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El Salvadoran Government & Social Movements Say No to Monsanto

El Salvador's breadbasket has an alternative vision to the one that US biotech firms like Monsanto would like to impose: "food sovereignty."

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The Family Agriculture Plan aims to serve over 325,000 families that rely on subsistence agriculture as well as over 70,000 small family farmers that produce for the market, through a multi-pronged strategy. One key element, the provision of free “agricultural packets” containing seeds and chemical fertilizer, has been a hallmark of El Salvador’s agricultural policy even before Funes entered office. While his administration heavily criticized the way the prior government under the right-wing ARENA party ran the program for being a “genuine failure as a policy in the struggle against poverty”, Funes decided to continue providing the agricultural packets, with the significant change that the government would also provide both low-interest loans and technical assistance to farmers to ensure that they have the support needed to succeed in food production

As part of the ceremony, members of the Mangrove Association and local cooperatives symbolically handed over a first harvest of certified corn seed supply sufficient to provide support and production inputs to nearly 9,000 small farmers in four provinces. At the ceremony, Funes announced, “My government wagered, for the first time in more than 20 years, that our farmers cultivate their own seed instead of buying it from large multinational companies.”

Prior to the implementation of this new policy, all seeds distributed in the agricultural packets were purchased at above-market prices through Semillas Cristiani Burkard, the leading Central American corn seed company focused on hybrid corn production and a subsidiary of the agriculture biotechnology giant Monsanto. Semillas Cristiani Burkard was founded by the family of former Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani, who served as head of state from 1989 to 1994 with the ARENA party.

In 2008, prior to the FMLN’s presidential victory, El Salvador’s National Congress voted to abolish Article 30 of the Planting Seed Law, which stated that it was prohibited to import, conduct research on, produce or commercialize Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) seeds. According to the US Department of Agriculture’s Global Agriculture Information Network Report, this policy change was, “due to over three years of pressure from the private sector.” The same year that Article 30 was abolished, Semillas Cristina Burkard’s parent company. Marmot, S.A, was acquired by Monsanto.

The biotech industry’s use of their influence in removing regulatory barriers to gain new markets for its products throughout the developing world has been well documented. In Latin America, El Salvador was the third country to plant GMO seeds, following Colombia and Honduras. Thus, when Funes made the following statement at the opening ceremony, it can be expected that his words did not fall lightly on the ears of Monsanto executives: “Only if we become independent in seed [production], will we become independent in food, that is to say, can we achieve food sovereignty.”

The Salvadoran government’s new policy comes amidst what may be a growing backlash against biotech companies’ claims that GMO seeds are superior to conventional seeds. While the Mexican government abolished a decade-long moratorium on GMO seeds by approving 29 applications for experimental GMO corn plots, they have been wary of moving towards commercial planting of GMO corn, saying additional tests and studies need to be carried out to determine its effects on native varieties. In the United States, Monsanto recently lost a case in the U.S. Supreme Court, which upholds current regulations that prohibit the planting and commercialization of Roundup Ready Alfalfa, until a proper Environmental Impact Statement is conducted by the USDA to better understand the GMO's impact. Meanwhile, Bolivian president Evo Morales recently announced a five-year transition period to eliminate GMO crops from the entire country.

Nonetheless, the Family Agriculture Plan has already been met with strong criticisms from some social movement sectors who claim that although the plan may be more robust than what prior governments provided, it does not yet reflect an integral response to the issues small farmers face. Many argue that the $90 million estimated for the first phase is simply not enough to attend to the amount of small farmers that the plan aims to benefit. Others, such as Arístides de León, Secretary General of the National Center for Agricultural Workers Union, believe that it is necessary for the government to support greater participation of grassroots organizations to allow them to direct their own efforts in developing the country.

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