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

Follow Karl Haro von Mogel:
Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.