Last Spring, the agribusiness Monsanto announced it was making a $4 million gift of seeds “to support the reconstruction effort” in Haiti. The “gift” – reportedly hybrid maize and vegetable seeds – was slated to total 505 tons of seed over 12 months.
Six months after the alleged distribution of the first delivery of Monsanto seeds. Haiti Grassroots Watch decided to follow up on the controversial donation, especially of the maize hybrid seed.
• Why were the seeds accepted by government officials?
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• Where were the seeds distributed?
• Did the farmers – who were slated to receive the seed for only 10 percent of the real cost – like the seed? Did they understand what “hybrid” means as far as using the seed's “offspring”?
• Were and are proper precautions being taken regarding the seeds, which are coated with potentially poisonous fungicides and pesticides?
• Will the rest of the “gift” be distributed, or has it been already?
• Does it appear likely that Haitian farmers could become dependent on highly subsidized Monsanto or other hybrid seeds, only to be slammed the full price in a few years, the way US homebuyers were hit with “exploding mortgages?”
Part 1 – Background to the “Gift”
The first shipment – 60 tons of seed – arrived in early May, and according to Monsanto, a second shipment of 70 tons was to have arrived sometime shortly thereafter.
Not surprisingly, the “gift” caused controversy in Haiti and abroad due to Monsanto's history.
Monsanto is the world's largest seed company and is one of the world's largest pesticide companies. The behemoth dominates world proprietary seed market, a market worth almost $32 billion in 2010, up 10 percent from the previous year.
The agribusiness giant is renowned for its aggressive marketing and sometimes-illegal maneuvers, which include creating a potential worldwide monopoly by buying up all competitors, bribes, infiltration of farmers' associations through the use of mercenaries and “ruthless legal battles” including lawsuits against farmers. The company is currently being investigated in seven US states for potentially locking out competitors.
The former manufacturer of Agent Orange is also the world's leading producer of genetically modified organisms or “GMOs.” Because of its aggressive marketing of GMO seeds and other products, Monsanto has earned the ire of tens of thousands of farmers, including organic farmers and others working for food safety, is the target of many campaigns, like “Millions Against Monsanto,” Via Campesina's international anti-multinational day, and of a damning documentary – The World According to Monsanto – that builds a strong case against Monsanto for it actions worldwide [Watch it here].
In Haiti, a US Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded agricultural project accepted the Monsanto “gift.” USAID/WINNER (Watershed Initiative for National Natural Environmental Resources) is a five-year, $126 million US taxpayer-funded agriculture and environment program. But its not managed but just any old consultant… WINNER is run by giant beltway contractor Chemonics International, which in 2010 ranked #51 on the list of top 100 US government contractors, earning over $476 million in contacts that year. USAID/WINNER's Chief of Party (COP), is not just any old Haitian… it is Jean Robert Estimé. He was Minister of Foreign Affairs under dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier and subsequently worked for Chemonics in Africa.
Claiming to have a “farmer-centered approach,” USAID/WINNER works with 200 farmers groups, according to its website, with the approval and collaboration of the Haitian government.
Note – WINNER project work, which – according to its media materials – includes demonstration farms, training, as well as “watershed management plans, strengthen[ing] farmer associations, provid[ing] access to expertise and vital supplies (seeds, fertilizers, credit, tools), and restor[ing] protective tree cover” and which aims to help “people living within targeted watersheds to have improved livelihoods, have reduced threat from flooding, and be invested in sustainable economic growth and environmental protection” is not being discussed in this series. This investigation looks only at the Monsanto seed “gift.” USAID/WINNER refused numerous written and verbal requests for an interview from journalists at Haiti Grassroots Watch partner AlterPresse.
A necessary “gift”?
Out of the blue, in a May 13 news release, the Monsanto announced: “Haitian farmers, who otherwise may not have had sufficient seeds to plant this season in their earthquake-ravaged country, are receiving help from a unique public and private partnership.”
Except… Haitian farmers did have enough seed to plant that season, according to several reports.
Monsanto's “gift” announcement came a full two months after the Catholic Relief Service (CRS) – which has extensive experience in Haitian agriculture development work – released a “rapid seed assessment” report [PDF] for southern Haiti, one of the areas worst-hit by the earthquake. The assessment, circulated to humanitarian and development organizations working in Haiti, and another one whose findings were distributed in June, both recommended against the importation and distribution of seeds. CRS wrote:
Direct seed distribution should not take place given that seed is available in the local market and farmers' negative perceptions of external seed. This emergency is not the appropriate time to try to introduce improved varieties on anything more than a small scale for farmer evaluation.
Nevertheless, in its post-earthquake strategy document, the Haitian Ministry of Agriculture (MARDNR) called for massive seed distribution – covering 30 percent of farmers' needs – for three seasons post-earthquake, and gave its warm approval of the Monsanto “gift,” even though allowing new varieties (the maize and most of the vegetable varieties) onto Haitian soil directly contravenes Haitian law and international conventions.
The MARDNR issued a list of “approved” seed varieties in March. None of the maize varieties on the list are hybrids.
Nevertheless, according to Monsanto, “the Ministry” approved the seeds, writing in an email: “Thank you for Monsanto's generous offer to donate Vegetable seeds and Hybrid maize seeds to benefit the Haitian farmers.”
The Monsanto seed varieties shipped to Haiti were treated with potentially poisonous fungicides and herbicides, but the Ministry – again, according to Monsanto – also said that the treatments, which include the potentially poisonous and/or cancer-causing Mancozeb, Thiram and Maxim XL, “are used everyday in Haitian agriculture and should pose no problem.”
USAID/WINNER's director Estimé was also pleased with the donation.
“Our goal is to reach 10,000 farmers this growing season,” he said in the Monsanto release. “The vegetables and grain these seeds will produce will help feed and provide economic opportunities for farmers, their families and the broader community. Agriculture is key to the long-term recovery.”
USAID/WINNER said it would distribute the gift seeds via its farmers' association-run Boutiques d'Intrants Agricoles or BIA (Agriculture Input Stores), run by the farmers' associations who are part of the program. The stores typically sell seeds, fertilizer and other products to farmers for ten percent of the actual cost.
Part 2 – What do experts say?
As Haiti Grassroots Watch began its investigations, its correspondents asked some experts about the Monsanto hybrid “gift.”
Even though Haiti has been importing hybrid vegetable seeds for some time, and despite the fact that at least one Haitian seed multiplier produces Haitian hybrid corn seeds, the entry of the Monsanto varieties was technically illegal, by national and international law.
In recommendations recently filed with the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights for the 2011 Universal Periodic Review, three US-based legal and environmental groups denounced the import of new varieties, citing the Haitian Constitution, a 1986 Haitian law, and international conventions.
Among the dangers presented, the Environmental Justice Institute for Haiti, the National Lawyers Guild-Environmental Justice Committee and the Lawyers Earthquake Response Network noted that “the unrestricted flow of seeds from outside the country presents a high risk that plant-pathogenic organisms or their vectors will be introduced,” and added
Often, seeds which are brought to Haiti are unsuitable for the soil and climatic conditions of the country. In some cases, seeds from open-pollinated crops are planted and the resulting plants may hybridize with indigenous varieties, diluting the gene pool of crop varietals that are suitably adapted to local conditions.
The organizations also deplored the use of “large quantities of commercial hybrid seeds” which necessitate “purchase of new seeds the following year,” as well as the uncontrolled use of dangerous chemicals that “present risk for contamination of Haiti’s scarce water and food supply.”
Louise Sperling, Principal Researcher at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), was in Haiti as the Monsanto controversy erupted, working on a 115-page Seed System Security Assessment/Haiti (SSSA) report. The report notes that most farmers don't make a distinction between “grain” and “seed,” and that they routinely use their own grain, as well as conventional grains bought in the marketplace before each planting season, as seed. Haiti Grassroots Watch reached her in Tanzania in January, 2011, to ask her opinion.
The researcher noted that most hybrids require extra water and better soils, and that most of Haiti was not appropriate for maize hybrids. While not opposed to the use of hybrids – when there is adequate training, irrigation, fertilizer, and when farmers can afford to replace them – she said she was concerned that “the hybrids being promoted have never been tested extensively on-farm” in Haiti.
And, she asked, “What if the technology fails? And, if [farmers] want to buy the seed again, where will it be available and at what price?”
Emmanuel Prophete, head of the Ministry of Agriculture's Service National Semencier (SNS), or National Seed Service, agreed that the seeds were not tested prior to distribution.
However, he defended the Monsanto “gift,” noting that “Haitian farmers have been using hybrids since the fifties.” Prphete also said local and international media had misinformed the public, but making an “amalgam” between “GMO” and “hybrid,” and by saying the hybrid maize seeds were also sterile.
“They are hybrid, but they are not sterile,” the agronomist said.
Like many other non-sterile hybrids, the maize varieties will lose their potency for high yields after the first generation.
Hybrid maize yields much more than traditional corn. At least double. Naturally, it is more demanding. It needs more water, it needs more fertilizer, but if you plant it on a piece of land, you will get at least twice as much yield…
In Haiti, where we have to buy millions of dollars worth of [foreign] food, it doesn't make sense to fight against something that helps you raise production.
Asked about the fact that new varieties posed a threat to Haitian biodiversity, and that seeds and other plants and animals are being imported into Haiti without control, Prophete admitted that the Ministry does not have the power to control the borders.
“We are supposed to have a quarantine system, and all seeds should be tested for germination and adaptation before they are distributed,” Prophete conceded. “We don't have the power to do that at this time.”
The Papaye Peasant Movement, one of the country's largest farmers associations, condemned the “gift” and even held a demonstration on June 4, 2010, where thousands marched and symbolically burned maize seed.
“We have a government that accepts any old seed, as long as it is free. It doesn't matter what it is, it doesn't matter where it's from,” agronomist Jean-Claude Monero told Haiti Grassroots Watch. “Also, the chemical fertilizers and chemical insecticides [on the Monsanto seeds] have negative effects on the soil and on human beings.”
Emmet Murphy, director of the ACDI-VOCA development organization, said his agronomists don't promote hybrid legume or cereal seeds, because “we want to give farmers the power to multiply their own seeds. That's what you want to do in the long haul.”
Asked about the introduction of the Monsanto hybrid seeds onto Haitian soil, Francesco Del Re of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) would not directly condemn the “gift” seeds. But, he noted, for its emergency seed distributions, the FAO-led “Agriculture Cluster” imported only the seeds on an MARDNR list, “for a very precise reasons, because the hybrids need to be renewed every year and do have to be bought by peasants every year.”
Asked if the FAO attempted to block the Ministry or the USAID/USAID/WINNER program from importing and distributed seeds, Del Re said:
We gave advice. That is what we did. Afterwards, naturally, we are not the national police, so we can't verify everything, everywhere, but we did all we could do…
I agree with the philosophy that we discussed with the Ministry and that we put into place with them. Afterwards, if other partners make other choices, that is their responsibility.
Father Jean-Yves Urfié, former chemistry professor at the Petite Séminaire Collège St. Martial and former editor of Libète who now works with peasant farmers in Furcy, was one of the first to oppose the Monsanto “gift,” although he originally and mistakenly thought the seeds were GMO.
A “gift” is fine, when “necessary,” he said, but “when you give away seeds for free, and but if there are peasants selling seeds, you will upset that market.”
But what most upset Urfié, who is not necessarly opposed to the use of hybrids under certain conditions, was allowing Monsanto to get a toehold in Haiti.
Like many individuals, organizations and even countries, Urfié is opposed to to use of all GMOs until more testing can be done. He is also opposed to Monsanto's aggressive marketing tactics:
Monsanto's practices are famous worldwide for being without conscience… What should guide a company is only making money, of course, they need to make money, but it should be people's health, not profits…
You cannot serve two masters at the same time – you can’t serve God and money.
Urfié said he would like Haiti to send a “clear sign to farmers all over the world” by being the first country to “stand up to Monsanto” and say: “We don't want Monsanto here, because it has already proved that it is dangerous.”
Part 3 – USAID/WINNER: Shrouded in secrecy
Attempts to block investigation
USAID/WINNER keeps a lid on its activities and tightly controls access to its work. Haiti Grassroots Watch repeatedly requested an interview with USAID/WINNER agronomists and officials to follow up on the seed “gift.” Requests were repeatedly denied. Several WINNER employees told Haiti Grassroots Watch that before starting contracts, all staff had an agreement with Chemonics which prohibits their speaking with the media.
WINNER communications staff made sure that rule was respected.
In addition to denying interview requests, on March 7, Communications Director Maxwell Marcelin, who verbally promised Haiti Grassroots Watch responses to several questions sent on March 6, broadcast an email – obtained by Haiti Grassroots Watch – warning:
… a journalist is trying to do a report, including the project USAID/WINNER… I would like to remind you all of the communication procedures – the only people authorized to speak in the name of the project are the COP and, by delegation, the DCOP. In addition, I ask you to be very vigilant and, if the case presents itself, do not respond to any question, no matter how simple it seems… It is important to advise us immediately of all incidents, or requests, in order to help us better respond.
Despite these efforts to shroud the Monsanto seeds from public scrutiny, Haiti Grassroots Watch was able to convince several staffers to pass on information.
Some spoke “on background” and one of them passed on an internal document: “Preliminary Report on the seed donation of hybrid maize and vegetable seeds from MONSANTO” which reveals a little about USAID/WINNER's intent.
According to the document, USAID/WINNER received 60 MT of “DK003,” “DK1040” and “Yellow Corn Seed” on May 27. Presumably “DK” stands for “DeKalb.” In 1998, Monsanto bought the DeKalb Genetics Corp. for $2.3 billion, according to a US Justice Department document. (The Justice Department investigated the acquisition because of Monsanto's near-monopoly of the seed business. It was approved.)
The document goes on to report that all 60 MT were distributed, with the most going to three plains where WINNER works: Cul de Sac, Cabaret/Archahaie and near Gonaives.
Because the corn was delivered late in the season, very little had been planted by the time of the report (August 6), according to the document. Only a total of about 3.2 MT or “5.18 percent of the stock.”
The report continues:
There was a media campaign carried out against Monsanto seeds which were called GMOs by many NGOs and political leaders. GMOs (due to ignorance or paradigm), don't have a good reputation in Haiti at the moment.
Despite a whole media campaign against hybrids under the cover of GMO/Agent Orange/Round Up, the seeds were used almost everywhere, the true message got through, although not at the level hoped for.
We recently planted some field with Monsanto maize, meaning the yield figures are not yet available. But the mid-stream observations are very interesting.
We are in the process of working as quickly as possible with farmers to increase as much as possible the use of hybrid seeds in the plain areas where it is possible to give them technical support.
Part 4 – What Haiti Grassroots Watch found
USAID/WINNER attempted to block Haiti Grassroots Watch's investigation by denying interviews and refusing to give information about who received the Monsanto seed.
But after numerous telephone calls, visits to the countryside, and hours of research, journalists tracked down one association which was happy to talk about Monsanto and other seed aid.
Perhaps a little naively, the members of the association gave interviews and showed off their Boutique d’Intrants Agricoles (BIA) or Agriculture Input Store. However, given the aggressive nature of WINNER's attempt to block this investigation and other media inquiries, Haiti Grassroots Watch decided to conceal the identify of the association and its members.
They will be identified as “Association” and “Farmer,” even though Haiti Grassroots Watch spoke to two separate members of Association. The main interview was conducted with a member who had received training as a “Paysan Vulgarisateur” (PV) (peasant extension worker). According to an article in Le Nouvelliste, Farmer is one of likely 840 extension workers trained in 2010.
Note: This USAID/WINNER partner is just one of 200 associations with which the project claims to work. While it cannot be assumed at all partners are equal to Association, neither can it be assumed that Association is somehow the “one bad apple.” If Haiti Grassroots Watch had been given access to a list of WINNER partners, a more scientific survey could have been conducted.
Dangers to Humans and the Environment
Association's BIA is actually a room in a community building that was unlocked and unstaffed on at least once Haiti Grassroots Watch visit. The building is located in a neighborhood full of families with children.
Inside the room, sacks of sorghum and maize seeds, bags of fertilizer and boxes of seeds are all jumbled into a huge pile. Some of the sacks are labeled, others are not. Several open bags from Monsanto/Dekalb in Brazil spill bright pink, chemically coated maize seeds onto the floor.
Other maize seeds are in unlabeled white sacks which are punctured with holes… made by rats? Children? The farmers? That seed is covered with a white powder.
A half-empty bag of Pioneer seeds, also presumably hybrid, and presumably treated with fungicide and herbicide, sits open. Sunlight streams in through two windows, meaning that airborne Maxim XL, which coats the Monsanto/DeKalb seeds, and other airborne fungicides, pesticides and fertilizers could just as easily stream out. And into the lungs of nearby schoolchildren.
According to Syngenta, maker of Maxim XL, the fungicide is applied to “more than 90 percent of hybrid corn” in the US. Syngenta and other documentation warns that skin and eye contact, and inhalation, is dangerous.
“DO NOT use treated seed for animal or human consumption… DO NOT allow treated seed to contaminate grain or other seed intended for animal or human consumption. DO NOT feed treated seed, or otherwise expose, to wild or domestic birds,” one warning label reads.
Boxes of vegetable seed – presumably from Monsanto but not labeled as such – are jumbled about. Many of the seeds are treated with Thiram. In 2004, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined that Thiram cannot be used in home gardens, on apples, or on playing fields. The 260-page report also detailed adverse health effects on humans, noting details like “the chronic toxicity profile for Thiram indicates that the liver, blood and urinary system are the target organs.” Thiram also has “effects” on foraging birds' reproduction, and thus Thiram-coated seed should not be broadcast on the soil.
There are also bags of Mancozeb. The EPA also looked at Mancozeb recently (2005), saying the fungicide “poses some acute and chronic risks to birds and mammals” and that handlers need to wear full protective clothing, gloves and a “PF 5” respirator.
“Yes, all of this is dangerous. When you use Mancozeb, the farmer needs to wear a face mask, glasses and gloves,” Farmer agreed. “USAID doesn't give them to us, but we buy them so they are available to the farmers.”
When Haiti Grassroots Watch asked Farmer where the gloves and masks were stored, he looked around under some of the seed sacks.
“Well, maybe they ran out but we always buy them and have them here,” he said, hesitantly. “I don't know exactly where they are.'
Farmer and the journalists thoroughly searched the room. There was no protective gear.
Asked about the open sacks of seed, Farmer said Association intended to grind up the sorghum and maize seed for chicken feed because it was “expired” (although there were no dates on the sacks.) Shocked, Haiti Grassroots Watch journalists pointed out that on the sacks for two maize varieties – the ones with labels, at least, since one maize variety and one sorghum variety had no labels at all – it was written that human and animal consumption was dangerous.
Farmer promised not to use the seed for Association's chickens.
Although Farmer was reportedly a trained extension agent, he did not seem to have a good handle in the seed varieties in the room, nor on the kind of dependency that could be created by them.
But did know one thing: he and other farmers liked the Monsanto seed so much, Association had run out and had asked WINNER for more. Association still had “Pioneer,” which was also popular, Farmer said, as he dug his bare hands into the open sack and held up some seeds.
“It's good and quick… Peasants here like it because it matures quickly.”
Asked if it was hybrid, Farmer said: “No, it's not hybrid. It's Pioneer. It's an imported corn that has products on it so it doesn't rot.”
In fact, corn seed from Pioneer, owned by Monsanto's arch-rival Dupont, is hybrid. It is also coated with Maxim XL and other fungicides and pesticides.
Asked about the mound of bright red maize sacks, Farmer said he didn't know where it was from, nor if it was hybrid.
Haiti Grassroots Watch pointed out that the red Dekalb saks contained Monsanto hybrid maize.
“We love Monsanto seeds,” Farmer said again. Although he noted that the bigger kernels don't always fit in farmers' corn mills. He also said some peasants didn't want to plant the seeds in the red sacks because they were not used to the sacks.
“Before, peasants didn't used to plant hybrids. They used local varieties… They didn't realize the advantages of hybrids, but we did a cornfield with hybrid corn and now they see how much the hybrid produces!” Farmer added. “You get two or three ears on each stalk. It's a real advantage.”
The local peasants like the BIA because it sells all of the products – seed, fungicide and fertilizer – at 10 percent of actual price. This has also encouraged peasants to buy the new varieties, Farmer said, adding:
Here they can get all kinds of products and they don't have to pay too much. They don't have to kill themselves like before. They can plant, harvest, sell or eat. They don't have to save seeds anymore because they know they will get seeds from the boutique.
What about when the USAID/WINNER project ends, in 2014, and Association no longer gets free seed it can sell for what Farmer himself called a “ridiculous” price?
It's true that we won't have USAID anymore, but we were farmers before… WINNER didn't make us into farmers… We will figure out a way to keep the store going so farmers can get these seeds to plant.
Haiti Grassroots Watch's investigation raises alarming questions, among them:
• Why is USAID/WINNER keeping its work under wraps? Why are staff not allowed to speak with the media?
• Why was the Ministry so quick to approve the import of the Monsanto seeds and other new varieties, in direct contradiction with Haitian law and before conducting germination tests at the SNS?
• Apart from the 60 MT of Monsanto seeds noted in the leaked report, did the rest of the Monsanto “gift” arrive? What other new varieties of maize and other corn have come into Haiti?
• How much total chemically treated new varieties have been brought into the country by USAID/WINNER and by other organizations? Where have they been distributed? Are farmers provided with training? With protective gear for free? Have precautions been taken regarding storage and planting of the seeds?
• Is anyone at USAID/WINNER or the Ministry worried about the dependency being created by the BIAs which are selling seed, fertilizers and other inputs at 10 percent of actual cost for five years only?
Note: After the visit to Association, on March 10, Haiti Grassroots Watch sent a list of questions to Marcelin, requesting explanations and responses. Although he promised “follow up,” as of March 30, no responses had been sent.
This article originally appeared at Haiti Grassroots Watch