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Seed donation to Haiti stirs controversy

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[Photo credit: Lic.Iderle Br?nus]
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Haitian peasants march against Monsanto?s seed donation (Hinche, June 4, 2010)

By Veronique LaCapra, St. Louis Public Radio

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/kwmu/local-kwmu-910425.mp3

St. Louis, MO – Agricultural biotech giant Monsanto has had its share of bad press lately.

So when the St. Louis-based company announced in May that it was donating $4 million worth of seeds to hungry, earthquake-ravaged Haiti, it seemed like it was finally due for some good P.R.

But some vocal Haitian peasant groups are saying "no" to the Monsanto seed. Their reaction highlights broader problems with foreign seed donations.

After the earthquake in January, thousands of Haitians fled the capital of Port-au-Prince to move in with relatives in the countryside. Their arrival created an added burden for peasant farmers, often doubling the number of family members needing to be fed.

Monsanto's seed donation was intended to help feed them. But Haitian peasant leader Doudou Pierre Festile says he wants nothing to do with it - and neither, he says, do the 200,000 members of the Haitian peasant network he says he represents.

"No, no, a thousand times no," he says. "We will never accept even one seed from Monsanto."

Festile says Haitian peasants must protect what he calls their "seed sovereignty," and resist dependence on multinational corporations.

Festile calls the donation "a second earthquake," one that will destroy peasant agriculture, family farming, and peasant control over indigenous seed stocks.

Monsanto spokesman Darren Wallis says the company worked with the Haitian Ministry of Agriculture to select seeds that would meet the needs of Haitian farmers: hybrid corn and vegetable seeds, conventionally bred to produce higher yields. These are not the genetically engineered varieties for which Monsanto has drawn criticism from environmentalists.

"As a Monsanto employee I'm really, you know, proud that we were able to step forward and help in the way that we could, which is donating these seeds," says Wallis.

Wallis says that prior to the donation, Monsanto already sold some vegetable seeds in Haiti, but he avoids speculating about the company's plans. "We have no commercial plans in Haiti today."

Most Haitian peasant farmers save some seeds from year to year to grow corn and other staple crops. That doesn't work so well for hybrid varieties, says Christopher Abrams of the U.S. Agency for International Development, which is distributing the first installment of Monsanto's donation. Since the offspring of hybrid parents may not grow well, says Abrams, farmers need to buy new hybrid seeds each year.

"The benefit of hybrid seed is that you can really get some strong yields on the tail end. So it becomes an economic choice for the farmer," says Abrams.

Instead of just giving the donated seed directly to farmers, USAID is making it available through stores operated by Haitian farmers' associations.

"The farmer store sells the seeds, the revenue from those seeds [goes] back to the farmer stores, so then that farmer store can go off on the free market and purchase what they believe that their consumers - the farmers' association - will need for the following season."

Abrams says the Monsanto seed will only be provided to stores in the Cul-de-Sac region, east of the capital, where USAID has the longest history of working with farmers on the pros and cons of hybrids. Even though the donated seeds will be sold at a discount, says Abrams, they will still be priced higher than local varieties.

Agronomist Gaye Burpee works for Catholic Relief Services. "The problem with donated seed is that it can undermine the local market if local seed is available."

In February, Burpee supervised an assessment of seed stocks in the region west of Port-au-Prince. "What we found was that the seed was there, and that suppliers and farmers had seed, but because they had expanded families they had no cash necessarily to buy the seed."

Burpee says many small farmers were actually selling their seeds, livestock, and other possessions to try to support the extra family members who moved in after the earthquake.

Catholic Relief Services is one of a number of organizations participating in a second, nation-wide seed assessment being funded by USAID. The final report won't be out for a few weeks, but Burpee says preliminary results suggest seeds are available - most peasant farmers just don't have the money to buy them.

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