and in the fight to feed the country’s hungry – almost 3 million, according to the International Fund for Agricultural Development.
“Food security doesn’t mean that you have to produce it all, it means that when you go to the market you have the money to afford it,” said USAID’s Christopher Abrams.
Abrams explained that while WINNER – which already dispensed $16.9 of its $126 million budget – respects traditional farming, its priority is to increase productivity and “double” profits.
“The goal is not self-sufficiency, we want to help increase the income of farmers and non-farmers so they will be able to buy food,” Abrams said.
The seeds were donated to the government but are being sold to farmers through “boutiques” selected in cooperation with USAID.
“Providing an outright donation of seed would undercut Haiti’s agricultural and economic infrastructure,” Monsanto explained in an official statement.
Speaking for the National Peasant Movement of Papaye Congress (MPNKP), a network of peasant associations with over 300,000 members, Chavannes – who declined offers by former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to serve as Haiti’s Minister of Agriculture and by current President Rene Preval to serve as its Prime Minister – said development will not come through food security but food sovereignty.
“Programs like WINNER make peasants leave traditional farming for conventional and industrial farming, but that’s not what we want,” Chavannes said. “Peoples have a right to choose their agricultural policy, what to farm and how to farm it, or they will always be dependent.”
Haiti’s Ministry of Agriculture questioned Monsanto about its intention to donate genetically modified seeds, which it wouldn’t accept because the country lacks legislation regulating GMOs.
Louis-Marie Laventure, a supervisor of agricultural education with the Ministry, said the decision was debated among authorities.
“It was a political question,” said Laventure. “Every Haitian that eats American cornflakes is already eating GMOs so it wasn’t about nutrition.”
Laventure said the Ministry accepted the offer because it prioritizes food security, but said the government also wants to give local production an opportunity to grow and repeatedly asked aid agencies not to import food already produced in Haiti. Haiti imports 48 percent of its consumption, according to the World Food Program.
“Local production can respond to most needs,” Laventure said. “You can import what’s needed to complete the demand.”
While agreeing that Haiti’s food productivity is too low to feed its population – with a 77 percent poverty rate bound to increase after January’s devastating earthquake – some fear relying on donations will increase Haitians’ growing dependency.
“Haiti had a food security policy for the last twenty years and look where it got them,” said David Millet, a French agronomist who volunteered in Haiti’s rural areas for two years.
“Aid agencies come with no connection to the fields, with their assumptions of what’s needed and without asking the locals,” Millet accused.
Haiti’s problem is not so much a scarcity of seeds, he observed, as a lack of access, education on agricultural techniques like tree grafting, and infrastructure, including irrigation systems and small-scale water management projects.
At the Technical School for Development in Hinche, a public institution funded in 1985 with a World Bank loan, Director Serge Durosier agreed.
“What lacks here is a technical culture,” he said, as a Cuban mechanic taught Haitian students to build simple agricultural tools. “The formation of farmers should be an integral part of education.”
The question of farmers’ preparation to the benefits and risks of treated seeds like those donated by Monsanto has been another source of contention.
USAID educates all farmers in the 200 local associations it partners with to an appropriate use of the seeds, said Abrams.
“Farmers are fully aware of the positive benefits and the possible negative benefits,” he said. This includes the knowledge that they will need to buy seeds for future planting seasons.
“We give them all the information, they know they won’t be able to use the offspring but that they will benefit from a yield four times as big,” Abrams added. Treated seeds have a 97 percent germination chance, versus the 20 percent chance of local seeds, he said.
“The economic choice is clear,” Abrams concluded. “We treat farmers like business persons because that’s what they are.”
Chavannes, who is a founding member of international peasant movement La Via Campesina, rejected the notion.
“There are things that shouldn’t be considered merchandise and food is one of them,” he said. “The objective of agriculture is sustainable life, not maximum profit.”
Chavannes denied all farmers coming in contact with Monsanto’s seeds are conscious of the risks.
Last month, the donated seeds were available for sale in Port-au-Prince and in the town of Mirebalais, in Haiti’s central department, though USAID said it operates in other areas. Monsanto’s seeds sold for 25 cents per kilogram, at least four times less than local seeds.
Chavannes himself bought some, which he symbolically burned at the rally in Hinche.
“You walk into the store, you are told they are good seeds and you just buy them,” he said. “Farmers are not informed of any risk.”