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Investing in GMOs is the worst decision Vietnam could make at this time, putting its food sovereignty at risk, independent scientists say

A Thai organic farmer pretends to be dead after eating GM corn during a protest against the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to Thailand outside the Government House in Bangkok in 2004. Opponents say that investing in GMOs is the worst decision Vietnam can take at this juncture when the market for GM crops is shrinking and more evidence emerges about its long term implications.

The jury is not really out on genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Activists are unequivocal that they are very harmful to human and environmental health. They point to the many lies and discredited information its proponents keep pushing as evidence.

The proponents, meanwhile, hail it as a scientific advance that has the potential to solve the world's hunger problems.

To promote GMOs at this point is probably the worst decision that Vietnam can make, activists, many of them independent scientists, say. They reiterate that the information widely circulated about genetically-modified (GM) crops is conspicuously biased and incomplete.

Many of the so-called facts produced by Monsanto, the world's largest seed company, have been proven wrong long ago, they assert.

"As this technology can impact everyone who eats, persist in the environment, negatively impact farmers, and destroy export markets, it makes sense to find every excuse to cancel or at least delay its deployment," said Jeffrey Smith, founder and executive director of the Institute for Responsible Technology (IRT), a California-based NGO that seeks to educate policymakers and the public about the risks and impacts of GMOs on health, environment, agriculture, and the global economy.

The Vietnamese government approved in 2006 a blueprint to develop GM crops through a "major program for the development and application of biotechnology in agriculture and rural development through 2020."

The plan envisaged the completion of lab research and field trials of some GM crops by 2010, cultivation by 2015 and planting of between 30 and 50 percent of the country's farmland by 2020.

The Agricultural Genetics Institute said it believed that GM corn, which is more resistant to insect pests and grass pesticides, could ensure crop yields 30-40 percent higher than normal.

A pilot cultivation of the GM corn in the northern province of Vinh Phuc has shown no negative impact on the environment and biological diversity, the institute said early this month.

The Vietnamese government has given the go-ahead to field trials of GM maize, cotton and soybean plants before planting them on a large scale, which is slated to begin in 2012.

"GM crops have performed far better than their non-GM counterparts," Le Huy Ham, director of the Agricultural Genetics Institute, was quoted by local media as saying.

Ham went on to say that the public could rest assured that no study in the world has been able to conclude that the GM crops would be harmful to people's health.

Known liar

International experts reject these claims emphatically.

"Monsanto lies. That's what they do they've lied in nearly every country, for decades," said Smith, who authored the book "Seeds of Deception: Exposing Industry and Government Lies about the Safety of the Genetically Engineered Foods You're Eating."

"They've been caught, convicted, fined, and publicly humiliated, and yet they continue to lie."

The increase in yields claimed "would have been known and will show in data. It's only spin doctors' claims," said Hervé Le Crosnier, a researcher at the France's University of Caen.

"In fact we have two different kinds of way to measure yield. First is the intrinsic (or potential) one, which considers only the best conditions, and then the operational yield, which considers the real production in the farm, including pest resistance, drought, or climate"¦"

"Such claims are typical advertisement practice. They don't rely on data in real use, in the fields, in diverse situations, but are extrapolation of experiments that are done in the best possible conditions," Le Crosnier said.

"What can be true in a test-field is surely not in the real farm, because nature is so complex and unpredictable."

The Union of Concerned Scientists' 2009 report "Failure to Yield" is considered the definitive study to date on GM crops and yield.

The report concludes that genetically engineering herbicide tolerant soybeans and herbicide-tolerant corn has not increased yields. Insect-resistant corn has only marginally improved yields. Yield increases in both crops over the last 13 years were largely due to traditional breeding or improved agricultural practices.

"Traditional breeding outperforms genetic engineering hands down," it says.

The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) report, authored by more than 400 scientists and backed by 58 governments, also states that GM crop yields were "highly variable" and in some cases, "yields declined."

"Assessment of the technology lags behind its development, information is anecdotal and contradictory, and uncertainty about possible benefits and damage is unavoidable," the report says.

Not only do GMOs under-deliver, they consistently burden governments and entire sectors with losses and problems.

The Canadian National Farmers Union (NFU) said in a 2005 report that, "Corporate and government managers have spent millions trying to convince farmers and other citizens of the benefits of GM crops. But this huge public relations effort has failed to obscure the truth: GM crops do not deliver the promised benefits; they create numerous problems, costs, and risks.

"It would be too generous even to call GM crops a solution in search of a problem: these crops have failed to provide significant solutions."

Not now, not ever

Opponents maintain that investing in GMOs now, at a time when markets are shrinking, would be a terribly wrong decision.

IRT's Smith recalled that after visiting Vietnam two months ago, he met representatives of a division of agribusiness giant Cargill who were seeking a location in Southeast Asia to place their factory, worth US$150-$300 million.

"The factory was to create a plastic-type substance out of agricultural products, but a key criterion for the location was the long-term availability of non-GM crops. They told me that the market demanded non-GMO, even for containers," Smith said.

"The demand for non-GM crops is actually rising."

US researcher firm Nielsen announced last year that "non-GMO" was the fastest-growing health and wellness claim on store-brand foods in 2009, up by 67 percent from the previous year and representing $60.2 million in sales.

Elsewhere in the world, Missouri-based Monsanto, which accounts for almost one-quarter (23 percent) of the global proprietary seed market, has continued to face growing public pressure.

In an unprecedented, though much delayed decision, the National Biodiversity Authority of India (NBA) has decided to initiate legal action against M/s Mahyco/Monsanto and their collaborators for accessing and using local brinjal (eggplant) varieties in developing Bt Brinjal, a genetically modified version of the common vegetable, without prior approval from authorities.

Vandana Shiva, an Indian physicist and environmentalist who won the 2010 Sydney Peace Prize, wrote in an April Op-Ed titled "Great Seed Robbery" carried by the Deccan Chronicle: "Seed sovereignty is the foundation of food sovereignty. Seed freedom is the foundation of food freedom.

"The great seed robbery threatens both. It must be stopped," Shiva wrote.

Smith said it makes sense to invite many of the independent scientists who are critical of the technology to visit Vietnam and to submit their findings.

"Only then can the well-meaning Vietnamese officials do a proper job of helping the citizens, and ensure food sovereignty."

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