Vietnam continues to roll out the red carpet for foreign biotech giants, including the infamous Monsanto, to sell the controversial genetically modified (GM) corn varieties in the country. Critics say that by welcoming Monsanto, Vietnam has been too nice to the main manufacturer of Agent Orange, the toxic defoliant used during the Vietnam War that left a devastating legacy still claiming victims today.
According to Vietnamese media reports, in August that country’s agriculture ministry approved the imports of four corn varieties engineered for food and animal feed processing: MON 89034 and NK 603, products of DeKalb Vietnam (a subsidiary of U.S. multinational Monsanto), and GA 21 and MIR 162 from the Swiss firm Syngenta.
The Vietnamese environment ministry has to date issued bio-safety certificates for Monsanto’s MON 89034 and NK 603 corn varieties and Syngenta’s GA 21, meaning farmers can start commercially cultivating the crops. The ministry is considering issuing a similar certificate for the other variety, MR 162. Given the current political landscape, it seems that approval is just a matter of time.
In 2006, the Vietnamese government formulated an ambitious plan to develop GM crops as part of a “major program for the development and application of biotechnology in agriculture and rural development.” Under the blueprint, Vietnam is looking to cultivate its first GM crops by 2015 and have 30-50 percent of the country’s farmland covered with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) by 2020.
Environmental activists have noted the irony that just as Americans and people elsewhere around the world are revolting against GMOs in greater numbers, Vietnam is throwing away its great advantage as a non-GMO producer. “Increasingly countries around the world are rejecting GMOs, with public opposition growing daily. Across Europe and much of Asia, Latin America and Africa, people and often their governments are rejecting GMO seeds as an old technology that has failed to deliver on its promises,” said Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, senior scientist at the U.S.-based Pesticide Action Network North America.
The has been an unprecedented surge in consumer rejection of GMOs in the U.S., with food companies scrambling to secure non-GMO supplies, according to the New York Times. Europe forced its entire food industry to jettison GMOs altogether. In one prominent case, European authorities shut down 99 percent of corn imports from the U.S. at a time when only 25 percent of the corn was genetically engineered. Last year, China rejected 887,000 tons of U.S. corn because it contained Syngenta’s GM maize MIR 162 – the very same variety that has just been licensed for use in Vietnam.
The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development report, considered the most exhaustive analysis of agriculture and sustainability in history, concludes that the high costs of seeds and chemicals, uncertain yields, and the potential to undermine local food security make biotechnology a poor choice for the developing world. GMOs in their current state have nothing to offer the cause of feeding the hungry, alleviating poverty, and creating sustainable agriculture, according to the report. Six multinationals – Monsanto, Syngenta, Du Pont, Bayer, Dow, and BASF – now control almost two-thirds of the global market for seeds, three quarters of agro-chemicals sales, and the entire GM seed market, according to a report by Friends of the Earth International, an international network of environmental organizations in 74 countries.
Monsanto was the main manufacturer of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975. Vietnam claims the toxic defoliant is still killing victims today. Between 2.1 to 4.8 million Vietnamese were directly exposed to Agent Orange and other chemicals that have been linked to cancers, birth defects, and other chronic diseases during the war, according to the Vietnam Red Cross. Activists claim that introducing Monsanto’s modified corn and the toxic weed killer Roundup Monsanto plugs for use along with its crops could signal a repeat of the tragedy of Agent Orange.
“It’s ironic that Vietnam is still suffering from the Agent Orange herbicide produced by Monsanto, unleashed during the war. It turns out that Roundup herbicide, also produced by Monsanto, and used on most GMO crops, is also linked to birth defects,” said Jeffrey Smith, author of the bestselling Seeds of Deception and founder and executive director of the California, U.S.-based NGO Institute for Responsible Technology. “This evidence is found in Monsanto’s own research, as well as experience today in Argentina and other countries where populations are experiencing a skyrocketing of birth defects when exposed to this dangerous weed killer. Lab studies have demonstrated that exposing embryos to Roundup causes the same type of birth defects experience by the peasants living near the Roundup sprayed fields. Similarly, livestock consuming Roundup ready crops have high incidences the same type of birth defects,” Smith said.
Activists say the GMO corn varieties that have been recently approved in Vietnam are just the tip of the iceberg. As these GMO companies make regulatory headway into Vietnam, and establish precedent for government approval of their products, they will soon be pushing more dangerous GMO/herbicide products, they say. Rather than reducing the need for pesticides, genetically engineered (GE) crops have led to rising use of herbicides. Herbicide-resistant seeds require a massive increase in herbicide use that has been linked to significant environmental and public health concerns.
According to Ishii-Eiteman of the Pesticide Action Network North America: “The dirty little secret of the pesticide industry is that genetically engineered, herbicide-resistant seeds are the growth engines of that industry’s sales and marketing strategy. These seeds are part of a technology package explicitly designed to facilitate increased, indiscriminate herbicide use and pump up chemical sales.” According to the activists, farmers do not want to be locked into a seed market controlled by Monsanto and Syngenta (Monsanto already controls more than a quarter of the global seed market, and the top four pesticide/biotech companies control over half of the world’s commercial seeds). They point out that corn farmers in the U.S. are virtually unable to find non-GMO seed now, because Monsanto has secured a monopoly control over the U.S. seed market.
But despite the fierce opposition it has faced elsewhere in the world, Monsanto has received a hearty welcome in Vietnam. Last January, it was honored as a “sustainable agriculture company” at a national function. Last month, Monsanto announced a VND1.5 billion ($70,500) scholarship aimed at funding the study of biotechnology at the Vietnam University of Agriculture. “This scholarship aims to nurture and encourage the engagement of young talents in the development of agricultural biotechnology and products thereof to support farmers,” Monsanto said in its blog. It quoted Tran Duc Vien, the school rector, as saying: “Biotechnology is a promising branch of science in the 21st century, offering great possibilities in improving human lives in various ways. In agriculture, biotechnology has been proved to improve lives of over 18 million farmers around the world. The Government of Vietnam is determined in bringing and developing this technology in Vietnam, and has focused on developing physical and human capacity in the biotechnology sector. We are glad to see the participation of the private sector in this process and highly appreciate Monsanto for their commitment in developing talents in agricultural biotechnology.”
That position is very much in line with the attitude of the Vietnamese officials who appear to believe that the introduction of GM crops is a logical conclusion of efforts to improve yields and feed a growing population of around 90 million people at a reasonable price. Monsanto and its proponents have promoted GMOs as a highly promising solution to Vietnam’s food security concerns.
Its opponents disagree. Given that Vietnam has indicated its willingness to sign the U..S-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), activists are concerned that the U.S. is trying to use the treaty to impose restrictive intellectual property rules that could prove highly damaging to developing countries. They say the TPP, if signed, would pave the way for seed companies like Monsanto to iron out its GMO patent wrinkles in Vietnam.
Genna Reed, a researcher at the Washington D.C.-based Food & Water Watch, said: “Under the rules of the TPP, pharmaceutical firms and seed companies would have unrestrained power, allowing them to lengthen their monopolies on patents to keep generics out and drug prices high for longer periods of time, and to keep the prices of patented seeds high. The TPP would also make it more difficult to make a case against unjustified patents and harder for generic versions of drugs to become available in the Pacific region. This trade deal and the enforcement of intellectual property rights will make essential drugs and seeds more expensive and harder to come by.” Smith, the author of Seeds of Deception, summed it up: “This is a dangerous march away from national sovereignty for Vietnam and its farmers. The TPP has been designed primarily by US business interests for US business interests.”
Brian Leung is a Southeast Asia-based journalist.