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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)
Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

Poison pills for Haiti? Add to ...

How many afflictions can one nation endure? A devastating earthquake, lawless gangs, corrupt governments, foreign aid that fails to reach the people who need it most. How could things in Haiti possibly get worse?

Here's apparently how. Someone is trying to poison its people and enslave its farmers. That someone is evil agribusiness.

Earlier this month, Monsanto announced it was donating 475 tons of hybrid corn and vegetable seeds to Haiti's impoverished farmers. Certain environmental groups reacted with outrage and fear-mongering. "Poison pills for Haiti," declared Ronnie Cummins, founder of the Organic Consumers Association. Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, the leader of the Haitian peasant-farmer movement, called on local farmers to burn the seeds in protest. "Fighting hybrid and GMO [genetically modified]seeds is critical to save our diversity and our agriculture," he insisted. He called Monsanto's plan "a very strong attack on small agriculture, on farmers, on biodiversity, on Creole seeds … and on what is left our environment in Haiti."

The very mention of Monsanto can whip some people into paroxysms. They believe its name is synonymous with all the alleged ills of modern capitalism: industrialized food, dangerous fertilizers, deadly pesticides, environmental destruction, and the devastation of small landholders, to name a few. As Mr. Cummins warned in a piece he wrote on The Huffington Post, "Monsanto's poison pill for Haiti is designed to make the island nation into a slave colony once again."

In fact, Monsanto's intentions were benign. It did widespread consultations to make sure the seeds it offered would be appropriate for Haitian needs. Its goal is to reach 10,000 farmers and make them productive again. For political reasons, the seeds are not GMO seeds. Monsanto will never make a cent from them, and no farmers are obliged to buy from it in the future. The seeds will be distributed through two well-established bodies, including Jeffrey Sachs's environmentally oriented Earth Institute.

Haiti is so poor that many rural people can't afford to feed their children. Nearly two million Haitians are in danger of going hungry. The primary source of poverty - as in Africa - is the low productivity of farm labour. Two-thirds of the Haitian population depends on agriculture, yet the agriculture sector has been largely destroyed by the political chaos of the past few decades. Today, 80 per cent of Haiti's food is imported. Food self-sufficiency is a distant dream, and without foreign food aid, many Haitians would starve.

Haitians desperately need modern seeds and cheaper fertilizer. Instead, agro-activists want them to grow heirloom seeds in used tires. These groups have bitterly fought agricultural modernization in Africa, and are now fighting it in Central and South America.

"In Europe and the United States, a new line of thinking has emerged in elite circles that opposes bringing improved seeds and fertilizers to traditional farmers," writes Harvard political scientist Robert Paarlberg in the current issue of Foreign Policy. In his view, the "sustainable" mantra of organic and local food - the one so enthusiastically embraced by affluent Whole Foods shoppers - is no recipe for saving the world's hungry millions. And in recent years it has done enormous damage to poor people around the world, by blocking the introduction of technologies that could help them prosper.

Hybrid seeds are among the cheapest and best investments a farmer can make. They can multiply the yields of some crops fivefold, and have been used by all types of farmers, large and small, for decades. In Haiti, grassroots groups such as the Organization for the Rehabilitation of the Environment have been working since the 1980s to extend the use of hybrid seeds. "The benefits are increased yields, higher income and improved nutrition," says the group.

But never mind. Better to demonize the foreign oppressors. Better to burn a Monsanto seed than plant it. Better to let your kids go hungry than feed them with the poisoned fruits of progress.

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