“In June of this year some 10,000 peasant farmers took part in a protest march in Haiti’s central plateau. At the end they symbolically burnt several bags of seed, part of a 60-tonne donation made by the giant US-based biotech company, Monsanto. After an earthquake in January killed 230,000 people and forced half a million to move back to the countryside, Haiti is painfully trying to rebuild its economy. Seeds, in particular, are in short supply, because peasant families were forced to use seeds saved for next year’s planting to feed the unexpected arrivals from Port-au-Prince. Why on earth would farmers want to destroy a gift so precious?
This was a question I put to Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, who heads Haiti’s largest and oldest peasant organization and has been at the forefront of Haiti’s peasant struggles for 35 years. I wasn’t surprised to find he had been one of the organizers of the march. He was predictably clear in his response: ‘It was, of course, a symbolic gesture. It was a way of saying a very firm “no” to Monsanto and to the government. Monsanto is trying to use the reconstruction effort to make us dependent on their seeds. We can save our native seeds – creole seeds, as we call them – from one year to the other. But you can’t do that with Monsanto’s seeds. You have to buy new ones each year. But it’s worse than that. They are not right for our land. Monsanto’s “gift” is, in fact, a strong attack on our farmers, our biodiversity and what is left of our environment.’
It all began back in the 1920s with the development of hybrids, when plant breeders found that, by crossing two varieties, they could improve yields. Breeders could have improved yields in other ways, such as selective breeding. But even then they were quick to grasp the commercial advantages of hybrids: they lose vigour from one year to the next, so farmers have to buy them afresh each year, making huge profits for the merchants. Pioneer Hi-bred, the first company to market hybrid corn (maize), became the world’s largest seed company. Hybrids were developed for cotton, sunflower, sorghum, sugar beet and many vegetables.
After the Second World War, the same chemical processes that had been involved in the production of explosives and nerve gases were used to create synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. The combination of hybrids and chemical inputs led to a huge increase in yields: the so-called ‘Green Revolution’. There was, of course, a downside: runoff from synthetic fertilizers polluted rivers and groundwater; pesticides poisoned and killed wildlife; the soil itself died and became more prone to erosion; and the plants grown in monoculture presented an easy target for pests.”
Read the full story here.