A Critical Review of “GMO OMG” (Part 2): Fear and Loathing in Haiti

After talking to random people on the streets of his local town about GMOs, Jeremy Seifert travels to Haiti, where he says “something happened that really awakened me to a much bigger story about seeds and food and control.” In June 2010, more than 10,000 Haitians gathered together in the streets to protest a generous donation of seeds that Monsanto offered to the people of Haiti in the wake of the earthquake that devastated the country five months earlier. Instigated by the Peasant Movement of Papaye (MPP), the Haitians sent as strong a message to Monsanto as they knew how: they burned 60,000 sacks of the seeds given to them.

The hostility of the Haitian people to Monsanto is as strong as it is irrational. Seifert interviews Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, leader of the Peasant Movement, who claims that Monsanto’s seeds are poisonous and that they are “destroying the life of the land and destroying the people.” Jean-Baptiste never provides us with evidence for this, or even so much as an explanation of why he believes the seeds are poisonous and destructive. After filming members of the Peasant Movement singing a song about chasing Monsanto out of their country, Seifert talks to peasant farmers who do at least try to articulate why they believe Monsanto is a threat. “We plant produce that you can plant every year,” one farmer says. “With the Monsanto product, you can plant just one time. That’s why we didn’t take it.”

But Seifert’s coverage of the Haitian protest omits a crucial fact: the seeds donated by Monsanto were not genetically modified. They were actually hybrid seeds, which is not the same thing as genetically modified seeds. Seifert’s film even includes a graphic representation of a Huffington Post headline stating that the seeds being burned were hybrid seeds. [1] But either Seifert does not know the difference between hybrid products and genetic modification, or he is counting on his audience not knowing the difference. Either way, the narrative he is constructing about Haitian peasant farmers burning GM seeds is erroneous.


Screenshot from GMO OMG

A hybrid seed is simply the product of selective cross-pollination between two different plant species for the perpetuation of desirable traits. Humans have been manipulating plants in this way for thousands of years. The effectiveness of such selected traits diminishes with each successive generation of the hybrid plant’s offspring. This is the reason why the seeds Monsanto donated to Haiti could only be planted once. It’s simply a fact of genetics.

Some staple crops grown and consumed worldwide are the result of this hybridization process. Hybrid corn, for example, is one of the most important breakthroughs in agriculture and replaced the use of randomly-mated varieties in the early twentieth century. Owing largely to its substantially better yield and hardier resistance to drought than its open-pollinated predecessor, hybrid corn has been a staple crop since its wide and rapid acceptance by American Midwestern farmers in the 1930s. [2] This breakthrough happened four decades before scientists developed the first genetically modified organism in 1972, and hybridization still does not require genetic modification by humans. The modern banana, for example, is a domesticated hybrid between two wild banana species (Musa balbisiana and Musa acuminata) and clearly does not fall under the category of genetically modified organism. In some cases, natural selection can result in hybridized plants, whereas genetic modification of plants consists of a highly specific and artificially controlled transfer of two or more genes from any organism, however distantly related, directly into a plant’s genome. That is the key difference between hybrid seeds and genetically modified seeds.

Another way in which Seifert misleads his viewers is by conflating the entirety of Monsanto’s seed donation with other seeds that were purchased by other Haitian farmers and which turned out to be impotent. He travels to a farm in the small Haitian town of Mirebalais, where farmers planted seeds that failed to grow. According to one Mirebalais farmer interviewed in the film, “We pulled them up and threw them away, because they came up withered, turned red. They weren’t good for us, so we pulled them up and threw them away. They made us pay. So now we lost both money and seed. It didn’t do us any good.”

Instead of examining any number of possible reasons behind this seed failure – for example, the possibility that the environmental and ecological effects of the earthquake might have something to do with it – Seifert has edited into the film a deceptively smooth segue from first talking about the total shipment of 475 tons of seeds that Monsanto donated to talking about a different group of farmers who were disappointed with seeds they purchased from farmer association stores. The initial shipment of Monsanto seeds used in Mirebalais were distributed to these farmer associations by the WINNER project (Watershed Initiative for National Natural Environmental Resources), a five-year, $126 million program funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to aid Haitian farmers in improving agricultural practices for increased yields. [3] GMO OMG implies that Monsanto made the farmers pay for the seeds that the Mirebalais farmers were disappointed with, but this is not true, as the following information on Monsanto’s website makes clear:

The seeds are being provided free-of-charge by Monsanto. WINNER 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. [4]

Far from making money in a backhanded manner, Monsanto did not benefit financially from giving their seeds away. The false narrative that Seifert is endorsing in his film is one that probably harmed a lot of Haitian people in the long term. This is not to suggest that the people of Haiti are not well within their right to refuse a gift from a large American corporation. And there are some legitimate criticisms to be made concerning the economic and ecological viability of rapidly introducing improved seed into regions where indigenous agricultural practices have remained unchanged for over two hundred years. [5] But the fact remains that Haiti had just suffered a massive natural disaster that claimed the lives of over 100,000 people. The damage the earthquake caused to Haiti’s arable farmlands meant that many more people would suffer from food shortages and malnutrition. The earthquake wiped out entire crops, and Haiti’s government did not have the resources required to rebuild their agricultural infrastructure from scratch and keep the population well fed. Under such devastating circumstances, is it reasonable for needy people to refuse a very generous donation of seeds for any reason? Granted, the peasant farmers protesting Monsanto and burning their seeds had convinced themselves that Monsanto’s seeds were “poisonous” and threatened their food sovereignty and agricultural way of life. But when the alternative is starving, it is bizarre that the Peasant Movement would not be content to stop at mere refusal, but to also turn that refusal into a mass spectacle of proudly burning seeds. Meanwhile, it is sobering to consider how their actions might have negatively affected other starving, injured, and displaced Haitians who did not agree with what the Peasant Movement was doing. Seifert even admits in his film just how dire the situation in Haiti was after the earthquake:

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. People suffer from crippling poverty, hunger, and malnutrition. The earthquake made an already desperate situation much worse. With hundreds of thousands dead and countless bodies lost beneath the rubble, and over a million people crammed into tent cities, the agro-chemical company Monsanto offered Haiti 475 tons of seeds. So why would poor rural farmers burn seeds?

That’s a very good question. Unfortunately, Seifert uncritically accepts the factually incorrect rationale of the Peasant Movement of Papaye at face value because it serves the anti-GMO narrative he is building.



[1] Beverly Bell, “Haitian Farmers Commit to Burning Monsanto Hybrid Seeds,” The World Post, May 17, 2010, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/beverly-bell/haitian-farmers-commit-to_b_578807.html (accessed April 17, 2016).

[2] James F. Crow, “90 Years Ago: The Beginning of Hybrid Maize,” Genetics 148, no. 3 (March 1998): 923-928. http://www.genetics.org/content/148/3/923 (accessed April 17, 2016); Paul K. Conkin, A Revolution Down on the Farm: The Transformation of American Agriculture since 1929 (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2008), pp. 119-20.

[3] USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development), “Seed System Security Assessment: Haiti,” Technical Report (Port-au-Prince, Haiti: USAID, 2010).

[4] Monsanto, “Monsanto Donates Corn and Vegetable Seeds to Haiti” (n.d.), http://www.monsanto.com/improvingagriculture/pages/haiti-seed-donation.aspx (accessed April 17, 2016).

[5] John Mazzeo and Barrett P. Brenton, “Peasant Resistance to Hybrid Seed in Haiti: The Implications of Agro-industrial Inputs through Humanitarian Aid on Food Security, Food Sovereignty, and Cultural Identity,” in Hanna Garth, ed., Food and Identity in the Caribbean (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), pp. 121-138.

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