Seeds of Discontent

KohThom district, Kandal province – It was two or three years ago when the first traders brought a new type of seed to corn farmers here in Chheu Khmao commune and a few decided to experiment.

Not long after, the local corn started to die, succumbing to a mysterious disease that decimated most farmers’ harvests and rendered their seed virtually useless. Frustrated, local farmers looked to their counterparts who were spared the “yellowing disease.”

Those whose crops survived the disease had planted the new seeds which had been transported across the Vietnamese border, just 10 km away, in bags stamped with names such as Monsanto and CP some of the biggest names in the global agro-industry.

Yields were higher from crops grown with the imported seed, plants were bigger and the pesticides they used had kept away the insects that plagued local plants that year, farmers said late last month. Now the farmers have dumped their local corn, cucumber and bean seeds and are planting their small plots along the Bassac river entirely with hybrid seed seeds engineered to produce plants with ideal farming qualities.

“We threw the Khmer seed away because it does not produce any yield,” said Vuy Phol, 20, a farm worker in Koh Thom. The engineered seeds cost up to nine times more than local seed, and require copious amounts of fertilizer and pesticides and cannot be saved and replanted annually as the old seed was.

But farmers say they have no choice. Without hybrid seeds, said Sam Tuy, 58, who plants hybrid cucumber: “I cannot compete with the others.” The “yellowing disease” and the ensuing switch to hybrid seeds has penetrated a 60 km swath of farms along the Bassac river in Kandal, according to reports. And the invasion could be just a small preview of what is in store for Cambodia as the reach of the global biotechnology industry grows tighter around the world’s food supply, agriculture experts said. The yellowing disease in Koh Thom and Sa’ang districts has baffled local agricultural experts, who are divided on the question of whether there is more than a coincidental link between the hybrid seeds and the local crop disease.

Though largely new to Cambodia, hybrid seeds have been used since the early 20th century and now comprise most of the world’s commercially-grown corn. A hybrid seed is produced by selectively cross-breeding plants with other plants that have desirable traits, so that the offspring inherit those characteristics, said Dr Carl Middleton, an independent environmental scientist. Usually, these are traits that make the plants more attractive to farmers disease resistance, high yield rates or higher sugar content for a tastier ear of corn.

In September, Middleton and the agricultural NGO Centre d’Etude et de Developpement Agricole Cam-bodgien visited Koh Thom district to investigate the corn disease. During their trip, the team noted several hybrid seed brands planted by farmers, including DeKalb 919, a corn hybrid produced and manufactured by Monsanto, a US-based multinational corporation that is one of the world’s leading developers and marketers of agricultural biotechnology, including hybrid seeds and genetically modified crops.

Monsanto, whose 2003 global sales totaled $5 billion, makes no direct sales in Cambodia but sells seed and other products in Vietnam through distributors, wrote Jill Montgomery, director of public affairs for Monsanto’s Asia-Pacific region, in an email last month. For cucumbers, farmers showed seed bags from the Chia Thai Co Ltd, an arm of the Thai giant CP Group and also planted the CP corn seed brand 888, according to CEDAC’s findings. Notes from the CEDAC investigation stated that the disease was unheard of in the region before the hybrid seeds’ introduction.

Investigators also noted that in some cases, local corn protected from nearby hybrid crops by barriers such as a row of trees or another kind of plant were unaffected by the disease.

Yet other scientists said they were unaware of any previous incidents of widespread crop disease caused by the introduction of hybrids. As hybrid seeds are generally engineered to be sterile so that they must be bought anew each year, cross-pollination with local crops would be next to impossible, said Jeremy Ironside, a consultant to GTZ German technical cooperation. “I’ve never heard of anything happening like this with hybrid seed…. It’s hard to work out how it’s having an effect
on local crops,” Ironside said.

Chheu Khmao farmers said they did not know what caused the disease, but they noticed a link between the arrival of the hybrid seeds and the decimation of their own crops. “In the past, when we grew local seed we did not have many problems like that. But when the Vietnamese seed came, the local seed had a lot of disease,” said Sim Hum. Sam Tuy, her neighbor, agreed. “I still wonder why the local corn was destroyed,” he said. “Before we grew the Vietnamese seed, our local seed was better…. But I don’t know what happened. I don’t know what caused it.”

Keam Makarady, program officer at CEDAC, believed he knew the reason: “It’s caused by the Vietnamese seed.” Monsanto and other biotech corporations have been the target of worldwide protests by consumers’ rights and environmental activists who have charged that the companies’ activities are creating dependence of small farmers on large multinationals and eliminating genetic diversity from the world’s crops.

Monsanto and others have countered protests with the argument that biotechnology from relatively low-tech hybrid seeds to sophisticated genetically modified crops could be one of the developing world’s most effective weapons against hunger. “Modern varieties of seeds developed through public and private sector breeding programs can be reliable and productive options for small farmers,” Montgomery wrote.

“Commercial, public and local products alike should be among the choices farmers have when growing food to support themselves, their families and their communities,” she added.

Though the high cost of the extra fertilizer and pesticide needed to plant hybrids means that seed cost make up only 10 percent of farmers’ total expenses, “with new good quality seeds used, farmers may [have] easily doubled their production potential,” wrote CP’s Crop Integration Business senior vice president Anek Silapapun in an Oct 27 email. Anek Silapapun vigorously disputed a link between CP’s 888 seed and the local corn disease.

In addition to the genetic impossibility of cross-pollination, he said the local corn could have been affected by seasonal factors such as flooding or drought, to which the hybrid seed would be resistant. For farmers and observers of the affected regions in Kandal, reaction is mixed on the value of engineered crops. Though genetically modified crops are illegal in Cambodia, according to a 2002 order from the Ministry of Agriculture, hybrid seeds are legal and in many cases have been enthusiastically embraced by local officials for their productivity advantages.

Some varieties of hybrid corn seed can produce yields of up to 8 to 10 tons per hectare in a single harvest, far beyond the 1.5 to 2 tons per hectare offered by local seed, said Tea Leang Huot, deputy director of Kandal’s provincial agriculture department.

Although the hybrid corn seed retails for about $2.25 per kilogram, a massive cost in comparison to the $0.13 to $0.25 per kg for local seed, the yield from hybrid plants is high enough that farmers said they make a profit selling their corn to Vietnamese dealers for just $0.13 per kg.

Agriculture experts from Vietnam trained some Koh Thom district farmers last year in hybrid farming techniques and the district will soon ask them to return, district Governor Mao Sor said. “The farmers usually use local corn seeds that have not been well kept and are not good quality,” Mao Sor said. “Now the yield has increased because of the good quality seed…. Our farmers depend on agriculture. That is why we try to bring in good quality seeds planted according to technique, in order to improve their living condition.”

Some experts, however, questioned the long-term benefits of Cambodian dependence on commercial seed. Hybrid seed requires four times as much pesticide and a good deal more fertilizer than local seed, according to farmer reports.

The extra pesticide and fertilizer required for hybrid seed, in addition to the seeds’ higher cost, poses a financial burden for farmers as well. In addition, Cambodia’s low-lying terrain means “using these pesticides will obviously damage the fish,” Ironside said.

In Chheu Khmao commune, Sim Hum’s dry, yellow plot of pesticide-scorched earth stands in vivid contrast to the lush green grass of her neighbor, Choeu Hy, 42, a farmer who said he keeps his grass pesticide-free so his cattle can graze. Villagers said they could not remember what pesticides they used, as they threw the bottles into the river when the harvest ended. Increased use of hybrid seed also reduces the genetic diversity of local crops, agriculture experts said.

If all the seeds in an area share the same genetic material, they are vulnerable to the same pitfalls, decreasing farmers’ options and resilience should an unexpected disaster such as disease or drought wipe out an entire plant population. And finally, critics say, farmers’ reliance on foreign-made commercial seed endangers their food security and financial autonomy.

“As farmers lose access to local seed varieties and become ever more dependent on commercially available varieties…farmer choice and independence is diminished,” Middleton wrote in an email. “The farmer is placed in the hands of seed and agrochemical companies, often transnational, and therefore becomes vulnerable to external market-driven forces.

Once lost, independence is difficult to regain.” “What happens when there’s going to be a whole kind of monoculture of hybrid seed?” Ironside asked. “It’s increasing people’s risk, and it just depends on how much risk people can afford.”

For the farmers of Chheu Khmao commune, the arguments for or against hybrid seed are overridden by one unassailable point it currently seems to be the only thing that will thrive in their soil. As long as that’s the case, farmers said, there’s not much they can do but wait for the seed traders to arrive each year. “I’m afraid that the local seed will be gone,” Sam Tuy said, surveying the first shoots of his cucumber plants in his small patch of earth. “But I don’t know what to do.”

According to a January statement from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, a pro-biotech NGO funded by Monsanto, 7 million farmers in 18 countries now plant biotech crops.

One-third of those crops were grown in developing countries in 2003, up from one-fourth only one year before, the ISAAA report said. “Farmers have made up their minds,” said ISAAA founder and chairman Clive James in the statement.

“They continue to rapidly adopt biotech crops because of significant agronomic, environmental and social advantages.”

Asked whether they were familiar with the engineering that created the superior seeds, farmers in Koh Thom district gathered on a pesticide-blanched corn field shrugged and shook their heads. “All the seeds in the bag can grow well. Cambodian seeds can’t do that,” Sim Hum said. “Maybe there is some ingredient inside that makes it grow fast.

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