Hybrids in Haiti

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.

The donation

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.

The hyperbole

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.

Five questions

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 Hatian 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.

Hybrid vigor: Corn lines B73 (left) and Mo17 (right) produce the hybrid F1 (center). From Iowa State University News Service.

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 preforming plants under low input conditions – the breeding process remains the same. The specific corn hybrids donated have been tested under low input condtions, 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.

Reasons for seed treatment. North Dakota State Extension.

Marcia McMullen and Arthur Lamey, Extension Plant Pathologists at North Dakota State, provide three reasons to use fungicidal seed treatments:

  1. to control soil-borne fungal disease organisms (pathogens) that cause seed rots, damping-off, seedling blights and root rot
  2. 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
  3. 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!

Follow Anastasia Bodnar:
Anastasia is Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. and the Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. She has a PhD in genetics with a minor in sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University. Her favorite produce is artichokes!