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El Salvador’s Government Says No to Transnationals, Yes to Local Seeds

July 12, 2013
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Farmers affiliated with the Mangrove Association dry the first crop of native corn seed produced under government-certified quality standards.  Photo: Tricia Johnson

Farmers affiliated with the Mangrove Association dry the first crop of native corn seed produced under government-certified quality standards. Photo: Tricia Johnson

In much of Central America, rural families grow corn on small plots to feed their families.  These crops are vulnerable to floods and droughts – extreme weather events that are ever more frequent due to climate change.   To reduce farmer risk, for many years EcoViva has supported a training program in the Lower Lempa region of El Salvador that helps family farmers plant organic fruit trees, vegetables and native crops to improve nutrition and reduce poverty.

Until recently, the Salvadoran government was working at odds with our programs by providing handouts of conventional corn seed purchased from the transnational company Monsanto to family farmers throughout the country.    This is typical of many governments throughout the world, which purchase and distribute conventional or genetically modified high-yield seeds from transnationals, with a promise that they will reduce hunger.

In order to produce their promised yields, these seed products require high cost chemical fertilizers, produced by the same companies, which many families can only afford if they take out high-interest loans.  Moreover, seed yields typically drop dramatically after one season, requiring the farmer to buy new seeds and fertilizer each year, contributing to a vicious cycle of debt.  The government’s subsidy to small farmers was, in essence, a large subsidy to Monsanto, and ran the risk of increasing poverty amongst the most vulnerable rural populations over time.

Two years ago the Salvadoran government, under President Mauricio Funes, canceled its contracts with Monsanto and began to purchase seeds locally through the groundbreaking Family Agriculture Plan.  This year, the government has decreed that from now on it will only buy seeds produced locally.

seedbank

A farmer sorts native seed with staff from the Mangrove Association

Our local partners at the Mangrove Association have been providing technical assistance to help large cooperatives and medium-sized farms grow government-certified seeds for the Family Agriculture Plan.  Most of the participating farms were previously producing sugar cane at much lower profit margins.  Conventional sugar cane farming has been linked to high local incidences of chronic illness, as well as major loss of biodiversity from burning the crop at harvest.   The conversion of sugar cane fields to corn seed production is a victory for local communities, and for food security for El Salvador.

Until recently, the government demanded that local producers grow conventional seeds of the same variety provided by the transnationals.   We are happy to announce that this year, after major negotiations with the government, our partners are overseeing a pilot project for the first ever government-certified native corn seeds.   The native seeds require little or no chemical fertilizers, and produce high yields year after year, so that struggling farmers who receive these seeds will not have to go into debt to survive.

Today, over 50% of the seed for the government’s program is produced in the Lower Lempa.  The program supplies seeds to over 325,000 family farms throughout the country, and has dramatically increased the income of over 500 local seed producers.   While the government is not yet incorporating organic farming or crop diversification into the Family Agriculture Plan, there are positive signs in that direction.  Step by step, we are working to ensure that rural families in El Salvador have the support they need to reinvigorate

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