In the face of mounting pressure from free trade agreements and transnational corporations, the people who produce, distribute, and consume food are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain a just and equitable local food system. In response, small-scale farmers around the world are calling for food sovereignty, the right of communities to healthy, culturally appropriate, and sustainably produced food, and the freedom to determine their own food and agriculture systems.
Seeds are the first link in the food chain and give life to food sovereignty. This is particularly evident in the Lower Lempa region of El Salvador, where since 2011, cooperatives have been producing certified corn seed for the government’s Family Agriculture Program, which distributes the seed along with fertilizer to 400,000 small-scale farmers throughout the country. The program helps small-scale farmers surmount economic and technical barriers to ensure their families have adequate and nutritious food.
The Family Agriculture Program is part of the left-leaning Salvadoran government’s strategy to promote food sovereignty in a country that has a long history of food insecurity, social conflict, and ecological degradation related to industrial agriculture. It has strengthened the technical ability and capacity of local agricultural cooperatives to cultivate seeds and food so crucial for the food security of the nation and the rural economy. The seed component of the program has resulted in record corn production since its implementation, and generates more than one million daily wages each year in rural areas where local economies rely almost entirely on agriculture. In 2013, through domestic seed production, the Family Agriculture Program invested $25 million in the Salvadoran economy and the rural cooperatives and associations that supply it.
Capitalizing upon the opportunity to leverage the approaching $277 million Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) U.S. aid package, however, the U.S. Embassy has recently called into question the legality of the seed program, citing section 9.2 of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR). This article stipulates that both international and domestic providers receive equal consideration in the procurement of goods and services. Though clearly an issue acknowledged through El Salvador’s bi-lateral trade relationship housed with the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), the MCC has instead called for the opening of El Salvador’s domestic seed program to greater competition, including traditional ties with Monsanto and its respective subsidiaries. This seemingly contradicts the MCC’s own mandate, their El Salvador country performance scorecard for good governance indicators, and, ironically, the current competitive nature of the seed program.
In the Lower Lempa, EcoViva’s partner the Mangrove Association has helped five other local cooperatives access the seed program, serving as the interlocutor between these institutions, the hundreds of individual farmers and families they support and the Ministry of Agriculture. Collectively, the Mangrove Association and these cooperatives produce over 45% of the corn seed for the Family Agriculture Program. The Mangrove Association’s team of agronomists and engineers provides technical assistance to the cooperatives, who prior to the program, had little experience in growing crops for seed at such scale. The Mangrove Association also serves as the local institutional structure to manage credit, support the administrative system to pay the cooperatives and farm workers, and facilitate the certification process.
With over 20 years of experience working with the small-scale farmers in El Salvador, the Mangrove Association believes that they can compete with transnational agricultural giants like Monsanto because they offer a superior product at a better price, seed that is more suited to the unique food and agriculture systems of El Salvador. The local cooperatives and associations that supply the Family Agriculture Program must comply with strict guidelines regarding the production of certified corn seed that maintain the genetic integrity of the hybrid variety, ensure proper cultivation and processing practices, and meet the highest quality standards. The process is regulated by Ministry of Agriculture every step of the way, including several site visits to every supplier in the program each growing cycle.
In addition to greater quality control and regulation, domestic suppliers of certified corn seed produce a specific hybrid variety, H59, which is uniquely adapted to the extreme and diverse climate of El Salvador. In a program that distributes seeds all over the country, the variety must be able to thrive in the arid conditions of coastal lowlands and wet conditions of mountain highlands, and also be resilient to the increasingly frequent floods and droughts that often occur in the same growing season. The H59 variety has been bred to optimize production according to the specific conditions found in El Salvador. While transnational companies often boast seed with higher average yields, practical experience in El Salvador has shown that those yields do not stand up to the H59 variety when it comes to the harsh and varied conditions of El Salvador. As extreme weather conditions in El Salvador continue to change unpredictably and vary throughout the country, domestic producers are in the best position to monitor and respond to the local effects of global warming, and adapt the seed stock accordingly.
Surprisingly, the Mangrove Association actually provides certified corn seed cheaper than what the government has been able to purchase on the open commodity exchange market BOLPROS. This past year, the Salvadoran government purchased 9% of its certified corn seed from the BOLPROS market at $132 per 100 lbs. The Mangrove Association was able to supply the government with certified seeds at $123 per 100 lbs. The Mangrove Association seeds, as with all domestically sourced seeds in the program, were also monitored by the Ministry of Agriculture to make sure they comply with quality controls and standards.
Perhaps most importantly, domestic producers supply the Family Agriculture Program with a white corn variety that is preferred by Salvadorans. This ensures that 400,000 small-scale farmers and their families work with a variety that is familiar to them, that they know how to cook, and that they enjoy eating. It sustains the cultural heritage of the Salvadoran campesino and preserves important traditions of Salvadoran life, like the ubiquitous tortilla that no meal is complete without.
Despite the success of the Family Agriculture Program’s domestic seed production model, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) continues to pressure the government of El Salvador to open seed procurement away from local, domestic producers in order to move forward with the foreign aid compact. This unprecedented demand for domestic policy change in a partner country is even more surprising given that agriculture and food security are not part of the activities included in the compact — nor were they part of the compact negotiations. In fact, the MCC’s own country performance scorecard already lists El Salvador as having met and maintained satisfactory performance under its “Free Trade” standard.
Even after the MCC Board approved the compact this past September, El Salvador has responded to criticisms by the MCC by strengthening new illegal property seizure laws and making reforms to public-private partnership policies. However, demands that undermine a government food security program do not belong in the MCC compact or U.S. foreign aid, particularly when those demands address compliance with CAFTA. While the U.S. Trade Representative is on the MCC Board of Directors, that does not change the mandate of the MCC-which is to reduce poverty through economic growth, not enforce free trade agreements. The Council for Economic Growth, the primary entity set forth with the blessing of the United States to provide private-sector involvement in economic reforms, has not signaled that seed acquisition is a priority. Moreover, procurements made under the current legislative decree, passed in December 2013 which also served to speed-up rapid action to meet near-emergency levels of food insecurity due to drought, have come and gone. There is plenty of time to discuss a new, potential agreement without pressure behind an already lagging MCC compact.
That the domestic seed procurement is in conflict with CAFTA is in itself up for debate, given the U.S. government may soon face a dispute settlement action via CAFTA where they will foreseeably defend a change in domestic law that effectively incentivizes domestic procurement of ethanol in conflict with its CAFTA obligations. The case raises the question as to whether a party can unilaterally modify its CAFTA commitment through domestic legislation. The U.S. interpretation in this case seems to be that when a party changes a domestic law, then a free trade agreement provision tied to that law may no longer be applicable. The case is, in many ways, very similar to the reasoning behind the seed component of the Family Agriculture Program. In both situations the CAFTA party, in an effort to favor the domestic market, has reinterpreted its free trade commitment after a change in domestic law. The difference is that in this case, the U.S. is actually defending a CAFTA party’s ability to legally favor the domestic market by changing domestic legislation — the very thing the MCC and Embassy are criticizing the Salvadoran government for.
The Family Agriculture Program is an extremely popular and successful program, and has even been acknowledged by the U.S. Embassy as a leading rural development program that they themselves have invested in. The domestic seed procurement component is also a key factor to this success, by improving the country’s food security and sovereignty, increasing production capacity, and boosting the local rural economy. Domestic producers have proven themselves capable of leveraging their unique knowledge of the local agricultural and food systems to provide top quality seeds at a competitive price. While criticisms of the program appear to be unfounded, the benefits to the Salvadoran people clearly are not. This is a program that has the legal standing and the performance record to continue.