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Hybrid Seeds in Haiti

One controversy I seem to have completely missed out during my break was the protests over seed donations to Haiti this summer.

Yup, I said protests over donated seeds.

Well, (you might think): if these people are honestly convinced genetically engineered crops are dangerous (and clearly there are people in the world who really believe that) you can see how they’d react badly to feeling like they were be offered something that could harm their health, even (or perhaps especially) if it was being given freely as a gift.

Unfortunately even that rationalization isn’t any use here, since none of the donated seeds were genetically modified, as (almost) all the coverage eventually gets around to mentioning.

As far as I can tell at this late date the reasons people are upset boil down to three issues:

  • The donated seeds were treated with several fungicides (mefenoxam, fludioxonil, and thiram*). I’ve read many people referring to the dangers of “toxic plants.” Seeds treated with pesticides don’t grow into plants that produce that pesticide themselves. The purpose of treating seeds with pesticides is #1 to kill any diseases/pests that might be hitch hiking on the seeds and #2 to protect seeds from fungus when they’re first planted in the ground, so more of them survive to germinate. Much of the writing on this subject seems to mix up the safety of planting seeds treated with a pesticide with the safety of working in fields that has been sprayed with the same pesticide, or, worst of all, the safety of being the one who actually sprays that pesticide. In this case it sounds like the main reason the seeds were treated was to avoid introducing new diseases and pests to the island of Hispaniola. Because really, the LAST thing Haitian agriculture needs is more potentially crop-failure causing problems.
  • The seeds being donated are primarily hybrids so they won’t breed true in the second generation. Once more this tends to get transformed from, “if farmers plant the same seeds the second year, their yields will be lower than the year before”, to “Farmers won’t be able to replant seeds!” F2 seeds (the seeds produced by hybrid plants) are only 1/2 as hetrozygous as their parents so they don’t benefit as much from hybrid vigor. In the US, the increased money a farmer will earn from getting getting higher yield per acre with the full benefits of hybrid vigor usually outweigh the cost of buying new hybrid seed but there’s nothing inherently BAD about F2 seeds except that they’re just not as good as the F1s (first generation hybrid seeds).
  • If Monsanto is inherently evil, then anything they do (for example donating seeds) is actually part of some evil ploy, even if we don’t know what it is yet. This is a question I can’t address with science, but gets into the distinction between being immoral and amoral. The someone who is immoral seeks to actively do evil, while someone who is amoral is indifferent to whether their actions are right or wrong. It’s easy to make a compelling argument that giant corporations are amoral, but it’s a mistake to assume they’re always actively attempting to do evil. (In this case I would image Monsanto thought they could get some good publicity out of their donation with either Haitian farmers or the Haitian government. Perhaps they’ll also benefit from tax write-offs or something similar. )

I’ve linked to what I’d consider a Huffington Post article above with a very clear agenda, so in the interest of balance, here’s what Monsanto is saying itself about the donation.

Updated Final Thoughts:

The one argument I’ve heard that might hold some water is that hybrid seeds might eventually out-compete local open pollinated varieties, and the genetic resource of locally adapted Haitian varieties of crops would be lost. However to make this argument one first has to admit hybrid seeds will have significant yield advantages so they’d actually be more competitive. I assume it’s the unwillingness to make that admission which is why most of the coverage I’ve read doesn’t touch on this issue. There are ways to combine introducing new improved crop varieties with preserving previous genetic diversity (seed banks!), but they require money and engagement, which is a lot more work than calling on hungry farmers to simply burn the seeds.

*This list comes to you at least third hand, and I needed to correct for at least one apparent typo in the previous source to figure out the active ingredients, so believe it at your own risk.

7 Comments

  1. Greg says:

    There is no doubt the real issues and facts get lost on their way to the mainstream media. And definitely a lot of things get totally bent out of proportion. For example most fears around pesticides are far off the mark. The biggest exposure to humans is probably for the people putting the treatment on the seed (in this case probably in NA under many regulations based on my experience) and the person planting (who, as long as they are reasonably careful should not have any notable exposure). For seed treated with insecticide the largest effects are probably on non-target insects – at least for some systemic ones (possibly bees which I have recently heard some compelling evidence for – looking for references…). On the whole insecticide treatment can make for an excellent crop insurance (especially i suppose in the tropics where insects are a larger problem).

    For the hybrid thing I think in all the fear and hatred there is for large corporations the real issue has been lost. After a year or two with hybrid seed some people may simply not have a way to get back to open pollinated varieties. Yes, there may be some in a seed bank, the germplasm is not lost forever, but either because they cannot afford it or the supply is not there it is possible that they would not be able to get them back. If this is the case they may have to turn to a seed supplier which at least for corn has a very strong incentive to only sell F1 seed. If thats the case then there is also incentive for a seed company to make this type of scenario happen. Not saying that that is the case. These companies may very well honestly want to help.

    Most likely Monsanto knows that once farmers see their monstrous F1 in their (or their neighbors) field they will not want to go back to the open pollinated varieties.

    also, glad to see James and the Giant Corn back on my blog feed.

    1. James says:

      Thanks, it’s good to be back!

      I think you definitely have a good point about seed banks not providing the volume or value of seeds that would be required for farmers to switch back to open-pollinated varieties after years buying hybrid seed. In an ideal world there would be a niche for companies to request old cultivars from seed banks and bulk the seeds up to sell to farmers. The barriers to entry are certainly much lower than producing hybrid seeds, so even though it’s not in the long term interests of any seed company to make sell non-hybrid seed, hopefully someone would do it for short term profit. Producing seeds for an existing open pollinated variety should be significantly cheaper than producing hybrid seed (no need to hire plant breeders to develop superior inbred lines and test plant hundreds of different potential hybrids in multiple environments, no need to pay detasselers every summer), although they’d probably run into the trouble will the lack of economies of scale.

      The other question that occurred to me was whether F2(+) seeds from elite hybrids might be competitive with open pollinated varieties to begin with. (Since these are non-genetically modified varieties, there should be no legal impediment to farmers replants the seeds, the only issues are the biological ones.) A quick google search didn’t turn up any comparisons, but I’m sure they must have been done at some point.

      1. Greg says:

        Yeah, so I remember reading about that actually. I think it was in ‘Hybrid – the history and science of plant breeding’ which you are going to have to read if you havent. Some farmers somewhere, i forget the details, finding that growing the F2 was not as good but it worked out better to take the yield hit and only buy seeds half as often.
        I don’t think there is any hope in young entrepreneurs starting an open pollinated corn seed business. Success = no market.

        1. James says:

          I’ll definitely put that on my list of books to read. Thanks!

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  3. Party Cactus says:

    You would think that Monsanto would have seen this one coming. Their PR is so far down the toilet there are folks who seem to like them less than BP. I don’t think there’s a whole lot Monsanto can do without being accused of some nefarious plot or another. I just kinda wonder what reaction they would’ve got if Monsanto had sent heirlooms instead; I’d love to have seen the heads explode as Monsanto donated seeds of Dragon’s Tongue bean, Carbon tomato, Blue Jade corn, ect. Presents an interesting ethics question: Be taken as good, but the immediate help may be less, or be taken as bad, while increasing the immediate help. Also can’t help but wonder if we would have seen this same reaction had it not been Monsanto making the donation. However it turns out, I do hope that no unique varieties (and whatever genes they possess that make them unique) are lost, although in the end getting food to people who need it and forging agricultural stability is quite a bit more important.

    And I was just asking myself why I never post here with my real name, now I remember, I’m the second Greg here. By the awesome might of anecdotal reasoning I guess we can determine that your name affects what you read.

    1. James says:

      I wonder how many Jameses I’ve scared away from commenting here by not choosing a more unique name to go by online.

      I can’t help but think a lot of the negative reaction has come about because of the donation is coming from Monsanto. The average story I read on the subject would spend 1/3-1/2 of its space discussing the many evils of genetically engineered seeds, and only then get around to saying “but these seeds aren’t genetically engineered, they’re hybrids, which as also bad because of X,Y, and Z.” So if some other company were donating hybrid seeds we’d probably be hearing a lot less about it.

      I imagine Monsanto was limited in what they were going to donate by what varieties of seeds they produce themselves. But it would be fascinating to discover which apparent absolute would win out in peoples minds if “Monsanto is always evil” and “heirloom seeds are always good” came into conflict with each other.

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