hybrid vigor

More on Hybrid Hate

While the comments on Anastasia’s excellent post about the hybrid seed donation situation in Haiti continue to flow in, I thought I would make a few extra comments about the situation that I thought were interesting, and highlight some comments of others.

The first thing that occurs to me in this discussion about the hybrid seed is that there still is a lot of misinformation flying around about it. Beverly Bell, who ‘sounded the alarm’ about farmers supposedly planning to buy and then burn the donated hybrid seed, continues to make stuff up about the situation. While Monsanto never offered to donate GE seeds, Bell claims that the Haitian Agricultural Ministry rejected such an offer. Ronnie Cummins from the Organic Consumers Association assumes it to be true and expands upon the tall tale:

“Monsanto wanted initially to dump GMO seeds on Haiti, but even the corrupt Haitian government knew that this would spark a rebellion, so Monsanto cleverly decided to dump hybrid seeds instead.”

However according to Monsanto, they never offered GE seeds, ever.
Bell and Cummins both repeat the claim that hybrid seed cannot be saved, or is worthless to save. Also not true. The traits of saved hybrid seed will have a distribution of combinations of their parents’ traits, but will still grow. I would like you to watch this short video which contains an interview with an “Agronomist” named Mark who is taking part in apparent protests against Monsanto in Haiti.

I put “Agronomist” in scare quotes because they profess to having expertise in agronomy and yet they make false statements that a responsible agronomist would not make. Again, he repeats the claim that hybrid seeds cannot be saved, but he also continues to drum up opposition to the seed donation on the idea that they could be GMOs! (Even though the interviewer points out that they are not.)

There is also a very troubling thread of paternalism going on here. After the dire food needs of developing countries, the most troublesome issue as I see it is when people in industrialized nations decide to tell people who are worse off what they can or cannot do. It seems that everyone’s got a vision for the ideal agricultural situation in Haiti – some would like to see them produce enough food to feed the country with hybrid seed, others would like to see them stick to traditional (low-yielding) open-pollinated varieties. Few have mentioned the possibility that Haiti could develop its own local high-producing hybrids down the road. So is everyone just telling the Haitians what to do? No, there is an asymmetry.

The seeds are donated to the nation of Haiti, and will be distributed within the country at a low price to those that wish to buy and plant them. The seeds are not being given out for free, which keeps local seed producers from being driven out of business by having to compete against free seed. No one is forced to grow these seeds if they don’t want to (unless of course you agree that Haiti has a shortage of  seed). And farm inputs to help the seeds grow are also being donated.

The above protest was organized by Mouvman Peyizan Papay (MPP), the organization that Mark the “agronomist” works for. I find it troubling that someone who is conveying false information about hybrids is intimately connected with the initiation of this protest, which means that they could have misled all these protesters with the justification for the protest. (The protest was also apparently against the Haitian president, which is why I called it an ‘apparent protest against Monsanto.’) If they have led the farmers to believe that the seeds cannot be saved, then they have treated these people as mere means to some political or social end, which is wrong.

Indeed, what is the reason for the protest? Is it just to convey the message that ‘We think money would be more help to us than seed and we would like our government to understand that,’ that would be one thing. But I don’t think so. The purpose of this protest may be to stop the hybrid seed donation, which is where the paternalistic asymmetry comes in.

Monsanto is not limiting the choices available to the Haitian farmers by making this donation, however, several well-meaning people and organizations are trying to limit their ability to choose this seed. By continuing to falsely claim that the seeds are genetically engineered, or covering up the fact that the seeds can be saved but just do not breed true, they are also trying to mislead the farmers into rejecting the seed on prejudice.

Developing countries have many different kinds of food and farming systems, and they should be able to choose how they want to do it. I mentioned before that maybe there could be a local hybrid seed economy, with a few breeders specializing in hybrid versions of Haitian crops. (I’m sure that Monsanto would like to open up a Haitian breeding station and sales office  someday as well.) Part of the reaction to this seed donation is the fear of change – that small subsistence farmers in Haiti will be unable to adapt to a changing agricultural system and will be left behind to continue into poverty. At the same time, preventing them from having the option of moving beyond mere subsistence is also leaving them behind in a different way. Haiti imports at least 50 percent of its food, continually leaving them dependent upon foreign aid in both food and money (which the agronomist above preferred). Tariffs and subsidies play a role, but do does local production capacity.

In response to the dependence argument, Ewan commented,

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.

Along with the misinformation about hybrids, there has been an upwelling of opposition to the very idea of hybrids themselves. Ronnie Cummins doesn’t like them, people on blogs don’t like em, there are even companies trying to literally bank off of a recent opposition to hybrid seed. But what these people are missing is that although you have to pay someone to produce your hybrid seed (or take special measures to produce them yourselves), the yield or other trait benefits you get outweigh the cost of producing them. Otherwise farmers wouldn’t buy them.

Helene who recently stopped by Biofortified said:

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

In Givin’ props to Hybrids, blogger DeLene writes about a recent paper about hybridization and its demonization as being unnatural. While DeLene is talking about hybrids between species (and animals at that), these perceptions are connected. Hybrids happen in nature, more often than genetic ‘purists’ would like to think.

Finally, the shape of the discussion about the Haitian hybrid seed donation reveals what it is really about. First, when the claim was flying around that the seeds were genetically engineered, that was the reason why the seed donation was bad. Then when that wasn’t even true it was because the seeds are hybrids and that is why they are bad. Now, the discussion is shifting away from hybrids to how the seeds have been treated with common “toxic” fungicides to prevent them from rotting in the soil. The real reason, which will come as no surprise to those who read this blog regularly has little to do with any of those reasons – it is mostly because the donating organization is Monsanto. Look at all the people cheering the symbolic destruction of these seeds on the Non-GMO Project facebook page. You’d think that they would be happy that the seeds aren’t genetically engineered. Nope – it’s entirely about Monsanto.

I for one, think that the seeds should be treated with fungicide. Besides my personal experience with the difficulty of getting non-treated seeds to germinate well in my lab’s nursery field each year, there is a real biosafety reason why seeds donated to Haiti must be treated for fungi: To protect the farms of Haiti from contamination with new strains of crop-eating fungal pathogens that are not native to the island. If any organization is sending seeds grown from crops elsewhere in the world and they are not treating the seeds to kill hitchhiking bugs, they are putting Haitian agriculture at risk. Whenever my lab sends seeds to be grown in our Winter Nursery in Puerto Rico or Mexico, we have to not only treat the seeds, but also include one seed from each packet in a big batch to test for pathogens before importation.

Imagine an alternate situation where Monsanto did not treat the seeds with fungicide – I could easily imagine the opposition claiming that Monsanto is trying to infect Haiti with exotic fungi so that they will become dependent upon them in some other fashion. Does Monsanto have to anticipate every bio-political move and misunderstanding before making a humanitarian gesture? Damned if you do…

I would like to end on one important point. Some people are saying that Monsanto is only doing this for PR purposes. You’ll have to ask them about that because I’m not privy to any motivations other than what they have already said publicly. They sound like they are genuinely trying to help, although people suspect otherwise. And you know what? It doesn’t matter. Monsanto’s intentions do not affect whether or not these seeds will help Haitian farmers. Buy the seeds. Plant them. Grow enough food to feed your family and your neighbors’ too. Thumb your nose at Monsanto and don’t buy hybrids after this again. What matters most is that the people in Haiti have the power to grow what they want and rebuild the food security of their country however they see fit. And if Haitian farmers decide that they like or don’t like these seeds, and choose to grow or not to grow them in the years ahead, that is their choice, not yours or ours. That’s what it comes down to.

I’ll leave the last phrase to Helene:

I think it’s wrong to prevent anyone from having a choice


  1. Hybrids happen in nature, more often than genetic ‘purists’ would like to think.

    Just to quibble slightly – this may be the case, but the exact hybrids being used in agriculture right now would have a vanishingly small chance of existing naturally, or even through selection on a single, or group of local farms.

  2. Yeah I didn’t want to dwell on the ‘unnatural’ argument about hybrids too long, except to point out that they are related to arguments about interspecific hybrids. It comes down to a calculation of the likelihood of a particular combination of genes coming together. It is interesting that selective breeding and controlled crosses, which produces unlikely genotypic combinations, is somehow wrong because it would be unlikely to happen that way on its own. Free the corn from its shoot and tassel bags!

  3. “Few have mentioned the possibility that Haiti could develop its own local high-producing hybrids down the road.”
    I did! And I’ve been thinking about that a lot. Is WINNER helping to develop local breeding programs? I hope so. How can we find out?

  4. Haiti has a real problem with NGOs.
    According to a March 2008 report, “more than 800 NGOs work parallel with the [Haitian] agriculture ministry” and that of the “3.4 billion gourdes (91 million dollars) budgeted for public investment in 2006-2007, 3.2 billion (85 million dollars) are managed by NGOs.” [1]
    “One organisation, ANDAH (Association National des Agro-professionnels Haïtiens), insists that the revival of the [Haitian] agriculture economy is possible as well as necessary, but that the government should be ready to face resistance from NGOs.” [1,2]
    That NGOs with near absolute control over government spending should resist a revival of the farm economy is as alarming as their insistence on choosing what seeds farmers are allowed to use. Some have suggested that there exists a ‘famine industry’, which profits from the distribution of aid and the perpetuation of poverty. This industry would be imperiled by, e.g., success in self-sustaining rural development. [3]
    Farmer access to adequate supplies of superior seeds would therefore be ‘bad for business’.
    As ghastly as this suggestion may be, it would by no means be atypical of NGO behavior.
    1. ‘Once-Vibrant Farming Sector in Dire Straits’, Inter Press Service, Mar 4, 2008, http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=41454
    2. http://www.andah.ht/
    3. Famine Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa. Alex De Waal, ISBN: 9780253211583

  5. I like that the article emphasizes the right to choose. If a farmer only wants to plant Creole seed or whatever, that’s fine, but doesn’t mean his neighbor can’t plant a different variety. We have heirloom, open pollinated, hybrid… all growing side by side in the US with few problems.
    I’m happy to have provided some information that’s being used by people out there 🙂

  6. That article has some interesting points. I think it makes a lot more sense to have efficient science-based regulation than to ban things and have farmers grow it anyway, with or without testing.

  7. Here’s an interesting issue: the safety of burning donated seed.
    The seed will be chemically treated to withstand attack by fungi, insects, etc. during germination. There are suggestive indications in at least one Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) that inhaling the by-products of combustion might be harmful, etc.
    Some might consider that testing for the effects of the by-products of combustion of treated seed would be carrying testing to the extreme, but ever since Operation Cremate Monsanto in India, arson etc. by extremists has become a real possibility.
    Perhaps someone could explain to the activists that, since burning the seed could result in “unknown hazards”, that the best disposal method (required by the Precautionary Principle) would be to bury the individual seeds underground in loose soil at a depth of two inches, at intervals of four inches, etc., and let Gaia/Nature take her course.
    Voila, problem solved!

  8. Oh my goodness! I laughed out loud. Too awesome.
    Well, your post is awesome. The idea of people being goaded to burn chemicals that could have toxic breakdown products while people are gathered around is not so awesome.

  9. Anastasia,
    There are very real, and also imaginary, issues surrounding seed treatments.
    For instance, France has outlawed one seed treatment on the suspicion that it was causing Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD)in honeybees. What remains unexplained is whether French honeybees actually burrow into the soil in search of corn seed.
    Then there’s the experience in Brazil, which at one point made it illegal to store GM soybean seed. Daunted by the government’s threats, the seed dealers sent the soybeans to China for human consumption, where they were promptly rejected. (My suspicion: China is the world’s largest producer of glyphosate, so what’s the odds those inedible herbicide-tolerant soybeans got planted? They’re already planting bootleg Bt rice all over.)
    Of course, anything chemical will have the organic people britting shicks, especially since Haiti is “pure and pristine”, etc. and so forth, but people who sanctify rural poverty are scarcely worth the attention.

  10. From Wikipedia:
    Hybrid seed:
    “Hybrid seed cannot be saved, as the seed from the first generation of hybrid plants does not reliably produce true copies, therefore, new seed must be purchased for each planting.”
    Seed saving:
    “Hybrid plants are artificially cross-pollinated, and bred to favor desirable characteristics, like higher yield (in monocultures) and more uniform size to accommodate mechanized harvesting. However, the seed produced by the second generation (F2) of the hybrid does not reliably produce a true copy of that hybrid (it ‘segregates’) and often loses much of its yield potential.”
    So in the relevant context, the “Agronomist” is correct. Technically the seeds will grow, but farmers know they’re not worth saving, and they have to buy new seeds each year. In your terms, therefore, you are a “reporter”?

  11. Again, the use of the word “cannot” in the wikipedia article is wrong. The seed can be saved, but it will not reproduce the parental type. I didn’t feel the need to explain this in-depth because Anastasia explained it in her post that I linked to at the top.
    Because if wikipedia says something about a technical matter, rather than go with a carefully explained description that is accurate, it is best to go with wikipedia. 🙂

  12. Hi R Brady,
    The nuances of plant breeding are a little more complex than as presented in the quotes here. The key here would be to compare the yield potential of a hybrid F2 (what the Hatian farmers would have if they saved seed produced by the hybrids) with the yield potential of the open pollinated varieties currently used by the farmers and/or any open pollinated varieties that may be donated.
    The course of action that makes the most sense to me is as follows:
    1) Plant the free hybrid seed and enjoy the benefits of a good yield (assuming the weather cooperates).
    2) The next year, keep some of the seed that the hybrid plants produce.
    3) Conduct a yield trial by planting the hybrid F2 seed side-by-side with varieties such as local varieties and any varieties that had been donated. This would preferably be done in more than one environment and under different farming conditions as are common in Haiti.
    4) Use the best varieties for the farming conditions.
    Even better would be to start a breeding program with the goal of producing locally adapted varieties that include the Monsanto germplasm, local germplasm, and any other donated germplasm. Either hybrid or open pollinated varieties could be developed. Best of all worlds 🙂

  13. Just one slight correction there:-
    1) The seed isn’t free, just cheap – the donators do not profit from it, seed dealers will, so as not to completely undermine any seed dealers/manufacturers who do exist.
    and an observation that may, or may not, have already been made, but has plagued me somewhat – the anti-donation folk on Haiti, they’re seriously suggesting that resource poor farmers BUY seed and then burn it? What the merry hell, just have them not buy it… that’d do the trick surely, rather than using resources they can scarce afford to score political points for you.

  14. To R Brady
    You conveniently omitted the first part of the Wikipedia item “hybrid seed”:
    “In agriculture and gardening, hybrid seed is seed produced by artificially cross-pollinated plants. Hybrids are bred to improve the characteristics of the resulting plants, such as better yield, greater uniformity, improved color, disease resistance, and so forth. Today, hybrid seed is predominant in agriculture and home gardening, and is one of the main contributing factors to the dramatic rise in agricultural output during the last half of the 20th century. In the US, the commercial market was launched in the 1920s, with the first hybrid maize.”
    The ideological opposition to the distribution of hybrid seed in Haiti is thus tantamount to denying Haitian farmers the benefit of a “ dramatic rise in agricultural output”.
    Karl is right about the use of “cannot” in a Wikipedia article which is shamefully short and general, and also wrong (hybrid seed is not “predominant in agriculture: wheat, barley, oats, and rice varieties are still predominantly pure lines).
    “Hybrid seed cannot be saved…”? They can. Actually, in circumstances like those prevailing in Haitian agriculture, seed saved from commercial hybrids is quite likely to perform better than “saved seed”, a significant proportion of which is grain sold on markets for consumption but used as seed.
    But this is quite pedantic. The paradigm of the use of hybrid seed in agriculture is that the benefit that accrues to farmers in terms of higher and more regular yields, better quality, easier cultivation, etc. exceeds by far the cost of having to buy seed every year.
    The assumptions underlying seed saving are also wrong in certain cases, particularly cross-pollinating crops such as maize (corn). But this would need to be explained in more detail than what a comment allows.
    I am sorry to say here that the polemic over seed saving and hybrids assumes that farmers who go for hybrids are congenital idiots; in the case of developing countries, the polemic seeks to ensure that they and their agriculture remain “developing”, that is, in view of the increase of their population on the one side and the further development of others, remain on the slippery slope of poverty and dependence.

  15. A brief aside on saving seed of hybrids – if you “cannot” do this, then my veg garden at the moment defies reality, as I have a bunch of Canteloupes coming in that are most certainly the result of saving seed – no doubt they’ll not be quite as hearty as their parents, but cannot be saved != won’t be quite as good as the previous generation – I believe James (of the Giant Corn) has pointed out on a few occasions that while F2 hybrids may not perform as well as F1 hybrids they, in general, perform as well as the inbreds from whence they came (and many inbreds used in breeding don’t actually fare all that badly – they don’t have super high yield, and may not have the same tolerances as the hybrids, but it’s not like you’re planting duds when you use the seed (I have a greenhouse full of inbred corn plants at the moment, and to be fair they look a lot better for a lot longer under nitrogen stress than any commercial hybrid would – still succumb at the end, but if I was planting under a moderate stress I think I’d go with an inbred line rather than a high yielding hybrid based on observation alone)

  16. I’m the independent journalist who produced the video included in your post. I’m following your blog’s coverage of this issue closely and I’m trying to get in touch with the WINNER people on the ground here in Port-au-Prince.
    In the meantime, please stop attacking the straw-man argument that anti-Monsanto people are urging farmers to burn the seeds. It was hyperbole, which I understand in your view was irresponsible. But at the protest in Hinche, they burned an inch-high pile of the seeds in symbolic protest. That’s it. As far as I know, nobody is actually urging Haitian farmers to burn tons of seeds. I’ve seen various bloggers, even on the Huffington Post, claim that the MPP already burned 400+ tons of donated seed in the protest. I wish people would fact-check.
    I’d also recommend that you familiarize yourself with the history of American-led development schemes in rural Haiti before dismissing the protesters and their supporters out-of-hand – SHADA, the Creole pig, Miami rice, etc. I’m not saying the anti-Monsanto folks are right. But they have reason to be suspicious, and no one from Monsanto or its supporters is acknowledging that. If you’re interested in dialogue and progress, that might be a first step.
    Contact/bio info for Mark Hare here. All it takes is a Google search. Having worked here in Haiti for several years now, I imagine there’s something to what he says. Would be cool to see an exchange between your blog’s authors and him posted here.

  17. On the Soapbox
    First, I like what I’ve read here enough that I’ve signed up for the feed.
    Here is what is bizarre. There is at least one NGO in Haiti developing hybrid seeds. That includes ‘normal’ hybrids and hybrids that are better nutritionally.
    How did I learn about them? By asking myself questions, such as, “Is anybody else working with hybrids in Haiti?” and then turning them into simple search queries.
    I’m not critical of experts, such as here, when they don’t think in this way, because that just isn’t the way experts tend to think.
    Nor am I particularly critical of others when they don’t think this way. I thought this way 15 years ago, with my first internet crusade. And it helps if you’ve had a long exposure to the Skeptic movement.
    But I keep reading comment after comment and article after article where claims are made that should set off any rational person’s crap detector (plausibility detector).
    Sure, I understand that the originator often lies or distorts the facts. No surprise. But it is those large number of less ideologically driven people who merely parrot what they’ve read that bothers me. Perhaps they don’t exist, but I think they do.
    They’re not willing to spend a couple of minutes thinking about a simple search query and scanning the results. Perhaps they don’t understand that for most controversial claims, someone, somewhere has written up a thoughtful response.
    Yes, I’m on a soapbox and maybe this isn’t the right place. But I do get a blog posting out of this at least. See http://vaccineswork.blogspot.com/2010/06/on-soapbox.html
    My blog entry is Monsanto and Haiti. It, like many others of my entries starts with examining claims made at Huffington-Post, commenting there and adapting them for my blog.
    Information on nutritional hybrids in haiti can be found at http://www.oreworld.org/qpm.htm ORE also grows open pollination seed and ‘normal’ hybrid seed.

  18. Hello ansel, thanks for stopping by.
    Perhaps all the news stories are wrong, but I’ve seen requests and demands that the seeds be burnt all over the place. For example (from Common Dreams):

    …farmers would have to buy the seeds before they could burn them in protest. Asked if he knew of any farmers who were burning Monsanto’s donated seeds, the MPP’s Jean-Baptiste said no, but he wishes they would.

    I’m not a fan of sensationalism or strawmen either. However, I do think it’s important for people to know what people like Chavannes Jean-Baptiste are telling farmers and other in Haiti to do. Unless people are putting words in Jean-Baptiste’s mouth, this certainly sounds like a call for seed burning. It would be cool to have a conversation with someone who’s actually in Haiti, working to improve agriculture, but if Mark Hare works for the same organization as the person calling for burning, I don’t know how useful that would be. I might give it a shot though.
    The history of ag intervention in Haiti holds a lot of misguided attempts to help. The creole pig example is very sad. Another example I know of is attempts to introduce sorghum (at least I think it was sorghum) with high yields to replace local low-yielding varieties. The problem was that the goats kept by most farmers could easily eat the seeds off the high yielding but short plants while the local varieties were tall enough to keep the goats from eating the seeds.
    Every intervention, even with the best intentions, can have negative consequences. I understand that, and know at least a little about some failed interventions in the past. However, there have been some major philosophy shifts in the way ag intervention is done, including much more local farmer participation. Still, fear or uneasiness that any intervention might make the situation worse is warranted. I don’t think anyone’s dismissing the concerns of farmers – at least, I’m not. What I do have a problem with is activists who spread rumors and falsehoods in an effort to take choices away from farmers. Lying about sterile seed or poison coated seed is just wrong, even if their hearts are in the right place. If they have to lie to get their point across, it wasn’t a very strong point in the first place.

  19. It is encouraging that some hybrids are being developed in Haiti (the ORE program was mentioned breifly in the comments of my post Hybrids in Haiti. Quality Protein Maize is a very worthy cause. I did find your blog post when browsing the crazy comments over at HuffPo – thanks for trying to spread some reality among all the rumors.
    I hope you’re not saying Biofortified’s authors make “claims are made that should set off any rational person’s crap detector”. We try pretty hard to keep our internal “crap detectors” on high alert whenever looking at contentious issues in agriculture.

  20. I’m sorry I wasn’t clear enough.
    The ‘crap detector’ comment was NOT directed towards you, Mr. von Mogel or this website. After all, the people here actually have a clue about what they’re writing about.
    My comment is directed to the non-expert. Unless you’re an ideologue to whom the facts are completely malleable, then you should think about what you read and ask if it makes sense in terms of how the world normally works and the motivations of those involved. Secondly, even if your crap detector doesn’t go off, run a couple of neutral language searches and scan the results looking for the other side of the story.
    Applying that here, let us assume that Monsanto is donating seed strictly for public relations purposes. They’re not likely to donate GMO seed and try to impose their usual rules. So you could just do a couple of searches.
    A search route I did not use here, but often use is the site search. I want to read the official line from mansanto. I’ll assume that Monsanto’s main site is monsanto.com. If that doesn’t work, I’ll just search on monsanto and find the official site.
    So site:monsanto.com gmo haiti donate
    and there you have enough information to answer most questions. Of course, Monsanto could be lying, but the chances, if you think about it (bizarre for many people who participate on the internet) is extremely unlikely.
    Why the long comment here? Well, I’m going to add it to my blog entry anyhow.
    One more time, I’m impressed by this site and those who write for it and comment here.

  21. Here is a piece that nicely wraps up the discussion on this blog:
    Guest opinion: A juicy debate: Hybrids vs. heirlooms.
    It is by George Ball, past president of The American Horticultural Society and chairman of the W. Atlee Burpee & Co.
    I very much like:
    “Increasingly, NGOs and activists are encouraging Third World farmers, in Haiti and elsewhere, to grow heirlooms in lieu of hybrids. By so doing, they are putting their sophisticated personal tastes and aesthetics before the life and death needs of the farmers and their communities – people for whom a poor harvest can be a death sentence. This is nouveau imperialism at its most pernicious: ‘Let them eat heirlooms’.”

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