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An Open Letter on Haitian Agriculture to the CEO of Monsanto

To: Hugh Grant, President and CEO, Monsanto

As you are no doubt aware, your offer to donate hybrid corn and vegetable seeds has stirred up quite a controversy in Haiti.

I'd like to call your attention to an article I wrote on this issue recently for Inter Press Service. While I was in Haiti for the month of May, I had a conversation with Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, the head of a major Haitian peasant organization and a leader of the international confederation La Via Campesina. He criticized your donation from a perspective on seeds and agriculture based on a very different world view that might be worth your time to understand.

Your company blog says that the idea to donate seeds to Haiti came to you and Executive Vice President Jerry Steiner at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. As you worked the crowd at that upscale ski resort, the place must have been crawling with Corporate Masters of the Universe and Brilliant Thinkers, who congregate yearly there to deliberate on the world's problems and how to solve them. But -- going out on a limb here -- I'm guessing there were not many Haitian Peasant Farmers.

While I'm sure some of the ideas on Haiti discussed there are worth pursuing, if you want to understand what Haiti's farmers need in the wake of the January 12 earthquake and the hurricanes of two years ago, I highly recommend going to Haiti to talk to some of them and to people who work closely with them. Travel in most rural areas is excruciatingly difficult on the ground, which is a reality farmers have to live with, but you could always rent a helicopter. I expect you would encounter a very different range of perspectives.

Your communications people say you did contact the Haitian Ministry of Agriculture and got their approval to donate seeds. That's a good first step, but it doesn't take a Macarthur Grant to figure out that even the best-intentioned people behind the desks in a ministry, especially one that has just suffered heavy losses in an earthquake, might not always represent the final word on what impoverished farmers deep in the countryside are thinking. And perhaps they wouldn't want to offend a corporation as wealthy and powerful as yours.

The U.S. Agency for International Development says they are going to use the seeds for a project called WINNER. They may have some interesting ideas on how to use them. Perhaps they have found some Haitian farmers who are willing to try them. But they are an arm of the U.S. State Department, and they ultimately represent the interests of the U.S. government, not Haitians.

Fortunately, though, it's not hard to find a wide range of opinion in the Haitian countryside. During my time in Haiti, I encountered large, sophisticated organizations of peasant farmers there that were very happy to talk to me. And there are plenty of smart, experienced Haitian agronomists and economists who are in intimate contact with realities in the fields. I spent a week outside of Port-au-Prince and more time in the city interviewing farmers, agronomists and others. I'd be glad to put you in touch with some of them.