When an article about ten thousand Haitian farmers marching in protest to 475 tons of hybrid seeds donated by Monsanto caught the eye of award winning filmmaker, Jeremy Seifert, he knew there was something more to the story. Why would the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere that had recently been rattled by a devastating earthquake protest the gift of seed?
Seifert's first film, DIVE! Living Off America's Waste, exposed him to a dark side of the food industry that caught him by surprise: Millions of tons of edible food heading to landfills every year instead of the millions of hungry people. And the article he read about the Haitian protests posed yet another food mystery: What exactly are genetically modified organisms? "I honestly didn't know that much about Monsanto or GMOs and wasn't aware of how ubiquitous they are," said Seifert. "I was really confused—why would people who are obviously desperate [before and after the earthquake] reject food? The image of poor hungry farmers burning seeds was really provocative." The story of the Haitian protests plays a central role in Seifert's yet-to-be-named film on GMOs.
To understand the Haitian resistance to Monsanto is to understand Haiti: The first independent nation in all of Latin America and the first post-colonial nation under black leadership in the world gained its independence through a slave rebellion that began during the French Revolution. Oppression suits few, Haitians no exception. They took their freedom in stride, successfully enjoying commerce and trade. Naïve about corporate U.S. interests in the 20th century, they opened their doors to influences that crippled local businesses and eventually killed off the native Creole pig—a source of income and food for Haitians. (In the 1980s the U.S. replaced Creole pigs, which they feared posed health risks, with American pigs not suited for the climate; most died.)
"You're not supposed to give the devil a foothold," says Seifert, and Monsanto is "a Trojan horse, looking for a way to get a foot in the door." Haitians don't have much besides their sovereignty and indigenous culture, and seeds are a big part of that, says Seifert, especially after the loss of the Creole pig. With a countrywide ban on GMOs, Monsanto offered Haiti chemically treated hybrid seeds instead. According to Seifert, less than 100 tons of the 475 tons Monsanto promised have made it to Haiti. Not as controversial as Monsanto's patented Roundup Ready genetically modified seeds, the hybrids are still altered in ways that makes them dependent on pesticides, and they bear little resemblence to the seeds indigenous to the region. Of the farmers who did plant the hybrids, many found them to be unsuccessful, causing loss of crops and income.
Chavanne Jean-Baptiste of the Peasant Farmers Movement of Papay has helped propel organic farming in Haiti. He was instrumental in the 10,000 strong march and seed burning protests that stopped the import of Monsanto's seeds. "I was really inspired by the courage and concrete action of Jean-Baptiste and the thousands of peasants symbolically burning seeds rather than the typical response of Americans quietly mumbling at home on their couches in front of the TV," Seifert says in his light-hearted way of dealing with serious issues.
If there's a takeaway lesson for Americans, Seifert says it's the Haitians wakefulness on the issue, "In a time of great need, just the threat that those seeds bring was enough for them to get out into the streets marching and screaming. You come back to the States where 80 percent of processed foods contain genetically modified ingredients and no one knows what that means. It's time to wake up."
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image: Jeremy Seifert