Vietnam has green-lighted the cultivation of its first genetically modified (GM) corn crop after leaving a number of disturbing questions unanswered.
“I want to ask the agriculture minister what benefits genetically modified organisms will bring to Vietnamese farmers,” said To Van Truong, a senior scientist at the Ministry of Technology and Science who insists that local corn can out-produce the imported varietals by over 30 percent.
Critics like Truong say Vietnam rolled out the red carpet for foreign biotech giants looking to peddle genetically modified (GM) corn while sidelining dissenting voices like his.
In August, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development approved the imports of four corn varieties engineered 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.
Near the end of the month, the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources issued a bio-safety certificate for Monsanto's MON 89034 corn variety, enabling farmers to start commercially cultivating the crop, which is banned in Europe and China.
The environment ministry is considering issuing similar certificates for the other three varieties, but it remains unclear when that decision will be made. Given the current political landscape, it seems unlikely it will do anything else.
Draft amendments to the Investment Law originally contained language that would ban investment and trade in GM products in Vietnam. But in the latest version of the draft sent to the National Assembly -- Vietnam’s legislature -- for debate on Tuesday, lawmakers slackened that provision and prohibited only “transgenic animals”.
Critics considered the amendment their last hope of keeping GM corn out of the country.
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.
Le Huy Ham, director of the Institute of Agricultural Genetics, was quoted recently by Nong Nghiep Vietnam (Vietnam Agriculture) newspaper as saying: “The agriculture ministry is increasingly determined to realize its [GM crop-growing] plan soon."
Vietnam's small opposition to the push say they've all but given up.
Truong, a vocal critic of GMOs, confirmed that since the agriculture ministry licensed the four GM corn varieties, there has been a “silence” from those who object to the controversial crops.
“Anti-GMO activists now see no point in continuing to debate GMOs; the dice has already been cast,” Truong told Thanh Nien News. “They don’t want to fight tooth and nail against powerful interest groups.”
A September 4 piece by The Gioi Tiep Thi, a weekly newspaper, noted that at an international conference on GMOs in Ho Chi Minh City last month, familiar anti-GMO scientists were “totally absent”.
“There wasn’t a single research paper presented that disputed [the cultivation of] GMOs in Vietnam,” the piece wrote.
It also cited a well-regarded expert as saying that the portions of his paper that discussed the possible ramifications of cultivating GMOs Vietnam were cut by conference organizers.
Many scientists have questioned the high costs of GM seeds and pesticides as well as their uncertain yields and the potential to undermine local food security make them a poor choice for a developing country like Vietnam.
Truong, the Vietnamese scientist, raised a major question: On what grounds do the Vietnamese authorities buy that the GM corn is of better quality than Vietnamese varieties?
“For instance, Vietnam has been able to cultivate corn varieties that can deliver annual yields of up to 12 tons while GM varieties only produce eight tons. It is noteworthy that the Vietnamese yield came from real cultivation while the GM yield was just a result of field trials,” Truong said.
“The ministry of agriculture has been beating the drum about the benefits of GM corn varieties, but who can confirm that they can outshine Vietnamese varieties? No research conducted in Vietnam has demonstrated anything of the sort.”
A threat to sovereignty
Anti-GMO activists say the surging prices of Monsanto's patented GM seeds have bankrupted a number of American farmers who are virtually unable to find non-GMO seed because of a monopoly control on 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.
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 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.
In lieu of any convincing public argument for the corn, many have been left to speculate.
“It sounds like some officials in the Vietnamese government were lied to, and unfortunately believed the lies. This is not uncommon,” said Jeffrey Smith, author of the best-selling book Seeds of Deception and founder and executive director of the California-based NGO Institute for Responsible Technology.
Smith said when he met with members of the Vietnamese government and experts during a visit to Hanoi several years ago, "it was clear that certain government agencies had been already convinced...that GMOs were going to be the source of greater economic expansion and scientific achievement."
He said that in other countries where GMOs have taken hold, Monsanto and the biotech industry take charge. They set prices and policies and usurp decision-making in “insidious” ways.
“This is often done through specific politicians and ministries that are unfortunately not well informed about the downsides of the technology,” he said.
“Vietnam is an agricultural power. Not only is this at risk with GMO crops, so too is Vietnamese sovereignty.”