You may have heard about Monsanto’s donation of $4 million worth of seed to Haiti. Unfortunately, there seems to be a lot of confusion about exactly what’s happening. In this post, I hope to help clear up some of the biological questions up as well as addressing some of the intellectual property questions. If you have specific questions about Monsanto*, I hope you’ll bring them to Monsanto’s blog Beyond the Rows or ask some of the many Monsanto employees on Twitter such as @Mica_MON and @JPlovesCOTTON.
Monsanto’s May 13 Press Release Monsanto Company Donates Conventional Corn and Vegetable Seeds to Haitian Farmers to Help Address Food Security Needs is a good place to start to find out exactly what was donated and how it got there. Importantly, the donation was approved and by the Haitian Ministry of Agriculture, and the Ministry was involved in selecting seeds that would be “appropriate for the growing conditions and farming practices in Haiti.” The exact way the seeds are being distributed ensures long term benefits from this one time donation:
The initial seed shipment will be distributed to Haitian farmers by the WINNER project, a five-year program to increase farmer productivity funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). WINNER will provide the in-country expertise, technical services and other inputs, such as fertilizer, needed by farmers to manage the crops.
“Our goal is to reach 10,000 farmers this growing season with these seeds,” said Jean Robert Estime, the director of the WINNER project. “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.”
The seeds are being provided free of charge by Monsanto. The WINNER project will distribute the seeds through farmer association stores to be sold at a significantly reduced price. The farmer stores will use the revenue to reinvest in other inputs to support farmers in the future. The farmer associations alone will receive revenue from the sales.
I can’t think of a better way for this donation to be distributed. There are a lot of problems with the way international food and agriculture aid have been handled in the past, but the situation certainly seems to be improving as private and public donors as well as governments see the need for education and infrastructure, not handouts.
Food aid is the worst. It’s good enough in the very short term, but as soon as the food is consumed, there is no lasting benefit. Donations of seed are better, but again, once they are used there is no lasting benefit. Seed donations in combination with development of infrastructure that farmers need to distribute their products and to obtain inputs are much better, and I’d argue that such infrastructure development in combination with extension is the best possible way to help farmers, particularly when local people are involved in the process – which is exactly the case here. Ideally, part of the process would be to develop local seed production, but the information available on WINNER doesn’t say if that is included or not. The Earth Institute at Columbia University is also involved in improving agriculture in Haiti.
You may have noticed a distinct lack of terms like biotech, genetically modified, GMO, Roundup Ready, or Bt in the press release. Haiti has no system in place for regulation of biotechnology, according to FAO‘s Biotechnology Country Profile for Haiti. Haiti is “party of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Cartagena Protocol” which, as I understand it, requires member countries to develop precautionary-principle based rules to protect biosafety if they want to even have biotech seeds cross their boundaries. In short, the regulatory framework needed to grow biotech crops in Haiti does not exist. Without that framework, they can’t accept biotech seed as a donation, and as far as I know, Monsanto did not even consider donating GMO seed to Haiti.
It seems that the details in the press release and the lack of biotech regulation in Haiti was missed by many in the days following the news. Some examples are Timi Gerson‘s appropriately civil Five Questions Monsanto Needs to Answer about its Seed Donation to Haiti at Civil Eats and Jean-Yves Urfie’s not so civil (and completely fabricated) A New Earthquake Hits Haiti: Monsanto’s deadly gift of 475 tons of genetically-modified seeds to Haitian farmers.
These two articles seem to be the source of many of the erroneous posts and Tweets. Some of Timi’s questions are answered in the press release itself while some require a little background in crop science. Her questions are well thought out, if not well researched, so I think they are a good place to start, even though I’m obviously not the intended answerer. I don’t think Jean-Yves’s article is even worth addressing, it’s so completely made up – but I thought it should be included here since it has been cited in so many other blog posts and articles.
1. What do Haitians think? Do Haitian farmers actually want these seeds?
Members of the Haitian Ministry of Agriculture and Haitians in the WINNER project were involved in approving the donation and making it happen, so that’s at least some Haitians who want the seeds. As for the farmers, they have the choice to buy the seed or to not in the stores run by farmer associations listed in the press release. No one is forcing them to take, buy, or grow the seeds. Even if individual farmers don’t want the seed, is that a good reason to prevent every farmer from having the seed? Is it fair to keep farmers from having a choice because organizations outside Haiti like the Organic Consumers Association (based in the US) don’t want them to? Anything other than letting the farmers for themselves choose is tantamount to paternalism.
2. Will Haitian farmers be able to save the seed?
Yes. Haiti doesn’t have any laws in place to protect plant intellectual property such as Plant Variety Protection (at least according to Haiti’s Biotechnology Country Profile), so even if Monsanto wanted to prevent the farmers from planting the seed from this year’s harvest, there would be no legal basis for the contract. On Beyond the Rows, Monsanto employees have clearly stated that these seeds can be replanted without any intellectually property interference. There will be no Haitian Percy Schmeiser, even if the seeds are brought into local breeding programs.
Some of the seeds are hybrid. Hybrid seed can be replanted, but many farmers choose to purchase hybrid seed each year due to the superior qualities that hybrids can have. (more on this in a minute)
3. Will Haitian farmers be able to use existing farming methods?
Per the press release: the seeds were selected by the Haitian Ministry of Agriculture, to be “appropriate for the growing conditions and farming practices in Haiti.” To me, the big question is: how are Haitian farmers currently farming? Are they using de facto organic (put the seeds in the ground and hope)? Certified organic? Sustainable agriculture ? Conventional agriculture?
There’s not much info out there on the web to answer the question, but Manuel Rivas (Monsanto’s Regulatory Affairs Lead in the Andean Region, Central America & Caribbean) has shared some pertinent info on one of the Beyond the Rows posts:
…the corn hybrids sent to Haiti have been tested in the region with no fertilizer use and the yield obtained with them has been higher than the average yield Haitian farmers currently obtain using their open pollinated varieties.
…although farmers there have very limited resources in general, the use of fertilizers and pesticides is quite normal among them. Many times Haitian farmers don’t have the resources to purchase those inputs, but they know how to use them and they do use them whenever they have access to them.
The assumption that almost everyone has when they see the state of poverty in Haiti is that agriculture in the country is in the pre-historic ages. However, keep in mind that Haiti has a long tradition in agriculture since colonial times and not so long ago (in the 70’s) the country was an important exporter of sugar, coffee, tobacco, and mangoes, just like other countries in the Caribbean. The use of agricultural inputs in those crops and in rice (the most important local crop) has been very common with most of them coming across the border from the Dominican Republic. Political problems in the last 25 years or so have practically destroyed the country’s agriculture sector and made the country dependent on foreign aid; but the farmers are still there trying to survive and willing to make their land productive again.
What’s exciting about this seed donation, in combination with the WINNER program, is that there is potential for a lasting improvement of farmer’s ability to purchase inputs if they wish to, along with the in-country expertise to help them choose the best farming methods for their situation. While the WINNER program won’t last forever, five years is a long time to get a strong, sustainable system started.
4. Will Monsanto donate GMO seeds to Haiti?
No, for the aforementioned reasons.
5. Will indigenous seeds be “contaminated” by Monsanto’s seeds?
Yes and no. Gene flow is simple and complex at the same time. For the most part, pollen stays near the source, but in a country as small as Haiti (10,714 mi²), wind and pollinators could conceivably carry pollen all over the country. If farmers choose to plant traditional varieties, they will be able to maintain those varieties. Some percentage of the seed that they harvest at the end of this growing season will be a hybrid between the traditional variety and the new seed, depending on how close they are physically to a farmer who planted the new seed. Conversely, the farmer who planted the new seed will have a certain percentage of his harvest “contaminated” with the traditional variety. They can keep their two varieties separate (for the most part) generation after generation by keeping seeds from plants that are similar to the variety they want and avoiding keeping seeds from plants that look different. Importing heirloom or open-pollinated seeds would “contaminate” the local varieties as much as the seeds from Monsanto. For more details on gene flow, check out Those naughty plants!
There are actually potential benefits of crossing the donated seeds with the local varieties (remember, there are no intellectual property restrictions with this donation). After an initial cross, a farmer could simply select the plants that do best in his or her microclimate. They would be gaining alleles for disease resistance, high yield, and other traits, while maintaining local alleles that make the plants uniquely suited for their location. Done right, this could result in high yielding locally adapted varieties.
What are hybrids, anyway?
A hybrid is simply a cross between two different plant varieties. The two varieties can be inbred lines or populations like open pollinated varieties. The reason why hybrids are used is a phenomenon called heterosis, or hybrid vigor. While the exact mechanisms of this phenomenon aren’t completely understood, its effects are striking! In maize, hybrids have been used since the 1920s. A classic maize hybrid is B73 x Mo17. B73 and Mo17 are divergent inbred lines, meaning that they have different sets of alleles for each gene in the maize genome. When crossed, the resulting plants are much stronger and have much higher yields than the inbreds alone.
Some people argue against hybrid seed by saying it has to be purchased every year, but this isn’t quite true. First, the seed from hybrids can be planted – there is no biological reason why they wouldn’t produce seeds that grow perfectly well. However, if you cross hybrid plants together, the resulting plants won’t be quite as good as that first generation hybrid, though they will likely be better than the original inbred lines. Second, farmers and gardeners are perfectly capable of producing their own hybrid seed, and some do, if they like a challenge. Most, however, let seed companies big and small do the work of keeping the inbred lines separate and producing the hybrid seed for farmers to buy.
Some people argue against hybrid seed by saying that it that it requires more inputs, but this isn’t quite true either. Seeds are seeds. That is an over-simplification, but a given seed no matter its genetics can be grown with high inputs or with no inputs at all. The difference is that the seed grown with fertilizer and pesticides will, on average, yield more than the seed with no inputs. The ability of a plant to respond to fertilizer can be changed with breeding, but that doesn’t mean you can’t grow a seed with high fertilizer response without inputs. Breeding specifically for low inputs can be done simply by selecting the best performing plants under low input conditions – the breeding process remains the same. The specific corn hybrids donated have been tested under low input conditions, as mentioned by Manuel Rivas.
Some people argue against hybrid seed by saying that it that it is less nutritious, but this isn’t quite true either. It is true that most of the commercially available seed was bred for high yield without consideration for characteristics like taste and nutritional composition that are important to consumers. The reason for this is obvious – consumers don’t buy seed, farmers do. And farmers (particularly grain farmers, but fruit and vegetable farmers too) are paid for quantity not quality. This is not a characteristic of hybrids but of the system in general. Heirloom varieties are typically selected for taste, not yield, and taste is affected by nutrition. Gains in yield from breeding do suffer if selection for too many other characteristics are added, but it isn’t impossible, especially with the advent of precision breeding.
Toxic chemicals on the seeds?
Besides the confusion over hybrids, there has been quite a bit of confusion over the fungicides that protect the seeds. First, the Hatian Ministry of Agriculture was made aware of the fungicide, to which they responded: “The products listed are used everyday in Haitian agriculture and should pose no problem,” according to Between the Rows. The specific details were provided by Monsanto employee Mica:
The corn seeds were treated with Maxim XL, which is a Syngenta product. According to Syngenta, approximately 90 percent of U.S. corn seeds are treated with Maxim XL… It’s also used in Western Europe and Latin America.
Thiram, a Bayer Crop Science product, was used to treat the vegetable seeds. Thiram has been registered for use in the U.S. for more than 60 years and is used to treat approximately 1.3 billion pounds of seed annually. (Source: U.S. EPA)
It might seem strange to treat seeds with these chemicals, but it helps protect the seeds from being destroyed by fungus before they germinate. They are used safely by farmers all over the world. The fungicides also help prevent the spread of fungus on seeds from place to place – such as from the US to Haiti.
Marcia McMullen and Arthur Lamey, Extension Plant Pathologists at North Dakota State, provide three reasons to use fungicidal seed treatments:
- to control soil-borne fungal disease organisms (pathogens) that cause seed rots, damping-off, seedling blights and root rot
- to control fungal pathogens that are surface-borne on the seed, such as those that cause covered smuts of barley and oats, bunt of wheat, black point of cereal grains, and seed-borne safflower rust; and
- to control internally seed-borne fungal pathogens such as the loose smut fungi of cereals.
Let the Farmers Decide
There is nothing inherently dangerous with the seeds being donated or with the WINNER program. Farmers may choose to purchase the seeds or not. Burning the seeds or demanding that the seeds be turned away just takes away options for farmers. I hope that the people calling for burning the seeds will stop and think about the consequences of their actions for those farmers who might want to try planting the donated seed and instead think of ways to help farmers who don’t want seed from Monsanto for whatever reason.
* Disclaimer: I do not have any personal or financial connection to Monsanto, I’m only writing in hopes of dispelling some confusion about things like hybrid seed that could ultimately have a negative effect on farmers in Haiti and other places. I had been avoiding writing this post but the confusion about what hybrids are and what they do just became too much to ignore!
Excellent article, thanks.
Very well presented article. Very informative.
Thank you for publishing this information.
H. M. Freeman
Nice post. Very educational on the hybrid and fungicide front.
Disclaimer: I work for Monsanto.
Why did you avoid writing about this? You and other knowledgeable people should have been responding to this sooner. Have you seen the articles on Haiti Rewired and Huffington Post? This is just snowballing now because only a couple of PR people from Monsanto responded and inadequately. This is a science and farming issue and people who understand all that’s involved should have been out in front of it with real information right away. The loons who seem to want poor suffering Haiti to go all organic have had the microphone on this for more than a month. Ya know Haiti wasn’t the most stable place in the world before the earthquake, people were killed in food riots there in 2008. Half the population is illiterate, the highest in this hemisphere, their news media was damaged in the earthquake too, rumors seem to spread easily there. People who know better have an obligation to counter misinformation. If you’re waiting for newspapers to sort this out, there aren’t as many as there used to be and interest in Haiti is waning.
Do something for Haiti, people who can answer questions should go on forums and message boards and answer them. Just put up with the crap, other people will be reading you responses and judging for themselves what makes sense.
There was just a big meeting in the Dominican Republic about Haiti, Preval and Bill Clinton both expressed concerns about democracy and security. The UN is sending in more troops. There seems to be concern about unrest. If it happens I hope it’s not about these friggin seeds! Please share your knowledge.
This is the comment I intended to post on the civileats blog. The response was: “Sorry, comments are closed for this item.” I also intended to post it on the AJWS site . There, I was notified a length limit of 140 characters – enough for praise (rant would no doubt not be allowed…), never enough for a real comment.
(Quote) If you had done your homework, starting with reading the Monsanto piece which you linked to, you would have had the answers to some of your questions. Agreed, had you done so, you would have had a shorter post.
If you had done your homework, and consulted people with a basic knowledge of agriculture, you would have had the answers to some others of your questions. Agreed, had you done so, you would have had an even shorter post.
If you had done your homework, and consulted people with a basic knowledge of seeds and varieties, and also genetics and plant breeding (all this is very much linked), you would have had the answers to the remaining questions. Agreed, had you done so, you would have had no post at all.
Agreed, your name and the name of your organisation would not have spread virally among like-minded blogs, and websites of organisations with a track record of much rhetoric and much less action.
But now, you have a golden opportunity of catching up by reading the excellent Hybrids in Haiti .
And, please, also look up FAO for a picture of the needs of Haitian agriculture. And, for the power of modern varieties Seeking Africa’s green revolution . (Unquote)
1. Sorry for the technical defect in my previous comment.
2. AJWS took up my short comment and reference to this blog. They accept criticism.
3. However, “Five Questions Monsanto Needs to Answer” yields some 4,000 hits on Google. The education task is thus immense.
4. As you can get it from FAO, seed distribution is an integral part of the relief operations. Seed presumably comes in two qualities: true seed, the result of a seed production programme, and grain turned into seed, perhaps simply semantically. Pioneer has apparently also donated seed, without making any noises (I have not found any reference to it on the Pioneer website).
5. Monsanto has of course shot in its own foot with a lousy PR operation with a donation that is, also of course, not totally disinterested. At the time of writing this comment (Mon 7 June, 0:30 CET) “Haiti Monsanto” limited to the last 24 hours yielded no less than 25,300 hits.
6. The sad thing, is that Monsanto may well have launched a campaign against hybrids, and modern varieties in general, in Haiti, thus compromising the prospects for development.
7. The saddest is that the farmers’ organisation Mouvman Peyizan Papay , duly “briefed” by the usual suspects, is rallying to “defend our food sovereignty” in a country which now imports 80 percent of its food.
Andre – how exactly has the Monsanto PR operation been lousy? I’ve seen the response to the outcry, and it appears well reasoned and factual – I guess the main problem is that it’s Monsanto, and therefore their involvement automatically taints things because of the level of lunacy out there – the only option I can see that wouldn’t have caused issues perhaps is Monsanto not participating at all in seed donations, I can see how not having $4M+ of seed donations would be a great help to Haiti.
As the Haitian Ag ministry was directly involved with (and supportive of, whereas /rant the main detractors in the link you gave appear to be religious organizations, who gives a flying monkey what a Catholic charity thinks about seed donations really – I’m pretty sure they’d also be opposed to easy access to birth control in Haiti which frankly should remove them from any and all conversations about helping /rant) the seed donation process I don’t forsee a future where hybrids and modern varieties are kept out of Haiti – perhaps some farmers there will buy into the hype, and not plant, which is entirely their choice, hopefully HuffPo readers and contributers can give themselves a hearty pat on the back as these farmers continue to struggle while their neighbors thrive with improved seed – stay posted for the absolutely non-existent level of coverage any success of this process has, although doubtless a handful of farmers will see failed crops (because farming is a pain in the behind) which will make waves across the blogosphere showing how hybrids just don’t work in Haiti (presumably due to it sitting over a hellgate or something)
The situation in Haiti is a bit more complicated than is commonly thought.
The Haitian government is actually asking that disaster aid be cut off. The reason: the high standard of living enjoyed by self-described earthquake victims. They get three square meals a day and free medical care. People are walking away from their jobs, in all sectors of the economy, to enjoy the refugee life-style.
The original press release announcing a plan to burn the Monsanto seeds made a similar complaint: that the seeds would compete with domestic seed companies. Domestic breeders have little hope of providing something as good or better than what Monsanto can deliver. In light of that, domestic seed producers might as well join the other victims in the relief shelters.
Should Haitian farmers have access to Monsanto seeds? Of course. But that simple answer brings with it a host of issues.
One often-overlooked duty of a critic is to offer a better idea, so here is mine: deliver the seeds to domestic seed breeders, and let them handle pricing and delivery. Competing against Monsanto then becomes a non-issue.
Sure beats having seed-breeders join the burgeoning Haitian ‘instant welfare state’.
I’d be interested to know how many seed breeders Haiti has – as far as I am aware the seed is going to seed sellers (are breeders selling directly, or do they go through middle men – if directly the whole issue of putting them out of business goes away pretty quickly if my reading on the subject is correct) to be sold at discounted prices – you’d have to look case by case to see how many breeders there are for each seed type, and how much seed is imported and subsequently sold at any given time – there are a whole spectrum of possible ways this could play out, and I for one am having issues figuring out exactly what the real state of play is/was in Haiti (predominantly because any search for seeds and Haiti is predictably swamped by Monsanto seed articles at the moment – my google-fu is weak)
– If most Haitian farmers save seed year on year then seed distributers may gain in the short to mid term from this donation and cheaper seed – if farmers come to see the benefit of buying hybrid rather than saving seed then you’d presumably see a shift to hybrids which would hopefully continue well after the Monsanto donation is done – this benefits farmers and the middle man, although whether local seed breeders would benefit, or multinational seed companies, is an unknown – possibly both.
– If there are a lot of seed breeders already in Haiti then clearly the potential exists for any and all seed donations to screw them royally depending on the extent to which the earthquake hampered their business this year – unless the breeders are the same people who distribute the seeds – in which case they are already the ones (as far as I’ve read into the story) who sell on the seeds, so it’s a win either way for them – one would perhaps hope that some elite germplasm could be donated (perhaps older germplasms which while still protected arent quite as good as the more recent…) for them to use in future years.
I just read your article, “Hybrids in Haiti”. Your coverage of the issue is fairly thorough, however I am curious as to whether you purposely didn’t mention that Monsanto’s track record shows that as soon as they can get enough clout in a country, they manipulate the politicians to instill intellectual property rights. Therefore, within the five years that Monsanto would be “donating” seed, they would also be hard at work making sure that Haitians will become dependent on them for seed and inputs.
The other issue I have with your argument is that you seem to think the ill-informed, rich organics industry is siding with Peasant movement because they have some sort of underlying goal. Honestly, you can’t be serious in thinking this. When a company with an profit-motivated agenda is helping, you know that profit is the ultimate goal. The organic movement in the US is simply trying to give Haiti the opportunity to establish its food production sector with a SUSTAINABLE model. I’m not sure which planet you think you live on, but this one needs to be respected with sound agriculture practices and soil husbandry, not the reductionist pseudo-science you’ve been taught in school. There are large pieces missing from your puzzle. Wake up miss, you’ve been brainwashed by them.
farmer, chef, activist
I avoided writing because the word Monsanto is so charged. Unfortunately, many people seem to have a hard time seeing past that word to look at the real issues, and anyone who tries to talk about the issues (especially by wading into the comment boards on places like HuffPo) is shamelessly attacked. You’re right, though. The people in Haiti who would be helped by the seed deserve better. I hope it’s not too late.
The misinformation out there is overwhelming. It saddens me very much that well-meaning activists are actually hurting Hatian farmers by convincing them that plant breeding is a force for evil.
I think the problem isn’t Monsanto’s PR, but the simple fact that it’s Monsanto. Monsanto could have donated the most innocuous seed you can think of, heck they could have just said they were praying for the Haitians, and people would have freaked out anyway.
Maybe Pioneer was smart to keep quiet about their donation. They don’t really need the good press, and they don’t need any potential bad press either.
@vermontfudge: I understand the frustration with seeing the falsehoods fly faster. It’s easier to make wild claims and get them out, rather than actually investigating and assembling the real story.
Mike the Mad Biologist had a great post on this issue once:
The Asymmetric Advantage of Bullsh-t and the post he quoted within:
While researching for this post, I wasn’t able to find anything about local breeders or local seed dealers. The articles I could find said farming in Haiti was quite primitive for a variety of reasons (read Land Use and Farming Technology from Richard A. Haggerty, ed. Haiti: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1989) but that conflicted with what the Haitian government was reported to say in correspondence with Monsanto. At this point, I’m not sure what to think about the situation of farmers in Haiti.
That said, we have to look at the way the seeds are being distributed. I’m under the impression that there is little to no infrastructure like seed dealers (local or otherwise) in Haiti, and that dealers or “farmer stores” will be set up by the WINNER program.
Although afaik the matched employee donation from Monsanto (50/50 company/employees) in the form of cold hard cash didn’t particularly generate any waves at all.
Surprises me a little that Pioneer didn’t announce their donation – they weren’t quiet about Nitrogen efficiency in Africa which is just as contentious an issue (although arguably more impactful if succesful)
Illona, thanks for your comment. You’ve brought up many issues so I will do my best to address them point by point.
This may surprise you, but it would actually be a good thing if the Hatian government were to develop some sort of plant variety protection (PVP) system. Other comments on this post refer to local breeding efforts in Haiti – do they exist? Without PVP, breeding efforts fail because they are not rewarded. Let’s consider a hypothetical situation:
An enterprising farmer in Haiti starts the painstaking process of breeding seed for high yields, disease resistance, and other useful traits, perhaps with the help of an extension agent or NGO. After a few seasons, she has some good seed that she sells to her neighbors for a low price so they can try them. Her neighbors like the plants so they keep the seed they harvest and plant them again. The breeder tries again to sell the seed she’s been working on but everyone already has her seed so she has no one to sell to. Within a few generations, the gain in yield and other traits is lost.
With plant variety protection, she could apply to have her variety registered. She could sell the seed with the stipulation that the seed not be replanted so that she could keep improving the seed though breeding and sell better seed each year. She is able to make a little profit to feed her family with the seed business and her neighbors, who benefit from having improved seed every year, are also able to make a little profit and feed their families.
There isn’t a link between having PVP and Hatians becoming dependent on Monsanto for seed and inputs. Yes, having PVP would allow larger seed companies to move in and offer their wares to the farmers, but frankly I’d be surprised if Monsanto’s seeds, bred for conditions in the US, would be cheaper or better than seed developed by the farmer-turned-breeder. With PVP, farmers would have more choices in which seed they wanted to plant (including saved seed, locally developed seed, or seed from big seed companies). Instead of fewer options, they would have more!
In this post, I never said or even implied that “the ill-informed, rich organics industry is siding with Peasant movement because they have some sort of underlying goal.” But, you’re right. I do think this. The rich organics industry has a profit agenda just as much as the non-organic industry does. Groups like the Organic Consumers Association (which is sponsored by private companies) are competing for donations and sponsors with non-organic organizations. It’s in the best interest of OCA and it’s sponsors to scare the crap out of everyone about Monsanto so they’ll buy organic. That’s fine, it’s a free country, but I think they’re really shooting themselves in the foot. If they really cared about sustainability on a large scale they would advocate for sustainable methods instead of against one company. It’s a big problem, one that I’m hoping to write a blog post about soon. As for how the organic industry is helping – does goading farmers to burn seed and reject hybrids count as help? There does seem to be one group called FONDAMA that is collecting donations to buy local corn and pea seed to donate to farmers, but how does that help in the long term? They may as well send down food aid.
Using hybrid seed or even seed from a seed company doesn’t mean that food production isn’t sustainable and using open pollinated saved seed doesn’t mean that food production is sustainable. I think a sustainable food system includes environment, economics, and social issues. Having adequate infrastructure like seed dealers and reasonable credit with crop insurance is a lot more sustainable than letting farmers profit or starve based on whether or not their crop fails this year. A sustainable system includes ag extension so farmers can learn about new ways to farm that allow them to produce the most food while taking the best care of their land, including the soil.
I live on the planet Earth, where our actions and words affect everyone around us, even in ways we can not imagine. I learned about agriculture from organic farmers, people who promote sustainable methods, scientists who are testing those methods, breeders who are racing against the clock to develop disease resistance and other traits to help feed the growing number of people across the world. I’m sure there are pieces missing, as there are always need pieces being added and one person can only learn so much, but I do feel that my studies for a PhD in genetics with a minor in sustainable agriculture are a good start. As for reductionism, well, that’s a whole other conversation.
The Papaye Peasant Movement (MPP), Haiti’s largest grassroots organization , has promised to burn a donation by Monsanto of 60,000 seed sacks (475 tons) of hybrid corn seeds and vegetable seeds . The donation, valued at US$4 million, comes on the heels of a devastating earthquake in January that left at least 217,000 people dead and one million others homeless .
The MPP claims to be Haiti’s “most successful [NGO] in addressing the problems of food production” , so why oppose this generosity?
After all, the MPP is slated to receive US$25,000 from Grassroots International to help provide seeds, tools and training for this planting season .
Are they actually seeking seeds for farmers? Not quite. According to the MPP, “Haitian social movements have been vocal in their opposition to agribusiness imports of seeds and food, which undermines local production with local seed stocks.” 
This is protectionism for domestic seed growers and dealers — and the MPP’s future expectations of ‘seed money’ will obviously be imperiled by the availability of free seed.
1. About MPP, http://www.mpphaiti.org/who_we_are/aboutus/
2. Haitian Farmers Commit to Burning Monsanto Hybrid Seeds, Before it’s News, May 18, 2010, http://beforeitsnews.com/news/45/745/Haitian_Farmers_Commit_to_Burning_Monsanto_Hybrid_Seeds.html
3. Monsanto Donates $4 Million of Seeds to Haiti, Voice of America,
May 15, 2010,
4. Beating Hunger in Haiti with Seeds and Tools for Small Farmers,
Grassroots International (GRI), March 11, 2010,
Will anyone please explain to me how seeds from Canada are going to help Hatian farmers more than seeds that have been tested under typical no-input farming conditions in Haiti? I could be wrong, but I think that the climate in Canada is very different than the climate in Haiti.
I don’t recall which of many articles I’ve read on Haiti and seeds had this info – but one said seed stocks were low before the earthquake and now many people are eating them. So it might not even be possible to supply farmer need for seed with what exists in Haiti. Additionally, if the seed is unimproved then yield may be much lower than what could be obtained with the donated seed. The best possible situation is for the existing breeders and dealers (if there are any – so far all I’ve seen is speculation that they exist) to get involved in the USAID WINNER program and even better for them to integrate Monsanto’s superior genetics into breeding programs with local varieties. But it seems that people who “support” farmers in Haiti are too busy burning things to think of solutions that might be useful.
If I understand correctly, you believe in a system of food production that maximizes calories while minimizing the amount of land and people needed to produce it. Correct me if I’m wrong.
But based on that assumption, you will never understand why farmers being able to save their own seeds and disallowing large, solely-profit-motivated corporations is the most important way to help a nation trying to rebuild itself. The reasons I stand behind traditional farming methods are as follows. Traditional farming employs more individuals. Traditional farming uses no toxins while producing food. Traditional farming maintains soil and water health as well as preventing gene flow from GMOs. Traditional farming keeps us in balance with natural cycles. Traditional farming keeps us paying attention to environmental shifts. Traditional farming keeps us in contact with our neighbors. Traditional farming makes us good husbands and wives to the soil, the land, the animals we depend on. Traditional farming requires little if at all inputs from off-farm sources. Traditional farming allows us to eat whole foods instead of by-products and overly processed/dead-preserved foods. I say dead-preserved because traditional preservation involves building a relationship with bacteria for lacto-fermentation.
These, along with many others, are reasons why traditional farming needs to be preserved. Allowing Monsanto and the World Bank to come into Haiti, flex their control muscles at will, and turn it into another failed and chained country is not what is best for Haiti. Haiti is a country that has reached rock bottom. It now has the opportunity to rise up using the theories us “Greens” have been preaching about for the past 40 years. Your insistence that the donations by Monsanto and more of the same happening all over the globe is what is best for Haiti is utterly false. It’s not working. Really. This world needs farmers. We can not grow all of the food necessary in floating skyscrapers as some would like to suggest. We can not control nature. Your training has taught you otherwise. You should consider the complexities of nature not taught in school. You should consider the thousands of years of good, sound agricultural practices that weave intricate relationships between the microorganisms, the macroorganism, the elements, and all of the parts which we can not fathom with our human brains. We must accept that we do not know everything but we must acknowledge that which as worked for thousands of years. Please read some of Joel Salatin’s writing if you’d like to learn more about it. Please read some of Vandana Shiva’s writing if you would like to learn about how you, as a woman, are the key to fixing these destroyed relationships all around you.
1. There has been much discussion about the existence of breeders and seed producers in Haiti. To my understanding, there is hardly any breeding and little seed production. ORE, which prima facie is a reliable site, has two paragraphs which I will quote in fule:
Staple crops such as corn, beans and sorghum, comprise nearly 80% of land use in Haiti:
Studies made by SISA-USAID in 1995 show that 80% of the 1,341,497 hectares currently farmed in Haiti’s are planted with three staple crops: corn (45%), beans (25%) and sorghum (10%). However the yields are among the lowest recorded in the hemisphere. Statistics from and FAO and the Haitian Ministry of Agriculture show that less than 7% of the national seed requirements are supplied. Currently the majority of farmers have little or no access to improved seeds and are planting food grains bought in the market. As a result crop yields are at subsistence levels. Such grains have low germination rates, (often around 30%), and have neither been selected for high performance nor resistance to heat, drought or disease. As a result, the financial returns to the farmers are rarely above subsistence farming levels. Yet there is a permanent demand on the local market for staple crops such as sorghum, corn and beans, which form the basis of the farming system.
Improved seeds are essential to increase the yields of Haiti’s major staple food crops
It is estimated that 70% of the Haitian population are involved in agriculture. More than two-third of the land is planted in corn, beans and sorghum. However, by providing improved seeds, and offering production and marketing assistance, ORE is able to help the farmers make the move from subsistence farming to commercially successful agriculture. The availability of improved seeds, produced from varieties selected for high production and treated with pesticides to control seed-born diseases, will offer solutions to current production problems and significantly increase the production of staple crops. So the availability of improved seeds is undeniably important if farmers are to achieve economically sustainable agriculture.
That Haiti is in dire need of seeds and a reasonable – I do not dare to write “standard” – is also documented elsewhere, notably by FAO, particularly here or by IPS here.
The need is quasi endemic and has been aggravated not only by the earthquake, but also by the previous years’ hurricanes (and the food price riots have demonstrated to the donor community that there was something to be done in the seed area). So, whilst the current controversy is linked to the earthquake (I will add here, perhaps cynically, that the rumble has attracted more attention from charities than the almost “routine” hurricanes), this year’s seed donations are in fact a chapter of a longer book.
2. There has also been some discussion about the way the seed would be distributed. We got the answer from Monsanto:
WINNER will distribute the seeds through farmer association stores to be sold at a significantly reduced price. The farmer stores will use the revenue to reinvest in other inputs to support farmers in the future. The farmer associations alone will receive revenue from the sales.
This is much wiser than free distributions (which seem to be FAO’s and others’ policy).
3. Next there is the issue of hybrids. Again, ORE has a definitive statement based upon the Haiti context:
Improved Staple Crop Seeds: Improved staple crops such as locally adapted hybrid corn out-yield traditional material by three to one. Improved corn, beans and sorghum seeds, selected for disease resistance, with high germination rates, make the difference between subsistence farming and profitability. Field trials have demonstrated significant yield increases, resulting better income for the farmers. Using traditional seeds under rainfed conditions a farmer pays US $150 to plant a hectare of land with corn, but the crop only sells for $169, representing a profit of 13%. Improved seeds costs US $160 to plant, but the crops sells for $240, which provide a reasonable 50% profit.
I flagged in a previous comment a report on Malawi. In my opinion, Anastasia’s answer on this issue to Illona (“Using hybrid seed or even seed from a seed company doesn’t mean that food production isn’t sustainable and using open pollinated saved seed doesn’t mean that food production is sustainable”) fell a bit short in two respects: first, a farmer will only use such seed if it is profitable for him; second, as a rule, hybrids are superior, sometimes by far, to open-pollinated varieties. The situation in Haiti, where the environment has been devastated by the need for land for food, should enlighten the organic agriculture and environment activists – about the need to increase yields, and hence modern varieties. And, by the way, when we talk about seed from a seed company, we actually talk about seed produced by a farmer.
4. There are some less technical issues, including one which I triggered. Firstly, if you consult their website you will see that MPP has a political and philosophical agenda. It is in particular affiliated to Via Campesina. Secondly, I agree with Anastasia that the problem is Monsanto rather than its PR. Yet, a lot of nonsense would have been avoided if the company had, for instance, announced a partnership rather than a donation, explained what “conventional” seed means, put forward the Seminis and Dekalb trade mark you see on the photos, pre-empted some obvious activists’ rhetoric, etc.
5. Finally, some replies to Illona.
a. I have been in the intellectual property business for many years and have never heard about a Monsanto track record of lobbying. Such lobbying, particularly coming from that company, would no doubt be ineffective.
b. Anastasia has made very valid points on plant variety protection (PVP). But there is more to the story: one of the remedies to a dominant position by one or a few companies is precisely PVP, a cheap IP system tailor-made for breeders and agriculture. Whilst market concentration is a fact of economics, a comparison of the two sides of the Atlantic is very telling: concentration started much earlier in the US, where PVP was rather ineffective, than in Europe, where PVP and seed legislation have promoted a dynamic network of SMEs (small and medium-size enterprises).
c. The Haitians will not become dependent on Monsanto, which, if established in Haiti, will have to compete with other companies, public institutions, including CIMMYT, and traditional varieties (to the extent that the latter would remain competitive).
d. Yes, this planet needs to be respected with sound agriculture practices and soil husbandry. But no, the organic movement, whilst providing a number of clues, does not provide the answer. And I haven’t been brainwashed.
“A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” (Winston Churchill)
You reap what you sow.
The reactions of the media and the Haitian farmers are unsurprising. It is difficult for many people to trust the actions and motives of Monsanto.
I do appreciate your nuanced coverage of the story. But your response to illona underscored a philosophical position which I do not share.
You sing the praises of a PVP program. And I couldn’t disagree more.
I have no problem with hybrids. I think they make for some tasty foods. I have a problem with putting patents on life. I have a problem with having laws that govern the use of seed.
The idea behind patents makes sense. That the intellectual property of people needs to be protected so they have incentive to innovate. But this isn’t about products. This is about food. The thing that people require to live.
And should companies that work under a PVP system invest a lot of money in coming up with new seeds, then they need to recoup that investment. Which creates incentives for them to sell as much of it as possible. And I think that has the potential to create problems. Especially if they are a big company with a lot of political clout.
People have been breeding new hybrids for generations without relying on legislation to protect their “inventions.” Not all motives have to be profit driven. Sometimes there are just dedicated growers who want to produce better food, not just higher yields.
Perhaps this is all terribly naive.
But I do agree with your stance on sustainability, that it needs to include environment, economics, and social issues.
All I ask is that American consumers get to chose whether or not they want GMOs in their food. A little labeling would go a long way.
“Please read some of Vandana Shiva’s writing if you would like to learn about how you, as a woman, are the key to fixing these destroyed relationships all around you.”
That is gender essentialism, and it is no different from me saying that I, as a man, am the holder of rationality and so should be put in charge of women by the mere fact that I am a man. To say that women hold some essential key to understanding the environment is just as sexist.
I know that Vandana Shiva is an eco-feminist, however, I have not read enough of her work to know whether she believes in gender essentialism herself, so I will not accuse her of it until I have a chance to ask her myself. Actually, she has in her possession a jar of honey from my bees, along with an interview agreement, so perhaps I’ll get that chance soon…
“You reap what you sow.” This is the problem – the point is that this could help the Haitian farmers. In my opinion, evaluating whether or not this will help the Haitian farmers is independent of Monsanto’s reputation.
“The idea behind patents makes sense. That the intellectual property of people needs to be protected so they have incentive to innovate. But this isn’t about products. This is about food. The thing that people require to live.”
We also need electricity to live, and computers, the internet, water filtration systems, and machines that turn cotton into fabric that we wear. All of these involve intellectual property protections and they are all in some way necessary for life as we know it. On the flipside you could say that because improvements in food are so very necessary, that a system that provides an incentive for investment in research and development to improve that food is even more necessary.
People are welcome to choose a life of subsistence farming, but people who are subsistence farmers should have the ability to choose a different way of life, don’t you agree?
Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts, Daniel. I agree with Karl’s response but I’ll add a little more by asking a question. How can we, as a society, can encourage development of improved crops without patents (or in this case, PVP)? One way I can think of is to have government or non-profits do all the innovating, which sounds fine with me, but would require increased taxes to fund the R&D. We’ve had some conversation on IP at my post More is better – when it comes to IP? – I hope you weigh in there and help us find ways to encourage research while keeping the flow of information open. When it comes to GMOs specifically, you might be interested to hear about Cambia, a non-profit that is working to develop open-source GMOs.
I’d also like to point you toward some posts on GMO labeling here on Biofortified: The Right to Know, What’s in a label?, and Labeling GMOs. As far as I know, the authors of Biofortified as well as some of the commenters are in favor of voluntary labeling but believe that mandatory labeling is not the right course of action for a variety of reasons. I hope we can continue discussion on that topic either in the comments of those posts or in the Forum.
Andre, that ORE site is great! Thanks very much for sharing it.
One of their many project is QPM (quality protein maize: http://www.oreworld.org/qpm.htm) which I have a soft spot in my heart for. Very cool!
Illona, I’m sorry I’m not explaining myself very well. I do believe in a system of food production that maximizes nutrients (not just calories) while minimizing the amount of environmental degradation (not necessarily land area) – but I don’t necessarily believe in minimizing the number of people needed to produce food, especially if it just means that they have to go work in factories. I hope I can explain what sort of system I think we should be striving for (it’s funny, I have been planning on writing a post on this subject! perhaps some of what I write here will appear in a post).
Traditional farming methods can be a very good thing for a lot of reasons. They can also be inadequate when it comes to feeding increasingly large numbers of people and they can be inadequate when facing new challenges like invasive species and crop diseases. I think a lot of people, including you, maybe, have an ideal image of traditional farming in their mind that doesn’t quite match what’s actually happening in every place that traditional farming is practiced.I also think that a lot of people who advocate “modern” farming have mistaken ideas of what is actually happening when intensive farming methods are practiced. I typically take the middle path. There are aspects of traditional farming that should be maintained and practiced on every farm, but there are also aspects of traditional farming that can be improved upon.
Seed is a great place to start. I can completely understand the allure of not being dependent on a for-profit company for that ever so precious spark of life that is a seed. If I could remake the world, I’d have far more governmental and NGO plant breeders and researchers involved in partnerships with farmers around the world to develop seed together. Some research like that is happening today, but more would be better.
Why have trained breeders at all? Saving seed – planting the best seeds year after year – has two sources of genetic variation, both of which are totally random and very unlikely. These are mutations and gene flow from outside the population. Natural mutations are pretty rare, and most mutations don’t have an effect. I wouldn’t depend on those to introduce much genetic variation at all. Gene flow (pollen or seeds coming from outside the population) can introduce more genetic variation than mutations but you can imagine that the most likely source of pollen or seeds will be from nearby fields that are fairly genetically similar anyway. Trained breeders search germplasm repositories for desirable traits, they find traits in wild crop relatives, they make 100s or even 1000s of crosses to find the best combinations of genes.
It’s not that traditional farmers can’t do these things – it’s just that they need training to get started. It’s like my hypothetical example from before, where a farmer gets a little training and starts a breeding program so she can sell improved seed to her neighbors. And the improved yield means that her customer can start a side business of raising chickens and selling eggs, and another customer can start a side business of making jewelry, or anything you can think of. Yes, I am an optimist, but this is a real, tangible way for people to climb out of poverty. Without improved seed, yields stay low, closer to subsistence levels. This is what we see across Africa and in much of South and Central America. Sure, people who plant saved seed can survive. They can even thrive, if they’re lucky to have good soil, good weather, and no pest. But it takes a lot more work for a lot less food.
You can have improved seed in combination with traditional farming methods. You can introduce science based techniques and integrate them into a traditionally farming system. In the US, which I’m most familiar with, there are many farmers whose methods we consider to be sustainable but the methods aren’t “traditional” at all. David Masmuto is one of those farmers who uses a combination of science-based and traditional methods, testing the traditional methods to decide which ones he’ll keep and which he’ll update. To me, this is ideal.
Vandana Shiva has some interesting ideas as a philosopher, but I have to say I think she’s harming poor farmers more than helping them with her rhetoric about technology. All technology isn’t good but it isn’t all bad either.
Vandana Shiva and her followers are truly bizarre. Check out
Their fundamental neo-Marxist position is that germplasm is owned by everyone, and therefore, by no-one. And meanwhile, Shiva can’t tell the difference between rice and weeds. (see link above)
Because it doesnt make sense – why the wish to deny Haitian farmers access to the same technologies and advances which allow Western farmers, and farmers in developing countries access to the tools which have improved agricultural practices globally and increased food security? Do you have the same stance on donated medicines?
development of any nation follows a pattern of reducing the number of agricultural workers – can we take it by this stance that you are happy maintaining a situation where Haitians essentially live as medieval serfs rather than having access to the freedoms and choices available to those in countries whose agricultural systems have moved beyond the 15th century?
true to an extent, although fertilizer runoff from traditional farming can be as bad, if not worse, than from conventional modern farming
Depending on what modality of traditional farming you’re talking about this may, or may not be true – using manure as fertilizer can cause runoff pollution and eutrophication of nearby waterways, if you use tillage in your traditional farming operation you’re going to destroy topsoil over time – something that herbicide utilization can easily prevent using no-till methods –
No, it doesn’t. Any form of farming breaks any “natural cycle”, crops aren’t “natural” species, row cultivation isn’t natural, biodiversity plummets enormously in any agricultural setting to the extent that for a given level of production it is arguably better in terms of biodiversity to use the most intensive modern farming techniques over a smaller area than to use less intensive (traditional) techniques over a large area
Farming and the Fate of Wild Nature Science VOL 307 28 JANUARY 2005
Really? How? Globally, rather than in the cozy safe confines of western “traditional farming” traditional farming does nothing more than make people slaves to their next meal, with no more idea of what is going on in the world or to the wider environment than is expected when a failed rain means your kids are likely to die, when a days work involves absolutely back breaking labor in a hot field tearing up weeds by hand.
Somewhat baffled by this – is the suggestion that without traditional farming we won’t talk to our neighbors, or that non-traditional farmers are anti-social or what? During my relatively short lived (so far) experience with farmers (both relatively traditional – the area I was born in is probably just about reaching the ’90s about now(Northern Scotland), and high input (Midwest USA) is that they all have a strong sense of community and generally all know their neighbors.
Again depends on the type of traditional farming you are talking about – traditional farming played absolute havoc with environments across Africa, Europe and the US, and the suggestion that modern non-traditional farmers don’t take care of the land they farm is to me absurd – most US farms are small family owned and run, over generations, and those who farm the land care for it every bit as much as a “traditional” farmer.
This doesn’t quite match your earlier statement, or the reality of the world. Unless you don’t consider off farm labor to be an input – traditional farming literally uses human lives as an input, sucks away human potential, traps people in a mode of life which sitting here tapping away at a computer may seem all well and good, romantic even, but unless you really dig it my take is that it generally sucks – and that’s from the dual experience of planting a 1.5 acre trial by hand with ~20 other people in 90+ degree heat (but with sunscreen, high tech sweat wicking clothing, all the gatorade you can drink etc – stuff that most traditional farmers aren’t likely to be getting hold of any time soon) and working an 8’x8′ vegetable garden (which is fun because it doesnt eat up my entire life)
So long as you ignore the traditional preservation technique of salting I guess. I think you say dead-preserved because you’re either looking for a cool sounding phrase that makes food sound scary, or because you’re a victim of magical thinking.
Because a $4M donation of seed with no strings attached based on discussion with those directly involved in Haitian agriculture obviously amounts to flexing ones control muscles. Because the introduction of hybrids, GM crops etc has obviously been so bad globally (so long as you ignore the improvements in yields and quality of life that has gone hand in hand with the transition away from traditional agriculture) – you’re right, what’s best for Haiti is maintaining their current traditional farming setup where 80%+ of food has to be imported, where there land is literally washing away into the sea, what’s best for Haitians is to be trapped in serfdom for their short miserable lives, sacrificing them on the altar of traditional farming techniques.
Based on what exactly? Increased cotton yields in India, Increased yields across China, increased yields for Malawian farmers? Where has the “green” approach had such widespread and obvious socioeconomic benefits in agriculture?
yes, but it doesn’t need everyone to be farmers
Has anyone, ever, suggested that the answer to the global food problem is floating skyscrapers? I’d counter that we categorically cannot grow all of the food necessary by utilizing “traditional” farming
We can control some aspects of nature. All of farming, from traditional, to ultra-high input is control of nature. Every crop species we utilize is testimony to the fact that we can, to a certain extent, control nature – without the molding of these species over time by man they would not exist.
I’m going to go ahead and say no, not in the black and white sense you preach it, although as science training is reality based there will be some teaching of aspects of nature that can be contolled
And these are what precisely?
Perhaps you should consider the tens of thousands of years of agricultural practices which have been gradually improved upon decade upon decade, which have been damaging to the environment to various extents from day 1, and that the introduction of “parts which we cannot fathom with our human brains” is a meaningless addition to the debate.
Ok, I acknowledge that the application of human inventiveness to all spheres of life, particularly agriculture, is a major driver in providing enough food to eat, and in freeing millions from servitude in the field to scrape together just enough to be malnourished rather than starving to death.
Joel Salatin’s farming is categorically not traditional farming by any stretch of the imagination – what he does is clearly pretty awesome, but to suggest it is traditional (other than within his own family) is a bit of a stretch.
Everything of Vandana’s I’ve read is a cornucopia of absolute horse manure – afaik I’ve only really looked at her writings on GMOs, but given that she propagates pretty much every myth about GMOs out there while being utterly ignorant of the science or the benefits of the technology I’m thinking that I’m relatively safe avoiding reading anything else by her.
That is an excellent article. Thank you for sharing it.
I mean, it’s irreverent as all get out, but it’s telling a complicated and often emotional story in a way that’s easy to understand – like an old Texan yarn. I love it. And it makes me miss San Antonio.
I do wonder if the weeds part is true:
Before leaving Alvin to prepare for a 7 p.m. lecture in Houston titled “WTO, Basmati Rice & the Stolen Harvest,” Shiva walked across the road and looked out into a shaggy field.
“They look unhappy,” she said. “The rice plants. Ours at home look very happy.”
“That,” RiceTec reports, “is because it’s not rice. That’s our test field, it was harvested in August. That’s weeds.”
On a more serious note, I’m glad the article included a little of the negative effects of intellectual property in India and Egypt, where US State Department encouraged US patent recognition has caused problems. IP does reward countries that have a head start on innovation – even though India and China are pretty much caught up, it’ll still be a while before most African countries have enough R&D capability to compete. It’s a small world and yet so big.
You mention the word Monsanto is so “charged” – this likely has something to do with the company’s long history of questionable ethics….
you want to create “hybrids” (though from what I’ve read Monsanto’s version of hybrids could never occur on their own in nature), fine
you believe your seeds are perfectly healthy for human consumption on a long term basis despite any support from independent research, fine
you want to sell your “terminator” “hybrid” seeds to farmers including poor third world farmers so they are continually reliant on buying your seeds each and every year when normally farmers are able to save their seeds year after year, fine
you want to unleash your patented seeds on the environment when you know you are unable to contain them and prevent them from contaminating other non-gmo crops NOT SO FINE
Is it any wonder that Monsanto is such a “charged” word – really? The company’s ethical track record is bleak to say the least and until the company makes a major turn around in HOW it operates, it’s technology, supporting studies and resulting products will be viewed and deserve to be viewed with suspicion.
Monsanto‘s patented seeds are preventing me from enjoying organic or non-gmo foods by setting its seeds out in the environment where they cannot control them and cannot stop them from contaminating non-gmo crops
Monsanto’s lobbying efforts against labelling GMO’s are preventing me from choosing whether I want to eat GMO foods or not and therefore forcing me to be part of this long term experiment on the safety of GMO foods (and it’s not looking so good given a recent study showing sterility problems with the consumption of GMO foods)
Monsanto’s bribing health officials in Canada to approve rBGH – this has been documented
Monsanto’s suing farmers for infringing on their patents when seeds are blowing onto their fields and actually contaminating their non-gmo crops
Monsanto’s patenting life forms including a pig gene that has been in existence in pigs before the word Monsanto…
If Monsanto were to make some major changes in how it operates then maybe those of us who actually care about what we eat and consume as well as about profiteering from life forms, will give your technology a little more consideration.
Helene, thanks for commenting. There is a huge difference between the actions of one company and a technology that that company uses. I find it interesting that you are ok with “terminator” seeds for the reason that it would prevent cross-pollination, so what do you think about the anti-GE people that actively campaign against the use of that technology?
So despite Monsanto’s reputation, what do you think of the harm that would be caused by preventing the seed donation from getting into the hands of Haitian farmers? Don’t you think that it is wrong to use the reputation of Monsanto to keep those farmers from having the choice to accept those seeds?
You eat plants that do not occur in nature all the time. Corn itself is not ‘natural,’ and have you ever had a seedless watermelon?
The problem with Monsanto is consistently its failure to deal with whackos, and the press that shamelessly parrots what the whackos have to say.
I predicted this problem years ago, when Monsanto spun off its chemicals division into a new corporation called ‘Solutia’.
If Monsanto had been paying attention, it would have spun off the chemicals division under the name ‘Monsanto’ and taken the name ‘Solutia’ for the agricultural leftovers. By this measure, the ‘Agent Orange’ and other goofy accusations would have followed the chemicals division into the sunset.
The multinational seed suppliers sell their products to farmers, who like their stuff. But the multis have no last effing clue how to sell to consumers, and the problem is, they got no effing consumer products.
So much for ‘controlling the food supply’. If Monsanto actually tried to do that, it would go bankrupt. Pity the poor beast, it’s clueless.
I’ve been saying that for years! Heck, even Haliburton played the name game. I doubt many people heard of the switch to Xenia or whatever it was and even if they did I doubt they’d remember it even if they heard it when it happened.
I do wonder what people think about farmers that buy products from Monsanto and other multinational seed and input companies. Do they think the farmers are stupid? Do the farmers get the same evil label as anyone who says Monsanto isn’t evil? It’s so strange. And sad, when there’s so many real things in the world to worry about.
I was thinking something similar about this DoJ investigation into the seed business. I think about the best thing that could happen would be for Monsanto to get busted up and pretty much vanish as a brand. Then perhaps we could have discussions without that blanket covering everything.
I hate to say it, but yeah. It would be nice to have a discussion about what plant breeding and biotechnology can do to help people without people invoking the big baddie. It doesn’t matter how many examples of publicly funded projects I bring up, it all comes back to Monsanto, or more properly what people think about Monsanto, whether its real or not. There’s so much more – heck, even Golden rice gets ripped apart? It’s enough to get a girl pretty down.
I don’t know that clueless is quite right – Monsanto are currently making efforts to improve their image – its a hard slog, and I feel somewhat sorry for people who have to approach every debate with a cheery attitude of inclusiveness regardless of how insane the accusations flying in are – however Monsanto’s focus, in terms of PR, is always going to be farmers first, end point consumers last – because like it or not, that’s where the money is made, that’s where decisions matter – regulatory bodies across the world are predominantly set up to be science based and evidence driven – the battle is won there for the time being – if a product is safe, and does what we think it does, and has supporting evidence for the mode of action then in all likelihood it will be approved for use – where Monsanto really cannot afford to look bad is to the consumers that matter to them, and that’s farmers – as far as I’ve seen that is the main shift in what Monsanto does – in terms of public visibility I’m not sure how far this goes, pretty much everyone will have seen the “America’s farmers” commercials brought to you by Monsanto, but how many people are aware that Monsanto went out in the last year and interviewed thousands of farmers to get feedback on how we operate, how we price seeds, etc etc, how many people realize that changes to pricing structure come as a response to farmer demand (at least this time round)
Afaik pretty much all hybrids would have a vanishingly small chance of occuring on their own in nature – the process of producing a hybrid involves generation of homogenous inbred lines and subsequent cross pollination of these lines (to simplify it spectacularly) however all the genes present are in essence genes which could be there “naturally” – I think the confusion here is that Monsanto (and Pioneer, and BASF, and Syngenta) transgenic hybrids generally could never occur in nature (or at least the chance against them occuring naturally are orders of magnitude higher than the occurence of hybrids) but only because of their transgenic nature – the two aren’t linked, Monsanto sells transgenic, and non-transgenic hybrids.
There is support from independant research, it’s convenient to ignore that this research exists when arguing against transgenic crops, but convenience != truth
Nobody is selling terminator seeds. Holding a patent for something doesnt mean you’re selling it. Particularly not when you’ve made a promise not to utilize the technology. The norms of farming have changed over time – with the advent of hybrids seed saving has become less the norm and more an oddity – this is a trend you’ll often see when a manufacturing process becomes so highly specialized as to require experts to do it – breeders create new hybrids, farmers farm – breeders probably wouldn’t make the best farmers (they’re trained as breeders) farmers probably not the best breeders etc – that’s how any discipline advances, higher specialization leading to a better end product.
Where exactly has this happened? You can enjoy organic foods just fine by buying foods labelled organic (likewise non-GMO) – on top of that so many foods haven’t even been genetically modified yet, so there is an abundance of available food which doesn’t even have a chance of “contamination”
Choose organic then – as organic doesnt allow the cultivation of GMOs the organic label is the non-GMO label – there’s already a wealth of information about why mandatory labelling of foods which may contain GMOs isn’t a good idea onbiofortified, so I’ll let you peruse that.
I assume the “recent study” is the science by press release that comes out of russia? Suffice to say it appears to be utter nonsense – much as every “study” that the anti-GMO crowd throws out there – somewhat amusing that Monsanto’s ethics can be brought up repeatedly (and predominantly spin around stuff that happened 3+ decades ago) yet the anti-GMO sides ethics are clearly completely in the toilet with made up facts, science by press release, and bald faced lies being the main weapon in their arsenal.
Documented where? All I see is an accusation of what was seen as bribery by one of the scientists, in the form of a $1M research grant to the lab, something denied by Monsanto – no proof that anything along those lines ever happened, given Monsanto’s recent history of reporting on itself for bribery (Indonesia – an actually documented case of Monsanto bribery) no reason to buy into this accusation until more proof is offered
If by contaminating their non-gmo crops you mean that the farmers in question purposefully selected for the GMO variety, kept the seeds seperated from conventional, and then planted them over 1000 acres of land – in cases of accidental presence (when it is discovered) Monsanto will come in and remove the GMO presence at their own expense (as occured with neighbors of the poster child of the anti-GMO movement)
patenting a method for the breeding of pigs using molecular markers using a specific genetic marker, bad bad people making pig breeding more precise and easy.
Everyone cares about what they eat. Monsanto have made major changes in how they operate (they’re now an ag company, they were a major manufacturer of just about everything – perhaps you grew up in a house using evil Monsanto carpets, or killed a headache with evil Monsanto asprin). It’d be nice however if you’d give the technology any consideration at all, like by doing some actual reliable research so that you’re not spouting nonsense about lack of safety studies, non-existant or patently bad studies showing evidence of harm, the use of terminator seeds, accusations of sueing farmers without any clue of the actual facts behind the case. Etc Etc.
You nailed this right on the head when you said, “Monsanto’s focus, in terms of PR, is always going to be farmers first, end point consumers last.”
That observation completely occludes the argument that Monsanto is trying to achieve ‘control of the world’s food supply’, etc. and so forth.
Oddly, sellers of seed have *always* marketed to the farmers first. That could be a mercantile practice as old as 5,000 years, or more, depending on the archaeologists you prefer.
Monsanto is so stuck on the notion that its stuff is “modern” that it’s entirely forgotten that its hereditary roots are struck so deeply in antiquity that their origins can’t be found.
Of course, the antis relentlessly exploit this failure in Monsanto’s public discourse. The shabby thing is that Monsanto has ‘bought into’ the very element of novelty that the antis mercilessly capitalize upon, and cannot let go of it.
Monsanto needs to learn that farmers are not sold on the notion of “new”. They are only sold on the notion of “better than last year”, a notion which obviously predates recorded history. Meanwhile, eco-whackos exploit the notion of novelty to drive revenues and political influence.
Monsanto desperately needs to fix its public narrative — for its shareholders, for the future of agro biotechnology, and for those who hunger because their crops don’t sustain them.
Seems like they’re trying to change the public narrative: http://www.monsanto.com/monsanto_today/2010/sustainable_agriculture_anniversary.asp
Dunno, some farmers are sold on the notion of “new” as far as I see it – RR, rather than being simply “better than last year” was “utterly game changing”(yay corporate speak!), likewise Bt – some of the future traits coming to market in terms of yield and stress type genes maybe fall into the “better than last year” (or if the % changes involved are where they should be for commercial success “better than the next few years”) – farmers who come visit us on campus aren’t just excited about next years hybrids, they’re excited about genes slated to come out in 2-10 years time (drought resistance, intrinsic yield, improved nitrogen use efficiency)
And I’m not utterly convinced that the public narrative has to change too drastically, I don’t see the battle as being one that is being lost, as I stated previously the Regulatory agencies that run the show for the most part do so on a scientific basis (India recently notwithstanding) and in my experience public acceptance of GMOs is increasing rather than decreasing (although this could just reflect that people I talk with don’t want to get me started)
From your link, all I can see is Monsanto apologism. Yep: “Monsanto has insisted its efforts alone cannot meet agricultural challenges.”
Any agronomist knows that improved germplasm isn’t the magic key. So is this a new message? No. What’s worse, it’s placative and whiny. And disingenuous in about five dimensions.
Monsanto’s ‘public outreach’ program is busted and broken, from the inside out. Sort of like the Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI), a woefully misguided waste of money and resources. http://www.whybiotech.com/
CBI is a cancerous (self-defeating) outgrowth resulting from the failure of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) to represent agro biotech. BIO would rather represent pharmaceuticals, and considers agriculture to be a rather embarrassing side-show. But CBI (also a term for Confidential Business Information) is, if anything, worse than BIO in constructing a reasonable message.
The lowliest intern with Greenpeace could craft the agro biotech essential message in a short afternoon.
Hi, Karl, I appreciate your congenial tone. I’m trying to figure out where the disconnect is between the two sides on this issue and we won’t get anywhere if we just resort to name calling for those who don’t agree with us.
“Helene, thanks for commenting. There is a huge difference between the actions of one company and a technology that that company uses. I find it interesting that you are ok with “terminator” seeds for the reason that it would prevent cross-pollination, so what do you think about the anti-GE people that actively campaign against the use of that technology?”
Ideally there would be a difference between a company and its technology but if you can’t trust the company’s motives how do you trust its studies saying that it’s technology is safe? I don’t know that I’m OK with terminator technology. I don’t much care for the idea of it though.
“So despite Monsanto’s reputation, do you think the harm that would be caused by preventing the seed donation from getting into the hands of Haitian farmers? Don’t you think that it is wrong to use the reputation of Monsanto to keep those farmers from having the choice to accept those seeds?“
I think it’s wrong to prevent anyone from having a choice but it should be an informed choice and to me, Monsanto is anything but transparent. It’s motivations and method of operations are definitely information that people should know about. And if you want to talk about the freedom to choose, that’s one of the major issues with Monsanto.
They are not giving me the choice not to consume gmo-products. Their lobbying efforts against labeling make it so that the only way I can not consume gmo-products is to eat organic only, which is expensive and not feasible for everyone. If you’re concerned about the Haitian farmers’ choice to use these seeds or now, you should also be concerned about the North American (+ other) populations’ choice to consume these products.
“You eat plants that do not occur in nature all the time. Corn itself is not ‘natural,’ and ever had a seedless watermelon?”
(I have but i seem to be one of the few who prefers the seeds in the watermelons). I realize I wasn’t very specific here, but I’m not so much referring to cross pollination of genes between different plants but more of crossing genetic traits from one species to another. Something that requires major manipulation.
This technology is still too new to have any information about its long term safety and until we know for sure I’m not willing to risk it. The majority of those who oppose Monsanto and its technology are not against any “technological advances” just those that haven’t been proven safe, that can’t be contained and that are being imposed on them with no choice to opt out.
Here’s a quote from nuclear physicist John Hagelin: “One of the key revelations of modern physics is that phenomena unfold in a far less linear and predictable fashion than eighteenth and nineteenth century thinkers assumed. Today we know that there are inherent limitations on our ability to make precise predictions about the behavior of a system, especially for microscopic systems and nonlinear systems of great complexity. Numerous eminent molecular biologists recognize that DNA is a complex nonlinear system and that splicing foreign genes into the DNA of a food-yielding organism can cause unpredictable side effects that could harm the health of the human consumer. ”
Do you disagree with this statement? And given this, is it not reasonable to want proof of long term safety before jumping on board?
Why is it that you are so ready to believe the studies from Monsanto but not from those whose findings are contrary to Monsanto’s?
– as I mentioned earlier my uneasiness with this technology is not so much with crossing genetic traits from one plant to another but with crossing genetic traits from one species to another and the unexpected effects this can have like the creation of new unheard of proteins. I included a quote in my response to Karl from a nuclear scientist that is quite reasoned, here it is again: “One of the key revelations of modern physics is that phenomena unfold in a far less linear and predictable fashion than eighteenth and nineteenth century thinkers assumed. Today we know that there are inherent limitations on our ability to make precise predictions about the behavior of a system, especially for microscopic systems and nonlinear systems of great complexity. Numerous eminent molecular biologists recognize that DNA is a complex nonlinear system and that splicing foreign genes into the DNA of a food-yielding organism can cause unpredictable side effects that could harm the health of the human consumer.”
-Do you disagree with any of this statement? if so what and why? Because this statement alone is enough to warrant further studies into the long term effects of GMOs before forcing them on a population.
– this technology has not been in existence long enough for results on the long term effects of this technology. What independent research are you referring to that supports the long term safety of GMOs? What makes you disbelieve the results from the independent and government scientists that have found possible concerns with this technology?
-My understanding is that they are in fact selling their seeds and that farmers have to buy them every year. Would calling it a yearly licensing fee be better? This is still an expense the farmer has to take on year after year. The idea that saving seed has become more of an oddity is a scary one. It means control of the seeds/ food supply is being concentrated in the hands of very few large corporations. “Food” shouldn’t be that complicated as to require “experts”.
-Yes organic foods are the only way we have to avoid GMOs but they are expensive and therefore not feasible for everyone. They are also not always readily available. Not much of a choice. There is also the possibility of organic crops being contaminated with GMOs. GMO corn, soy and canola has invaded much of the processed foods. Labeling would allow people to make a clear choice about whether or not they want to be a part of this experiment. But yet Monsanto wants milk producers banned from labeling that their milk is rBHG free…..
-As I said organics are not always available and expensive. Not much of a choice, certainly for the majority who live on moderate incomes. I checked the site for information about the issues for labeling and didn’t come up with much and don’t really have the time to do a lot of digging right now but they do the labeling in Europe so no reason they can’t do it elsewhere.
-On what basis do you dismiss the studies done that disprove or at least question the safety of GMOs? How credible is it to just dismiss outright all these studies? Are the scientists not credible? Who do you think has more at stake, the multinational corp with billions at stake or the independent scientist that is looking for the truth? What bald face lies are you referring to?
-I’m really having a hard time understanding how, given all the financial scandals of the past decade, people are so ready to believe that big corps would never lie, cheat or steal for profit and power?
-The Fifth Estate is the report I was referring to. Here’s a quote on a report about this incident with Health Canada “Margaret Hayden was one of the scientists who were at a meeting with Monsanto officials when they offered Health Canada one to two million dollars to approve BGH without any further studies. Fifth Estate, Canada AM, and several other TV stations have confirmed this by talking to other people present at the meeting. “ So it’s not just one “rogue” scientist making this claim. By the way have you seen the study on which this rBGH was approved in the US? Do you really think a 90 day study on rats is sufficient? Re Indonesia – $1.5 million is small change to Monsanto and BTW admitting to bribery in a 3rd world country (where this is often common business practice) by a consultant is completely different to bribing a government scientist in a G8 country.
-no I’m referring to farmers like Percy Schmeiser in Alberta who was growing non-gmo canola on his land but Monsanto’s gmo canola contaminated his crop and he was sued for patent infringement.
-Bad is for sure! This gene already exists in pigs that have been around longer than Monsanto’s “breeding” method and if this patent is approved, it will be up to these farmers to prove that they did not use Monsanto’s “patented breeding method” which is impossible and therefore they are subject to being sued by Monsanto.
-I think you’re wrong there – we are after all fast food nations so no, the majority of people at this time at least, aren’t too concerned about the food they eat. Hopefully that is changing though.
-Do you believe that everyone who opposes this technology opposes all technological advances in general? That we want to return to the “good old” days where everyone lived on a farm, milked their own cows, picked their fresh eggs everyday, tilled the soil by hand??? Because that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Condescension is not very helpful here. Like it or not there are many of us out here who don’t agree with your position and if you’d like to dismiss our opinion as worthless, well not much I can do about it but it’s not going to get you very far. I’m not a scientist nor do I have the time or the desire to study to become an expert in transgenics. I do however have a right to an opinion on the matter and I’ve found far too much information/evidence making me question Monsanto’s motives and method of operation to not make me questions the validity of their studies.
So if you want to convince me/us that your position is the right one, you’re going to have to do more than say that studies supporting your opinion are valid and studies supporting my opinion are not.
So how do you suggest CBI improve its message? What exactly makes its current efforts so woefully misguided?
Thanks for joining the conversation.
The topic has strayed very far from the question in this post: Should Hatian farmers have the choice to use hybrid or improved seed if they want to?
But there are many things to discuss besides the situation in Haiti.
You’ve brought up many topics, perhaps too many to address in the comments of one post.
Regarding labeling, I hope you’ll take a look at
The Right to Know: Why GMO Labeling Law Isn’t So Black and White
What’s in a label?
Which address different issues regarding mandatory vs voluntary labeling.
Regarding Monsanto / multinational corporations / capitalism in agriculture / patents on genes / etc, please remember that genetic engineering is a technology, not a political or economic ideology, not a single corporation. I hope that we can talk about the technology separate from those other factors, although it often seems that isn’t possible for many people. For example, the Chinese government is investing heavily in research of genetically engineered crops. Obviously the Chinese government is not Monsanto, is not a corporation, is not capitalistic. The system is not the technology. The technology exists within and outside of the system, the technology is not the system. And, in some cases, what we think is happening in the system can be a result of exaggeration or confusion. For example, you may want to learn a little more about Percy Schmeiser before using him as an example of how bad the system is – check out Bioethics in Brief for an unbiased review of that situation. Frankly, I’m tired of talking about Monsanto. The technology is not Monsanto.
Regarding the technology itself, it does often come down to reviewing the literature. We use many studies to help us develop theories. If we look just at independent research (research that was not funded by or conducted by Monsanto, to be specific), the overwhelming majority of studies found there to be no safety concerns with the particular genetically engineered crop they were studying. You can find a list of 126 independent studies on the Safety Testing – Independent Funding page (it’s not all inclusive, we’re still working on it). The few studies that I have heard of that have found problems have, simply, been problematic. They haven’t been accepted as sound research by the community of scientists. We can discuss specific papers if you would like – perhaps the Biofortified forum would be a good place to have separate conversations for each paper. We can go through every one. I for one would be very interested to learn about some credible safety studies that found problems with a product of genetic engineering, but I don’t know if there are any out there. Even the Union of Concerned Scientists, which is presumably made up of scientists, hasn’t presented any reports questioning the safety of genetic engineering, hasn’t presented any research to say there’s a safety concern with the technology. They have reports about hazards of pharma crops, but I think most of us here would agree that pharma crops in general are a bad idea except in certain situations, so that’s just a diversion from the main topic.
Finally, a study done on a single crop/gene doesn’t translate to every crop/gene. So if you read a HuffPo article about an unpublished study about hamsters growing hair in their mouths because of all the GMO soy in their food, the research at most is about that particular gene in soy, not about all GMOs. Similarly, if a safety study is done on virus resistant papaya showing the fruit to be safe for rats to eat, the results don’t translate to every crop/gene – heck the results barely translate beyond the specific parameters of that study. We rarely get to generalize in science.
Anyways, I’m off to do science. I hope you stick around Biofortified and join in conversations besides this post. There’s a lot to talk about and I’d like the conversations to be more than a few plant geneticists agreeing with each other. It’s up to you to challenge us to think harder about what we’re doing and the greater consequences of our work. And it’s up to us to help you understand the science. I think both of those things are important and we’re much better off with both than one or the other.
CBI’s approach is a sort of blissful, shallow advertising cant that reads about as well as announcing a new breakfast cereal. There’s no real engagement. I can’t remember the last time CBI made news headlines. In fact, I don’t think it’s *ever* made headlines. It typifies the industry approach of playing defense, hunkering down for an apparently endless siege, being all smiley faces. Having the science on your side doesn’t amount to much when everyone else is playing politics as dirty as it gets.
Do you have any evidence that this happens, or that if it did happen it wouldn’t be caught in the development or regulatory phase?
It isn’t overly plausible to me that sticking a specific sequence into another species is likely to create completely new and unheard of proteins – I’d like to know how you, or anyone, think this is likely to happen. The genetic code is universal(with minor exceptions). The code for protein A in a bacterium will spit out the same protein when stuck into any other species on the planet. The only altertions I can see happening are potential errors in copying during the cloning and transformation process (which if switching one residue for another will essentially result in the same protein, or if causing a frameshift will result in a protein so different as to never make it through the development process)
I’d hope that any molecular biologist in their 2nd year of their bachelors degree would recognize DNA to be a complex non-linear system, and see that there are risks associated with genetic engineering. This isnt news. To anyone. It’d be worth harping on about if there weren’t regulatory agencies in place – risk assessment exists across the globe, and for any commercially viable transgenic crop not only do you have to pass the easiest regulatory body, you also have to pass the toughest – because if you fail to get approval in a single big market farmers will likely not buy your seed – at present I believe Japan is seen, at least by industry, as the toughest nut to crack.
There are however side-effects which could occur, and side effects which largely appear to be science fiction (and bad science fiction at that) – the demand for super long scale testing, to me, appears to jsut be an attempt to scupper the entire process – if 2 year rat studies don’t find anything the chance is that there is nothing to be found.
How long term do you require to be studied exactly? GMOs have been widely eaten globally for over a decade now, are you seriously proposing that miniscule risks, which are invisible over 2 years in rat studies, and invisible over 10 years in the human population, warrant studies longer than this?
Which independant and government scientists have concerns with the technology, what are the concerns, and have they already been addressed? It’s possible to have concerns with a technology and not ban it – these concerns just need to be addressed during development, and by regulatory agencies – which, as far as I can tell, they are.
If utilizing GMOs (commercial ones at least, public owned GMOs are slated to operate completely differently) then yes, a farmer is required by law to purchase seed every year (for GMOs under patent – RR1 goes off patent in the next 2 years which will be the first commercial GM trait to do so, first that farmers can save if they wish). Calling it a yearly licensing fee might be better, although it still isn’t quite accurate – that would suggest you can save seed so long as you pay a fee – it’d be better to just flat out state that utilizign the technology you currently have to purchase new seed every year (to remain legal) – this would be accurate (afaik… hopefully someone will correct me if this isn’t right) – saying there are terminator seeds out there is just plain misinformation.
Now it may be true that this is an expense the farmer has to take on every year, but is this necessarily a bad thing? Lets assume for the sake of arguement that utilizing GMOs increases a farmers profit by 10% at the end of the year, it is arguable that so long as the cost of seed is less than 10% of profit it is beneficial for the farmer to repurchase rather than save and replant – notwithstanding the fact that hybrids, if you’re a seed saver, are going to require a bunch of extra work to maintain (at least)2 inbred lines to produce enough seed to plant your whole farm with (taking not only time but space – with the added uncertainty of the effect of weather on your seed producing plots) – due to their dip in performance if selfed.
I also don’t see why food shouldn’t be so complicated as to require experts. It always has. I can categorically state that there is no way that I could produce food as well as a farmer, most likely not even as well as a bronze age farmer given the same tools, so the utilization of expertize in the food supply is something which predates the industrial revolution by millenia – as time progresses expertise becomes more refined and more experts are added to the mix. Right now, if you wanted to remove the expertise utilized in farming and take it all down to the bare bones, simply starting and ending with the farmer, you’d precipitate a food crisis so vast as to endanger the population of the world.
I don’t know that they’re the only way – eat stuff not made of corn, soy or canola, a non organic apple is just as non-GMO as an organic apple, non-organic wheat flour is just as non-GMO as organic wheat flour – although one would assume that if you’re concerned about the nebulous risk of GMOs completely contrary to the scientific evidence then you’d be loathe to ever eat anything purchased due to the likely use of pesticides on that product anyway (where there are real measurable effects of certain levels of pesticides in biologically relevant settings)
You currently have zero choice in many aspects of how your food is produced, choice is given where there may be actaul safety risks rather than just imagined safety risks. You have no choice of the soil type your food was grown in, no choice of the nationality of the workers who picked or processed it, no choice of how close to a highway it was grown, no choice of the herbicides, insecticides or fungicides used in its productions, no choice of the wage which the pickers of your food were paid – each of these to me (other than the nationality one) has bigger potential implications in terms of ethics or safety than GMOs – none of these are labelled, and none of them should be labelled imo. That’s why labelling is opposed, by labelling you’re essentially implying a risk which is not there. As a side note on this I’m as opposed to the recent move to mark country of origin as I am opposed to markign GMOs – if there is a legitamate safety concern around produce from a given country that food should be removed from circulation rather than leaving it up to consumer choice, although my presumption is the whole move was an attempt to make people buy American.
On the basis that I’ve either read them, or looked into them, or read the opinion of others more qualified to comment on them, and they are generally nonsensical once analyzed to any sort of degree – we’d have to get into individual safety studies to do a point by point analysis which would turn this into a million words rather than just a few thousand… bald faced lies include – alterations in fertility of lab rats over multiple generations being linked to GMOs (as Mary M pointed out – food fed to lab animals will have contained GMO ingredients for over a decade now – if there were alterations in fertility across generations animal handlers in labs would have been the first to notice something fishy going on, and would have figured it out), linkages to cancer (seralini et al) from a study which when looked at in any depth shows that while a handful of statistically significant differences were seen these differences were not biologically significant and were not significantly different from the response to other lines of non-transgenic corn. Bald faced lies like – cows eating GM cotton died with a 25% kill rate, like GM cotton causing a wave of farmer suicides in India
So the accusation has been documented, not proof of the accusation – Trial by television is hardly concrete evidence, if that were the case then Barack Obama is a non-US citizen who worships Allah, a staunch national socialist, as well as a communist(and probably an atheist too!).
Oddly enough that is exactly who I was talking about. I had a feeling from the offset he was your example. Dig deeper.
Erm, no. It’d be bery easy to prove you weren’t using a particular molecular marker as a breeding tool – pig breeders keep records, once you peruse the records and interview a few key folk it’d be spectacularly obvious to see if breeding was done on the basis of the particular marker, or on some other basis.
Not only that but Monsanto doesn’t even own the patent anymore – it was sold, some years ago if I recall, so nobody is subject to being sued by Monsanto for patent violation in this particular case.
Indeed you have a right to an opinion, and indeed you should question Motives and methods of operation – and the validity of studies. But in doing so you should at least make an effort to read the studies, or read the opinion of scientists across the board on the validity of various studies. Again, we’d have to look at specific studies to figure out exactly which ones support your opinion here, and which support mine, and weigh their relative benefits – the fact remains that the consensus viewpoint from perusal of the scientific literature is that current GMOs are safe, there is no reason to believe the techniques used are a danger, but that each new trait needs to be evaluated on a case by case basis in terms of safety – it’s not about picking the one or two studies that support your view, it’s about looking at all the studies and seeing where they point. Sadly this may actually require doing a little more in terms of teaching yourself a bit of science, because the scientific literature is by and large relatively impenetrable to the layperson, and the stories that get out into the media are the sensational ones, not those in which a 2 year 200 rat study showed no health impact of consuming a particular GM variety.
Eric (in response to the comment below, not above) – don’t you think it is somewhat the case that to make headlines your news essentially has to be sensational and preferably negative, particularly regarding GMOS – I just don’t see “GMOs safe!” ever being a headline for any major news organization – it’s not sensational, it’s rather boring – studies finding no difference, while important, don’t create waves – at best you’ll get to a Scientific American or New Scientist penetration of the media – ie out of specialist journals but not anywhere near the mainstream. Whereas a crackpot in russia can claim GMOs make hair grow in the cheeks of hamsters and it is all over the internet in a matter of days.
How to make headlines is a tough question – short of buying front page space (which would create a bigger story in and of itself) I don’t see precisely what can be done.
Sorry! Critical mention of Monsanto generally induces verbal diarrhea to me – at least the post is actually about Monsanto (albeit somewhat tangentially as they’re not the only ones donating hybrids) although bugger all to do with transgenics (a safety arguement on hybrids would be harder though shurely.. as there isn’t the same weight of evidence….)
Sorry for straying O/T when the question is whether to allow Haitian farmers the right to choose their seed. Of course they should have the right. They’ve had that right for about 5,000 years, more or less, and those who suggest otherwise need to make a strong case.
Of course, that “strong case” is precisely what pulls discussions like this off-topic. Opponents of agro biotechnology have consistently followed the advice of Theodore Kaczynski, a.k.a. The Unabomber. 
“It is absolutely essential to attack the system not in terms of its own technologically-oriented values,”, Kaczynski says, “but in terms of values that are inconsistent with the values of the system.”
That is to say, Kaczynski recommends attacking technology by *changing the topic*, and he believes biotechnology may be the best target for political attack.
He points out how staying on topic is the wrong approach: “For example, if you attack biotechnology, primarily on the basis that it may damage the environment, or that genetically-modified foods may be harmful to health, then the system can and will cushion your attack by giving ground or compromising – for instance, by introducing increased supervision of genetic research and more rigorous testing and regulation of genetically-modified crops. People’s anxiety will then subside and protest with wither.”
Saying “all biotechnology must be attacked as a matter of principle”, he recommends this approach: “So, instead of protesting one or another negative consequence of biotechnology, you have to attack all modern biotechnology … on grounds such as (a) that it is an insult to all living things; (b) that it puts too much power in the hands of the system; (c) that it will radically transform fundamental human values that have existed for thousands of years; and similar grounds that are inconsistent with the values of the system.”
I personally doubt that many off-topic attacks on agro biotechnology are conscious attempts to take The Unabomber to heart. Even so, it’s startling to see so many opponents of biotechnology taking precisely the approach he recommends.
1. “Hit Where It Hurts”, Ted Kaczynski, Green Anarchy #8, Spring 2002, http://www.insurgentdesire.org.uk/hti.htm
You are of course correct in observing that “GMOs safe!” is unlikely ever to be a headline. Which is precisely why CBI has no functional message. How about, “Scientists Furious, Accuse Greenpeace of Fraud.” Or, “Organic Slush Fund Exposed: Activist Groups Paid to Promote Crude Farming Methods”.
All the CBI would have to do is take notice of the wisdom of The Unabomber (see above) and note that the opponents are speaking off-topic. And, in many instances, captive to vested financial and political interests.
Woah. I had no idea.
I don’t think most opponents of biotech have read Kaczynski’s writings, but the similarities are staggering.
It’s antithetical to everything most scientists stand for to even think about misdirecting discussion of a scientific issue towards emotive claims. I mean, it’s one thing to consider consumer opinion when developing a new crop line, but this – I don’t think I could do it.
The CBI has no laboratories, and engineers no crops. Its remit (well, what *should* be its remit) is to engage with with popular conceptions of engineered crops. That job can only be done by engaging those conceptions on the level at which they occur — which includes claims ranging from emotive, to fraudulent, and beyond. Anything less than that is a waste of time and money.
Conscientious scientists are best left to pursue their work without having to practice political science as well. The latter is something best delegated to those who actually work in the field of political science. You will have noticed that I don’t see the CBI doing that job.
So it may be that scientists in your field must personally step a bit outside of their professional calling to engage with non-scientific claims, emotive and otherwise — as no one else shows any real competence in doing it.
I would add that this blog is a step in precisely the right direction.
IMO even the CBI etc should stick to a more ethical approach to the topic – if stories start being made up, then proven to be falsehoods or exaggerations, this simply adds more ammunition to the anti-GM camp – it’s a completely unbalanced debate, one side is relatively free to make up whatever hokum it wants, the other side will be crucified for exactly the same thing.
So it will always be when those standing for the truth go up against an opposing idealism – if you’re truly motivated by being truthful you undermine your entire cause by lying about it, if you’re motivated by ideology – well, the truth doesnt enter into the equation, so it’s sort of hard to lie.
Headlines like “Scientists Furious, Accuse Greenpeace of Fraud” and “Organic Slush Fund Exposed: Activist Groups Paid to Promote Crude Farming Methods” would not be made-up stories. These claims are easily provable, no prevarication required.
Mainstream media is not bold enough to carry such stories, but the CBI, with its main outlet on the ‘net (being unable to attract the attention of mainstream media), could easily project this information.
When I say “information”, I mean that in the most literal sense of the word. It is actually true that scientists are furious, and that Greenpeace commits ritual fraud. It is actually true that there is a ‘slush fund’ between anti-GMO activists and organic enthusiasts. They actually boast of the financial connection. Repeatedly.
The CBI could expose all this information to the light of day, and do not.
Zero “hokum” required.
Your notion that “CBI etc should stick to a more ethical approach” is in this context absolute hokum. If the CBI were ethical, it would represent agro biotech with a fervor equal to its opponents. It does not.
There are times when I suspect that agro biotech engages in helpless and hopeless PR efforts in an effort to look helpless and hopeless — to make a bid for victim status.
Mainstream media aren’t buying it, so it’s time to abandon a model of ‘outreach effort’ that doesn’t work, and hasn’t, for about 14 years.
I guess it would have helped had I read the proposed headlines rather than guessing at what you said despite having it in front of me (or at least 2 posts away…)!
Perhaps there is a tad too much focus on the defensive and less on the offence – although I have a feeling that attacking greenpeace directly rather than indirectly is likely to draw more fire than admiration.
The state of agro biotechnology is such that nobody can say or do anything in the field without upsetting someone. In such an environment, the best possible outcome is to upset the evildoers, which would of course include Greenpeace.
Drawing the scorn of liars and scoundrels is not a terrible fate. By some measures, it may even be a sign of courage.
Ewan wrote “Monsanto’s focus, in terms of PR, is always going to be farmers first, end point consumers last.”
That is a big error, and it is not just Monsanto’s. Farmers do not need a lot of PR: the quality of the products on offer speaks for itself (this goes both ways). On the other hand, consumers must be offered factual information on the benefits the innovative products bring to them. This is particularly important for the current generation of GMOs, the benefit of which is not at all obvious to the layman.
Industry must realise that consumers are citizens, that they vote, that every vote counts, etc.
Communication must also be much more sophisticated. I went back to the original subject of this string, Haiti, and Monsanto’s latest piece. This is, supposedly, “Our statement on the protests in Haiti”. I think it was more on a minute part of the campaign orchestrated on the web and in the news. I for one would have preferred photos of the seed being distributed in Haiti, or perhaps the first fields and gardens; something about the demonstration, rather than seed in a Seminis store; a rebuttal of the allegations made by the demonstration leaders; a reference to Malawi that is not just Monsanto’s; etc.
And see the reply to Kat:
“Also, will they be allowed to use the future seed the crops produce, or will they be forced to repurchase from you in later growing seasons?
Editor’s Note: Kat – This is a donation. That means farmers have no obligation to Monsanto. Yes, they can save the seeds, they will not be required to repurchase from Monsanto.”
Three sentences jotted down in a hurry; a nice primer for a new polemic.
You are seriously off-track when you say Monsanto should advertise to consumers, and that “[t]his is particularly important for the current generation of GMOs, the benefit of which is not at all obvious to the layman.”
In 5,000 years of farming progress, what improvements in agricultural productivity were advertised to consumers? The only thing obvious to the layman is price/quantity.
This bit makes no sense: “Industry must realise that consumers are citizens, that they vote, that every vote counts, etc.”
Anyone who’s voted in a popular election knows that nominations for positions with Monsanto are not on the ballot. Same with nominations for who should run your local grocery store.
Given this disconnect with reality, it is difficult to see what your actual point is.
Why is DONATED seed being SOLD to farmers who don’t have one gourde? I am still trying to understand how donations always end up being sold in this country. I am not quite clear yet on the use of the seeds, whether they are good or bad, but I’m working on that. DONATED SEED BEING SOLD TO POOR PEOPLE? DON’T NEED TO WORK ON THAT. If the seeds ARE accepted, give them the DAMN things this year and let them get on their feet. Next year, let them buy them. Simple, yes?
Well no, Marie, it’s not that simple. If you flood the market with free seeds, then while the donation is going on, it will drive local seed dealers out of business. It’s one of the harsh realizations of foreign aid – that sometimes when you try to help it can also hurt. We see this all the time with subsidies – lowering food prices helps poor people in developing countries buy food, but it also makes it hard for farmers in those countries to sell their food. I believe these seeds are being sold very cheap to strike a balance between helping the farmers and keeping from hurting the seed dealers.
Thanks Karl, got it. But who are these farm associations who will be selling the seeds. I don’t want to see people making money on these things and the poor people end up in a hole as always. Again, who are the seed dealers in the country? What can really be done to help people pull themselves up by their bootstraps when they have no boots?
Hello Marie, thanks for stopping by. The questions you’re asking are important.
That the seed dealers are actually farmer associations, which are being set-up with help from the US-led WINNER program. The small amount of revenue these associations receive from the seed will be used to reinvest in seed and fertilizer for the next year. As far as I know, the associations are free to supply the stores from any sources they wish, so they might choose to support local businesses, which would help boost the local economy even more. The way this donation is being distributed, it will go much further than a one time seed donation would.
Monsanto and the US government will receive 0% of the sales – it all goes back to Haitian farmers.
Details on the USAID WINNER program can be found at
Unfortunately, there’s not enough detail to answer the very excellent questions about the program which are being posed in this discussion.
The US State Dept. has its own site on Haiti at
http://www.state.gov/p/wha/ci/ha/ and has even less information.
The WINNER program has its own site, at http://www.winner.ht/
It seems that neither the US government, nor Monsanto, understands that misinformation thrives in a vacuum.
I am sooo frustrated by the lack of info on the WINNER program. My biggest question is: what are they doing for breeding? Are they training any Haitian farmers how to breed locally adapted crops (preferably using a combination of local germplam and the elite Monsanto germplasm)? Because that’s what will help the most in the long term. Of course, I might be biased on that 😉
A scant few additional details of the WINNER program can be gleaned from Monsanto itself, at
Aside from the immediate details, we are also looking at an experiment involving ‘how to deliver aid the right way’. If what’s being done for Haiti actually works, it would be a model for providing aid elsewhere.
Thus, one would hope that the WINNER project is gathering data in the course of its efforts.
There are indications that Monsanto’s approach to aid is productive and effective:
So, efforts to provide relief in Haiti deserve to be studied, and the approach validated, or not.
We can rest assured that, if Monsanto’s efforts indicate progress in the interim, the antis will claim Monsanto is “taking over” Haiti’s rural economy. Monsanto will have to deal with that in an intelligent way, and I predict that Monsanto will completely bungle the PR aftermath.
1. The first confusion between you and me, perhaps, is on the scope of my comment, which is not specifically directed to Monsanto, but the whole industry and other actors.
2. The second is about the meaning of PR, which I do not equate with advertising (the former includes the latter).
3. “In 5,000 years of farming progress…” people in Europe have struggled for 4,950 years to make both ends meet; people and government in the US have started to enjoy the benefit of comfortable agricultural production a few decades earlier, while billions still struggle today.
4. The upshot is that today’s layman in the affluent countries is sensitive to more than price and quantity (actually, he complains about quantity because, as the political message goes, they have their origin in subsidies from their taxpayers’ money; he also complains about overfeeding and obesity and puts the blame on the food chain rather than his lifestyle). Today’s layman is also bombarded day in day out by messages from a cohort of anti-capitalism/business, environment or nutrition fundamentalists, conspiracy addicts, or simply opportunists. Actually, the situation is so bad that the luddites also have their day in countries that are struggling (e.g. in India in the Bt brinjal case or East Africa and more recently again Zimbabwe with food aid… food aid for starving people, can you believe it? “Better dead than GM fed”?).
What’s on the other side? Not much. And what exists (Biofortified among others) is inaudible and invisible except to those who do not need to be preached.
5. “Misinformation thrives in a vacuum” (Eric Baumholder). The answer to this is simple: fill the vacuum. This is precisely my point.
Let’s be realistic here. You very rightly wrote that “the press … shamelessly parrots what the whackos have to say”. Would that still hold true – to the same extent – if the press contained advertisements (and were to some extent financed, let’s put it straight) from agricultural companies who “apply innovation and technology to” ensure consumers would continue to get what they need and want?
6. A further source of misunderstanding is the fact that we do not live on the same side of the Atlantic. Our experiences are different, although they may converge in future.
7. As regards the present, GMOs are well established in the USA and Bt and herbicide-tolerant cotton, maize and soybean won’t disappear from the countryside.
In Europe, we have some pockets of Bt maize production, and nothing else. Any attempt to move forward runs against against an irrational, but well organised opposition and is regularly defeated. We might have rejoiced at the recent approval of the Amflora potato, but the European Commission is now proposing to leave member States free to decide whether or not to grow GMOs approved at Union level.
So, what will be the scenario once this has gone through (actually, it has already been sort of implemented with the Amflora approval): as soon as a GMO is approved, the antis will be able to mount their campaigns “in a vacuum” and force the political authorities to impose a ban, or conditions (e.g. in terms of coexistence with non-GMO varieties) which will make it impossible to grow the GMO.
8. This brings us to my point on citizens and voting: the “green” lobby is pressuring candidates for election into commitments to implement its demands. The choice for candidates is to sacrifice their rational thinking or their chances in the election. Again, they can do that because public opinion is moulded by one kind of message.
9. As regards the future, I am keen to see what will happen in the US with the herbicide-tolerant alfalfa and, even more so, with GMO wheat. You may end up having the same kind of political landscape than we… it is time to fill the vacuum.
Eric – I’d be interested in your views on how not to “completely bungle the PR aftermath.”
It may be too late in the narrative for Monsanto to adjust its PR position for Haiti. Monsanto has bungled it for a dozen years, and that’s hard to undo.
Even so, it would be productive to point out that Haiti is getting what North Americans eat with gusto, and compare that to the mud pies (no kidding) which are a staple with impoverished Haitians. You can find Haitian mud-pie recipes (main ingredient: dirt) online quite easily.
The statements of actual farmers is completely missing from the dialog. “Actual farmers” is important. Activist groups are quite adept at claiming to “represent” farmers, and at putting forth spokespersons who claim to be farmers, but who are not. Or who are actual farmers willing to say what’s asked of them, on camera, for a few dollars.
Also, pictorials are important. Monsanto tends to rely on pictures that appeal to farmers, but it’s time to use pictures to which urbanites can relate. Pictures of what a poverty diet looks like — mud pies and the rest.
An exposure of the utter corruption within the NGO ‘protest industry’ which lies at the center of this current issue would of course be excellent. Monsanto has relied on the notion that ‘if you ignore them, they will go away’ for a dozen years, and it doesn’t work. A science-based organization should realize that doing the same thing for a dozen years and expecting different results is not the way to go.
“The reason: the high standard of living enjoyed by self-described earthquake victims. They get three square meals a day and free medical care. People are walking away from their jobs, in all sectors of the economy, to enjoy the refugee life-style.”
Hi Eric, could you provide evidence of the above? Thanks, C.
Because of the inherent reproductive qualities of plants,when planted the second generation seeds themselves will have a completely jumbled genepool (yes the same genes will be in there but the order and expression thereof will be completely random negating any propper use in the future) that said, if these seeds need the pesticide, does this not mean that in order for the people to store it next year with next years seeds (which will be of a lower quality cmon ppl hybridisation x2) they need the pesticide because this particular strain is so yummy to fungi? please elaborate the following: Will the next generation, begotten from these seeds, be firtile and useful? And will the next generation be open to more infection due to the absence of pesticide?
The whole question here is twofold: number one, the conservation of a native strain of grain (in my eyes needed to protect the global genepool in case the uberfungus or uberpest comes along, we need flexibility, maybe Haitian seeds have the one gene that could be useful)
number two: If they had the money to buy grain, pesticides, fertilizer etc. This would all be of no consequence. But I kind of take it that they don’t. Whats the use of having High calliber hybrid seeds when you dont have the gunpowder to fire it?!?
Txo, thanks for stopping by. I have a couple of clarifications to address your statements.
Hybrids don’t “need” pesticides. These seeds are locally adapted and conventionally bred. There’s no inherent need for any inputs with these or any other seeds. I discuss this in this post. The hybrids aren’t “particularly yummy for fungi”. The fungicide was applied as a normal precaution, for the reasons listed in this post. Most importantly, they were applied to prevent any potential fungus from being moved into Haiti.
The genes in the hybrids will be recombined in the F2 generation, but the genes will all still be there in the population. The resulting seed will not be uniform. Some seeds will yield well and some will not. Some will have great disease resistance, others will not. This is the exact same state that heirloom seed or creole seed has. They will be of lower quality than the initial hybrid seed but they won’t be any worse than the creole seed.
Conservation of the creole seed can happen at the same time as using hybrids. In the US there are all sorts of seed banks that exist specifically as a source for genes that are used for breeding, including breeding hybrids. One might even argue that conservation of biodiversity is essential for breeding efforts to succeed.
Your gunpowder analogy fails because the hybrids will preform well regardless of inputs. These hybrids were bred specifically for low input systems similar to those in Haiti.
Comments are closed.