Vietnam has approved the importation of several genetically-modified (GM) corn varieties and left it to the environment ministry to decide whether to plant the controversial crops on a massive scale.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development on August 11 authorized four corn varieties for food and animal feed processing—namely, MON 89034 and NK603 , produced by Dekalb Vietnam (a subsidiary of US mega-corporation Monsanto) and Bt 11 and MIR 162 from the Swiss firm Syngenta.
The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment must issue a bio-safety certificate before farmers can start commercially cultivating the crops, which are banned in Europe and China.
It remains unclear when that decision will be made. But given the current political landscape, it seems unlikely that the ministry will do anything but give the approval.
The quick push toward GMO
In 2006, the government drafted 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.”
The plan aimed to cultivate Vietnam's first GM crops by 2015 and have 30-50 percent of the country’s farmland covered with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) by 2020.
An increasing number of Vietnamese officials and scientists have touted the need to grow GM corn to reduce Vietnam’s dependence on imports. The country currently imports 1.5 million tons of corn for animal feed every year from Brazil, Argentina, and the US, including GM varieties, according to the agriculture ministry.
Le Huy Ham, director of the Institute of Agricultural Genetics, was quoted by Nong Nghiep Vietnam (Vietnam Agriculture) newspaper as saying that the license to use the four aforesaid GM maize varieties would pave the way for the mass cultivation of GM crops in Vietnam.
“The agriculture ministry is increasingly determined to realize its [GM crop-growing] plan soon,” Ham said.
Broken promises, consumer boycotts
Members of the biotech industry cannot be happier about the plan.
“Syngenta believes that all farmers should be able to choose the best available technologies and products, including biotech crops, to meet their crop production needs in a sustainable way,” Cindy Ruan, a Syngenta spokeswoman, told Thanh Nien News.
“Agricultural biotechnology is one of the tools in a toolbox of technologies that can help farmers to improve productivity, secure and improve yields and produce higher quality crops […] it is critical to the sustainability of agriculture in Vietnam and the region.”
Syngenta and five other multinationals – Monsanto, 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.
A logo sits on a sign outside Syngenta AG's headquarters in Basel, Switzerland. Photo credit: Bloomberg
In recent months, these corporations and their political and scientific allies have engaged in a worldwide push to commercialize GM crops .
“This is in response to another trend we see globally which is that the GM technology has massively under-delivered and not produced what the industries and the science circles had promised decades ago … and still do promise - and more and more people and countries are beginning to realize that,” Angelika Hilbeck, a senior scientist at the Institute of Integrative Biology of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, told Thanh Nien News.
Hilbeck has conducted extensive research on the bio-safety issues associated with GMOs, including environmental risk assessments and post-release monitoring of GMOs since 1994.
She believes that having a country like Vietnam open its door to GMOs is critical to the industries promoting them -- particularly at a time when so many countries are closing doors on the crops.
There has been an unprecedented surge in consumer rejection of GMOs in the US. The New York Times reported last year that food companies were scrambling to secure non-GMO supplies, and that farmers were commanding higher premiums for non-GMO crops.
Across Europe and much of Asia, Latin America and Africa, people and often their governments are rejecting GMO seeds as an outdated technology that has failed to deliver on its promises.
Europe forced its entire food industry to abandon GMOs altogether. In one prominent case, Europe shut down 99 percent of its corn imports from the US at a time when only 25 percent of the corn was genetically engineered.
Last year, China rejected 887,000 tons of US corn because they contained Syngenta’s GM maize MIR 162 -- the very same variety that has just been licensed for use in Vietnam.
‘Tip of the iceberg’
“The GM maize varieties that have been recently approved in Vietnam are just the tip of the iceberg,” said Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, senior scientist at the US-based Pesticide Action Network North America. “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 products.”
Activists say scant attention paid by the local media and a lack of public statements by the authorities about the controversial aspects of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have played into the hands of multinational corporations like Monsanto, which have described them as a solution to Vietnam’s agriculture problems.
It was only recently that a debate of sorts emerged in Vietnam, where the issue appears to have divided the scientific community.
The pro-GMP camp considers the introduction of GM crops a logical conclusion to efforts to improve yields and feed a growing population of around 90 million people at a reasonable price. They promote GMOs as a highly promising solution to Vietnam's food security concerns.
“From a food safety point of view, there are no concerns about these GMO varieties. They have advantages to the environment in that they reduce the chemical input required for food production,” said Tom Sanders, head of the nutritional sciences research division at King's College London.
Anti-GMO scientists and environmental activists, on the other hand, dismiss this argument completely, saying there is evidence aplenty that GM crops are neither inexpensive nor safe. They say that since GMOs are categorized in Vietnam under the fancy umbrella of biotechnology, a belief has emerged that holds genetically engineered crops as an excellent agricultural innovation.
The new Agent Orange?
Monsanto, one of the two companies licensed to import GM corn into Vietnam, was the main manufacturer of Agent Orange during the war.
The toxic defoliant is still claiming victims today.
Activists claim that introducing Monsanto's modified corn and the toxic weed killer Roundup could signal a repeat of the tragedy of Agent Orange.
According to the Missouri-based company's website, Roundup is absorbed into a plant’s sap system through its leaves. From there, it works its way down into the roots where it begins to quickly kill the plant. The company states that Roundup only affects plants, and becomes inactive once it touches the soil.
But Monsanto, which controls one fourth of the world’s GM seeds, has also been caught falsifying data in its studies. Despite company claims to the contrary, independent researchers have pointed out that lab animals fed soybeans or corn treated with Roundup developed serious reproductive problems. The substance was linked to changes in reproductive organs as well as critical DNA functions in their offspring
Not so cheap
Experts have long cringed at Monsanto’s repeated claims that it supports sustainable agriculture in countries like Vietnam, saying high-priced genetically engineered seeds and associated herbicides are ill-suited to farmers in the developing world.
The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development report is considered the most comprehensive analysis of agriculture and sustainability in history.
It concludes that the high cost 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, the report found.
But the global disdain and backlash has apparently failed to thwart Monsanto’s progress in Vietnam.
Last January, the Vietnamese government honored Monsanto as a “sustainable agriculture company” at a national function.
‘Vietnam's choice to make’
Anti-GMO activists fear that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an ambitious US-led 12-nation trade agreement, could open the floodgates.
In Europe, we went down the industrial path and are getting increasingly fed up with it - therefore, we do not go the path of GM crops and the signs are more and more on also curtailing or abandoning industrial agriculture. You have to decide which path you want to go in Vietnam with your agriculture and food system. It is Vietnam’s choice to make.” -- Angelika Hilbeck, a senior scientist at the Institute of Integrative Biology of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich
“The fast track legislation in the US, which the administration hopes to use to pass the TPP, specifically targets biotech skepticism as a trade barrier and aims to ensure that biotech crops and seeds are not limited in any way,” said Darcey O'Callaghan, international policy director of Food & Water Watch, an environmental group in Washington.
The trade deal, she said, would impose stringent intellectual property rules on seeds, including long term patents and penalties for non-patented seed use.
“It will be hard for countries like Vietnam to keep US GMO imports out, even if that's what citizens want. And once you're importing it, you might as well grow it too.”
Activists say Vietnam should carefully consider the mounting problems being faced by other GMO-crop producing countries.
Anti-GMO activists say the surging prices of Monsanto's patented GMO seeds have bankrupted a number of American farmers who are virtually unable to find non-GMO seed because of a monopoly control over the US market.
Select scientists and public health professionals also warn of the harmful health and environmental impact of the dramatic increase in herbicide use that has accompanied the introduction of genetically engineered (GE) seeds.
“In the US we have seen an increase in herbicide use of over 500 million pounds, since the introduction of GE crops,” said Ishii-Eiteman of the Pesticide Action Network North America.
As in other countries, the introduction of GMOs not only diminishes the ability of farmers to practice their own methods of seed selection, but also increases monopolization, which hurts both farmers and consumers.
In India, a wave of cotton subsistence farmers who borrowed heavily to buy the Monsanto's Bt cotton seeds killed themselves after they proved far less drought-resistant than native cotton. While a link between the seeds and the suicides has been hotly debated, internal Monsanto reports have acknowledged one exists.
Corn could be an even bigger problem.
“The negative economic and ecological consequences of introducing GMOs in Vietnam are great, particularly for corn, which disburses pollen easily. Vietnamese farmers can expect higher seed prices, increased weed and insect resistance to herbicides and pesticides, and increased agrochemical use, resulting in greater environmental pollution,” said O'Callaghan.
“Organic farmers can expect patent infringement lawsuits due to the ease of contamination. And consumers will be kept in the dark as I suspect proper food labeling laws will not be put in place prior to the introduction of GMOs.”
Hilbeck, the Swiss exper, pointed out that this boils down to a choice Vietnam should consider carefully.
“In Europe, we went down the industrial path and are getting increasingly fed up with it - therefore, we do not go the path of GM crops and the signs are more and more on also curtailing or abandoning industrial agriculture,” she said.
“You have to decide which path you want to pursue in Vietnam with your agriculture and food system. It is Vietnam’s choice to make.”