March 23, 2015
Farmers drive through the “coffee lands”
of El Salvador, November 6, 2013.
The perils of ingesting food that has any contact with a Monsanto-produced
product are in the news on nearly a weekly basis.
As Dr. Jeff Ritterman has documented, Monstanto’s herbicide, Roundup, has
beenlinked to a fatal kidney disease epidemic, and has also been
repeatedly linked to cancer.
Recently, a senior research scientist at MIT predicted that glyphosate, the
key ingredient in Roundup, will cause half of all children to have autism by
Farmers in El Salvador are acutely aware of the importance of producing
their own seeds, and avoiding those from the bioengineering giant. The
farmers, who have already been consistently outperforming Monsanto with
their seed, as the local seed is far healthier and more productive, have
just managed to bring about a giant defeat of Monsanto by preventing it from
supplying El Salvador with its seeds. Recently, the Ministry of Agriculture
released a new round of contracts to provide seed to subsistence farmers
across the country.
“Remember that Monsanto is together with DuPont, Pioneer, all the large
businesses that control the world’s seed market,” said Juan Luna Vides, the
director of diversified production for the Mangrove Association, a
nongovernmental organization that was created to support a grassroots social
movement for environmental conservation in El Salvador. “Unfortunately,
many of the governments in Latin America, or perhaps the world, have
beneficiary relationships with these companies.”
Vides said that his group is working to “minimize this dependency” – and the
dire situation in El Salvador demonstrates the importance of doing so.
“The efforts of transnational companies are masked by other companies within
small countries,” he explained. “In the case of El Salvador, this example is
very obvious … the company of ex-president [Alfredo] Cristiani Burkard
manages the business within the [national] market … Although you don’t see
the Monsanto brand, it’s Monsanto.”
Thus, companies like Pioneer generate commercials for various media in El
Salvador that market their agrochemical products, exerting great influence
over the local farmer population of the country.
The Importance of Keeping It Local
“We are losing the traditions of local seed, so we are trying to maintain it
here,” small-scale seed producer Santos Cayetan told Truthout. “Native seeds
don’t have what these other seeds have that come with the chemicals, based
Cayetan, who is a recipient of corn seed from the government program that
uses local, GMO-free seeds and also works to grow native corn, said that the
difference between using local seed versus Monsanto’s is stark.
“[Native seeds are] always the same, they always produce, and they’re always
there,” he said. “[Native seeds] are drought resistant.”
Vides said that native seeds are also far better adapted to local conditions
like droughts and floods in his country, as well as the climate and soil.
“[Native seeds] don’t need a great injection of agrochemicals in comparison
to other seeds…. Seeds coming from different places, we don’t know if
those seeds are GMO or modified in some way,” he said. “You can reuse native
seeds and create a full cycle; you can use your own seeds for the next
planting. That’s not the case with hybrid seeds.”
One of Monsanto’s insidious goals is to force farmers to purchase the
company’s seeds every year, at very expensive prices.
What’s more, it is well known that Monsanto’s hybrid seeds are dependent
upon a high level of toxic fertilizers, and without those the yields of the
hybrids would be far, far lower.
“[Using only local seed] would be much better [for Salvadoran farmers]; they
wouldn’t have to buy seeds every year,” Vides added. “It has to do with
generating the conditions to promote food security … you can produce what
you consume … produce and consume the same product.”
Cayetan said that many farmers in El Salvador simply cannot afford Monsanto
seeds – and that is by design.
“If all the producers produced [imported] seed, [local producers] would lose
their businesses … this is what [Monsanto] wants.”
Jesus Reyes Fuente, also a local seed producer in El Salvador’s Ciudad
Romero, told Truthout that native seeds also taste better than hybrid seeds.
“They’re less contaminated by fertilizers,” he said. “And you can use them
year after year … with hybrids, after the second year, you can’t use
Like the others with whom Truthout spoke, Fuente was aware of the health
dangers of Monsanto products, and stressed the importance of stopping
Monsanto from forcing local farmers to use its products.
“It’s an imposition … they [Monsanto] are trying to force people to use
transgenic seeds,” he said. “There’s pressure, to make us produce in a way
we don’t want to.”
Evelyn Martinez is a political analyst for Salvadoran Foundation for
Reconstruction and Development (REDES). REDES works to strengthen
organizational capacity and advocacy among vulnerable populations who are
looking to improve their quality of life.
“Before, there was a monopoly in the seed market. It was controlled by
Cristiani Burkard, which today is Monsanto, and other large agribusinesses,”
Martinez told Truthout. “Today, we have opened the possibility for local
production. We have opened the market.”
The local seed program has also generated jobs, increased investment in
equipment and infrastructure by local producers, and has had positive social
impacts by preventing youths from joining gangs, as well as enabling
producers to improve their production techniques and business skills.
“In economic terms, the country is less dependent on importers and has
increased its autonomy,” Martinez added. “The [local] seeds are better
adapted for climate change and to the soils of El Salvador and have high
Martinez was very clear about why any dealings with Monsanto would be
harmful for El Salvador.
“At the global level, Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta have control of 67
percent of the seed and agrochemical market. Monsanto controls 23 percent of
the corn market and 80 percent of the world’s GMO market,” she said. “What
Monsanto wants is to take more market share … in order to increase their
profits. Monsanto wants to increase the use of their seed in the country,
not to benefit the small-scale producers. If you control the seed, you
control the whole production process.”
Martinez also stressed the importance of food sovereignty and was blunt
about what would happen politically if local farmers had to rely on Monsanto
“The nutrition of the country will depend on transnational companies … We
will lose our autonomy,” Martinez concluded. “In terms of democracy, this
isn’t democratic; [Salvadorans] can’t decide what we eat. It’s a
Local Government Support
In 2014, the US government threatened to deny all foreign aid to El Salvador
unless it opened up its seed contracts to foreign businesses (i.e. Monsanto).
Now, however, the United States claims that it supports the country’s
contract on seed, through which domestic seed producers offer both a better
and more financially competitive product.
This is not a new battle – farmers in El Salvador have also successfully
opposed the use of Monsanto seeds in the past – but it is one that
Salvadorans find themselves perpetually fighting.
To make protections more permanent, El Salvador Congresswoman Estela
Hernandez stressed the importance of farmers continuing to have the
freedom to make their own decisions.
Interestingly, she also said that the pressure to use Monsanto seeds came
more from the United States than from Monsanto itself.
“Monsanto didn’t express its opinions here…. the pressure really came from
the politicians from the United States, in this case the ambassador,” she
said. “We don’t know if it was for the quality of seed, more likely for the
Elias Figueroa, a technical agronomist in the Ministry of Agriculture, also
strongly supports the movement to keep seed local, and to disallow
companies like Monsanto from introducing their seed into the country.
“This year the government purchased corn and bean seed in accordance to
CAFTA’s [Central American Free Trade Agreement] tender requirements …
demonstrating that what the [US] embassy suggested, that the process was
not transparent, was not true,” Figueroa told Truthout. “Under this
[bidding] process, everyone can participate, as long as they meet the legal
and technical requirements of the Ministry of Agriculture.”
Figueroa explained how El Salvador has a center for the investigation of El
Salvador’s National Center for Agricultural and Forestry Technology, called
CENTA, which since 2011 has participated in increasing the domestic
production of seed.
El Salvador used to import more than 70 percent of seed used nationally, but
since 2000, CENTA has worked with the Center of Investigation for Corn and
Wheat in Mexico to produce a parent seed.
CENTA generated the parent seed for H-59, the hybrid variety produced
domestically. The plant is created for the tropical climate: It is drought
resistant, produces high yields under local conditions, and is resistant to
plagues and fungi.
In contrast, GMO seeds from Monsanto, which are more susceptible to
plagues and aren’t drought resistant, are clearly not designed for the
tropical climate. The verdict from producers?
“According to the latest census, 84 percent of producers in the country
prefer using H-59,” Figueroa said. “The most important [thing] is that it
has generated employment, nearly 240,000 direct jobs.”
Still, Figueroa said, the public relations fight continues: He explained
that Monsanto is “running an aggressive marketing campaign,” portraying
its seed as better and spreading false claims that local seed is mediocre and
“But this doesn’t worry us,” Figueroa said. “The national seed law, approved
by Congress, and CAFTA lay out the parameters for quality, and we are
complying with all of these. We have the best product, the best product in
all of Central America. We can outcompete them in export markets as well.
We have the studies that demonstrate the quality of our seed.”
Figueroa added that 100 percent of the seed required for the country’s food
security program is now provided by national producers, and that one of the
ministry’s objectives is to promote native seed varieties by establishing
local seed banks.
Nathan Weller, the program and policy director for EcoViva, an NGO that
supports environmental sustainability, social justice and peace for
communities in Central America, has been working with local farmers in El
Salvador for years, supporting their efforts to produce and control their
“El Salvador is ensuring that its national seed lineage doesn’t need to be
outsourced to foreign interests, and can be developed by its own farmers,”
Weller told Truthout. “It’s better for the farmers who earn access to the
best product, better for the government that can stretch limited public
budgets to outreach to the most farmers, and better for El Salvador’s
struggling rural economy which drives many families to migrate away
from their communities.”
Weller explained that the Salvadoran producers’ success came as a result of
their flexibility and responsiveness to the people using the seed.
“They innovated to meet government standards, learned how to navigate
administrative hurdles to earn contracts and employed hundreds of people
in traditionally underserved rural areas where opportunity is scarce,” he
said. “Transnational agribusiness like Monsanto treat farmers in the
developing world as consumers, not partners. They have yet to demonstrate
an ability to provide such sweeping benefits to El Salvador’s rural economy.”
While the recent victory for local farmers and organic seed is important,
and even the US Embassy has endorsed the outcome, Vides is aware that
there is still work to do.
“There doesn’t exist a [national] agriculture policy supporting alternative
farming, producing organically and ecologically,” he said. “But regional
efforts exist, such as La Coordinadora and the Mangrove Association, that
are [supporting] local producers [in working] with alternative production
techniques, such as using organic inputs and producing in an ecological
Amy Kessler, a field coordinator for EcoViva, contributed to this report.
Dahr Jamail, a Truthout staff reporter, is the author of The Will to Resist:
Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, (Haymarket Books,
2009), and Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches From an Unembedded Journalist
in Occupied Iraq, (Haymarket Books, 2007). Jamail reported from Iraq for
more than a year, as well as from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Turkey over the
last ten years, and has won the Martha Gellhorn Award for Investigative
Journalism, among other awards. His third book, The Mass Destruction of
Iraq: Why It Is Happening, and Who Is Responsible, co-written with William
Rivers Pitt, is available now on Amazon. He lives and works in Washington
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