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Dahr Jamail | El Salvador Farmers Successfully Defy Monsanto

Advocates have prevented the bioengineering company from forcing its chemical-laden products into the country.

Farmers drive through the "coffee lands" of El Salvador, November 6, 2013. (Photo: Stuart)

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The perils of ingesting food that has any contact with a Monsanto-produced product are in the news on nearly a weekly basis.

As Dr. Jeff Ritterman has documented, Monstanto’s herbicide, Roundup, has been linked to a fatal kidney disease epidemic, and has also been repeatedly linked to cancer.

This story is part of the Climate in Our Hands collaboration between Truthout and YES! Magazine.

Recently, a senior research scientist at MIT predicted that glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup, will cause half of all children to have autism by 2025.

Farmers in El Salvador are acutely aware of the importance of producing their own seeds, and avoiding those from the bioengineering giant. The farmers, who have already been consistently outperforming Monsanto with their seed, as the local seed is far healthier and more productive, have just managed to bring about a giant defeat of Monsanto by preventing it from supplying El Salvador with its seeds. Recently, the Ministry of Agriculture released a new round of contracts to provide seed to subsistence farmers across the country.

Climate in Our Hands: Inside the Ideas and Actions of a Movement

“Remember that Monsanto is together with DuPont, Pioneer, all the large businesses that control the world’s seed market,” said Juan Luna Vides, the director of diversified production for the Mangrove Association, a nongovernmental organization that was created to support a grassroots social movement for environmental conservation in El Salvador. “Unfortunately, many of the governments in Latin America, or perhaps the world, have beneficiary relationships with these companies.”

Vides said that his group is working to “minimize this dependency” – and the dire situation in El Salvador demonstrates the importance of doing so.

“The efforts of transnational companies are masked by other companies within small countries,” he explained. “In the case of El Salvador, this example is very obvious … the company of ex-president [Alfredo] Cristiani Burkard manages the business within the [national] market … Although you don’t see the Monsanto brand, it’s Monsanto.”

Thus, companies like Pioneer generate commercials for various media in El Salvador that market their agrochemical products, exerting great influence over the local farmer population of the country.

The Importance of Keeping It Local

“We are losing the traditions of local seed, so we are trying to maintain it here,” small-scale seed producer Santos Cayetan told Truthout. “Native seeds don’t have what these other seeds have that come with the chemicals, based in chemicals.”

Cayetan, who is a recipient of corn seed from the government program that uses local, GMO-free seeds and also works to grow native corn, said that the difference between using local seed versus Monsanto’s is stark.

“[Native seeds are] always the same, they always produce, and they’re always there,” he said. “[Native seeds] are drought resistant.”

Vides said that native seeds are also far better adapted to local conditions like droughts and floods in his country, as well as the climate and soil.

“[Native seeds] don’t need a great injection of agrochemicals in comparison to other seeds…. Seeds coming from different places, we don’t know if those seeds are GMO or modified in some way,” he said. “You can reuse native seeds and create a full cycle; you can use your own seeds for the next planting. That’s not the case with hybrid seeds.”

One of Monsanto’s insidious goals is to force farmers to purchase the company’s seeds every year, at very expensive prices.

What’s more, it is well known that Monsanto’s hybrid seeds are dependent upon a high level of toxic fertilizers, and without those the yields of the hybrids would be far, far lower.

“[Using only local seed] would be much better [for Salvadoran farmers]; they wouldn’t have to buy seeds every year,” Vides added. “It has to do with generating the conditions to promote food security … you can produce what you consume … produce and consume the same product.”

Cayetan said that many farmers in El Salvador simply cannot afford Monsanto seeds – and that is by design.

“If all the producers produced [imported] seed, [local producers] would lose their businesses … this is what [Monsanto] wants.”

Jesus Reyes Fuente, also a local seed producer in El Salvador’s Ciudad Romero, told Truthout that native seeds also taste better than hybrid seeds.

“They’re less contaminated by fertilizers,” he said. “And you can use them year after year … with hybrids, after the second year, you can’t use them.”

Like the others with whom Truthout spoke, Fuente was aware of the health dangers of Monsanto products, and stressed the importance of stopping Monsanto from forcing local farmers to use its products.

“It’s an imposition … they [Monsanto] are trying to force people to use transgenic seeds,” he said. “There’s pressure, to make us produce in a way we don’t want to.”

Evelyn Martinez is a political analyst for Salvadoran Foundation for Reconstruction and Development (REDES). REDES works to strengthen organizational capacity and advocacy among vulnerable populations who are looking to improve their quality of life.

“Before, there was a monopoly in the seed market. It was controlled by Cristiani Burkard, which today is Monsanto, and other large agribusinesses,” Martinez told Truthout. “Today, we have opened the possibility for local production. We have opened the market.”

The local seed program has also generated jobs, increased investment in equipment and infrastructure by local producers, and has had positive social impacts by preventing youths from joining gangs, as well as enabling producers to improve their production techniques and business skills.

“In economic terms, the country is less dependent on importers and has increased its autonomy,” Martinez added. “The [local] seeds are better adapted for climate change and to the soils of El Salvador and have high yield potential.”

Martinez was very clear about why any dealings with Monsanto would be harmful for El Salvador.

“At the global level, Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta have control of 67 percent of the seed and agrochemical market. Monsanto controls 23 percent of the corn market and 80 percent of the world’s GMO market,” she said. “What Monsanto wants is to take more market share … in order to increase their profits. Monsanto wants to increase the use of their seed in the country, not to benefit the small-scale producers. If you control the seed, you control the whole production process.”

Martinez also stressed the importance of food sovereignty and was blunt about what would happen politically if local farmers had to rely on Monsanto seed.

“The nutrition of the country will depend on transnational companies … We will lose our autonomy,” Martinez concluded. “In terms of democracy, this isn’t democratic; [Salvadorans] can’t decide what we eat. It’s a dictatorship.”

Local Government Support

In 2014, the US government threatened to deny all foreign aid to El Salvador unless it opened up its seed contracts to foreign businesses (i.e. Monsanto). Now, however, the United States claims that it supports the country’s contract on seed, through which domestic seed producers offer both a better and more financially competitive product.

This is not a new battle – farmers in El Salvador have also successfully opposed the use of Monsanto seeds in the past – but it is one that Salvadorans find themselves perpetually fighting.

To make protections more permanent, El Salvador Congresswoman Estela Hernandez stressed the importance of farmers continuing to have the freedom to make their own decisions.

Interestingly, she also said that the pressure to use Monsanto seeds came more from the United States than from Monsanto itself.

“Monsanto didn’t express its opinions here…. the pressure really came from the politicians from the United States, in this case the ambassador,” she said. “We don’t know if it was for the quality of seed, more likely for the businesses.”

Elias Figueroa, a technical agronomist in the Ministry of Agriculture, also strongly supports the movement to keep seed local, and to disallow companies like Monsanto from introducing their seed into the country.

“This year the government purchased corn and bean seed in accordance to CAFTA’s [Central American Free Trade Agreement] tender requirements … demonstrating that what the [US] embassy suggested, that the process was not transparent, was not true,” Figueroa told Truthout. “Under this [bidding] process, everyone can participate, as long as they meet the legal and technical requirements of the Ministry of Agriculture.”

Figueroa explained how El Salvador has a center for the investigation of El Salvador’s National Center for Agricultural and Forestry Technology, called CENTA, which since 2011 has participated in increasing the domestic production of seed.

El Salvador used to import more than 70 percent of seed used nationally, but since 2000, CENTA has worked with the Center of Investigation for Corn and Wheat in Mexico to produce a parent seed.

CENTA generated the parent seed for H-59, the hybrid variety produced domestically. The plant is created for the tropical climate: It is drought resistant, produces high yields under local conditions, and is resistant to plagues and fungi.

In contrast, GMO seeds from Monsanto, which are more susceptible to plagues and aren’t drought resistant, are clearly not designed for the tropical climate. The verdict from producers?

“According to the latest census, 84 percent of producers in the country prefer using H-59,” Figueroa said. “The most important [thing] is that it has generated employment, nearly 240,000 direct jobs.”

Still, Figueroa said, the public relations fight continues: He explained that Monsanto is “running an aggressive marketing campaign,” portraying its seed as better and spreading false claims that local seed is mediocre and not certified.

“But this doesn’t worry us,” Figueroa said. “The national seed law, approved by Congress, and CAFTA lay out the parameters for quality, and we are complying with all of these. We have the best product, the best product in all of Central America. We can outcompete them in export markets as well. We have the studies that demonstrate the quality of our seed.”

Figueroa added that 100 percent of the seed required for the country’s food security program is now provided by national producers, and that one of the ministry’s objectives is to promote native seed varieties by establishing local seed banks.

Nathan Weller, the program and policy director for EcoViva, an NGO that supports environmental sustainability, social justice and peace for communities in Central America, has been working with local farmers in El Salvador for years, supporting their efforts to produce and control their own seeds.

“El Salvador is ensuring that its national seed lineage doesn’t need to be outsourced to foreign interests, and can be developed by its own farmers,” Weller told Truthout. “It’s better for the farmers who earn access to the best product, better for the government that can stretch limited public budgets to outreach to the most farmers, and better for El Salvador’s struggling rural economy which drives many families to migrate away from their communities.”

Weller explained that the Salvadoran producers’ success came as a result of their flexibility and responsiveness to the people using the seed.

“They innovated to meet government standards, learned how to navigate administrative hurdles to earn contracts and employed hundreds of people in traditionally underserved rural areas where opportunity is scarce,” he said. “Transnational agribusiness like Monsanto treat farmers in the developing world as consumers, not partners. They have yet to demonstrate an ability to provide such sweeping benefits to El Salvador’s rural economy.”

While the recent victory for local farmers and organic seed is important, and even the US Embassy has endorsed the outcome, Vides is aware that there is still work to do.

“There doesn’t exist a [national] agriculture policy supporting alternative farming, producing organically and ecologically,” he said. “But regional efforts exist, such as La Coordinadora and the Mangrove Association, that are [supporting] local producers [in working] with alternative production techniques, such as using organic inputs and producing in an ecological manner.”

Amy Kessler, a field coordinator for EcoViva, contributed to this report.

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