A Thai organic farmer wearing a facemask of then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra looks through a chicken coop during a protest against the introduction of genetically modified organisms into Thailand outside Government House in Bangkok in 2004.
Vietnamese farmers no longer have to look far to find genetically-modified seeds, scientists warn.
They are widely available on the black market and have been smuggled into the country for years, they said while speaking at a panel discussion on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Vietnam held in Hanoi last week.
"Thai papaya's resistance to ringspot virus has for long been spreading by word of mouth among Vietnamese farmers," said Ngo Xuan Binh, dean of the biotechnology and food engineering department, College of Agriculture and Forestry, Thai Nguyen University of Agriculture and Forestry.
"While it is difficult to get accurate information, it would appear that a significant quantity of genetically-modified papaya from Thailand has been smuggled in and illegally distributed to farmers around Vietnam.
"Our independent study has confirmed this hypothesis."
This is not good news since GM crops are illegal and most Vietnamese remain clueless about and indifferent to the worldwide debate swirling around them.
Besides, since GMOs are categorized in Vietnam under the fancy umbrella name of biotechnology, there is a belief among some people that genetically engineered crops are an excellent agricultural innovation.
Vietnam only joined the GMO debate recently after the government announced its support for genetically-modified technology.
Environmental activists and international experts are worried about GM plants that have undergone trials and are about to be cultivated widely in the country by 2020, especially because Monsanto is one of the three companies licensed to carry out research and tests in Vietnam.
Monsanto, the world's leading producer of GM seeds, was also the main manufacturer of Agent Orange that left a devastating legacy in Vietnam, a legacy that continues to cause harm to this day.
There is well-founded concern that the Agent Orange saga might be repeated with the introduction of GMOs paired with toxic weed killers.
"Monsanto promoted Agent Orange use in the Vietnam War," Chuck Searcy, vice president of the Veterans for Peace Organization, said.
"At that time they said it was totally harmless, it cannot hurt anyone.
"Now we know the truth, 40 years later we know the truth. How many years will it take before we know the truth about GMOs?"
Meanwhile, the country's scientific community has split into two camps: pro-GM and anti-GM.
The former sees the introduction of GM crops as the logical conclusion to efforts to improve yields to feed a growing population and drive down prices. The pro-GM scientists promote it as a highly promising solution to bolstering food security in Vietnam.
The anti-GM scientists and environmental activists dismiss this completely, saying GM crops are neither inexpensive nor healthy.
Jon Anderholm, an environmental resources specialist at the California, US-based Ecological Literacy Research, referred to the ongoing boycott of tainted Chinese products when discussing the health risks lurking in GMO food.
"A majority of Vietnamese resent the import and usage of Chinese products and substitute a stereotype of dangerous instead of cheap. It should be the same for GMO food.
"There should be a similar consumer backlash when it comes to GMO."
Opponents blame these critics for alarmism and exaggerating the harmful effects of GM crops.
Binh, the Vietnamese academic, is one of them: "I accidently picked up and drank genetically modified soy milk in Europe in 1992. Nothing has happened to me so far."
Proponents of biotechnology say anti-GMO campaigners are anti-technology forces that prevent Vietnam from catching up with the rest of the world.
Le Dinh Luong, a professor of genetics at the Hanoi University of Sciences who has studied genes and DNA for 40 years, blamed the fuss on anti-GMO people's inadequate knowledge of the detailed workings of genetics.
Their opposition is slowing Vietnam's progress to self-sufficiency, he said, claiming anti-GMO groups have a hidden agenda - ensuring higher profits for organic food producers.
"Western consumers are well known for their wariness of GMO foods, but this is an elitist concern," he said.
"This is why Western activists advocate for costly organic food, rather than for greater and cheaper food production."
Planting seeds of risk
It is hard to imagine how the technology will benefit consumers and poor Vietnamese farmers.
Activists challenge pro-GMO groups' claims that genetic engineering will enhance the sustainability of agriculture by improving conventional farming, enhancing productivity, and reducing the environmental footprints of agriculture.
Vandana Shiva, an Indian physicist and prominent anti-GMO activist who won the 2010 Sydney Peace Prize and pulled out of the Hanoi conference at a late stage, sent a message saying there are no such gains.
"There is no increase in yields, and hence GMOs are not a solution to hunger.
"There is an increase in the use of agrichemicals. GMOs are also leading to the emergence of super-pests and super weeds."
A large body of scientific evidence and heartbreaking real-life stories support her warnings. In the last decade and a half failed GMO crops and costly agrichemicals have triggered debts and the suicide of 270,000 Indian farmers.
Yet neither GMO developers nor dealers have admitted any responsibility, insisting instead that farmers fail to follow instructions while using their seeds.
It is not just the horrible farmer suicide rates in India, but also health and environmental concerns that require Vietnamese authorities to look before they leap.
A senior member of the Vietnam Association of Architects, who asked not to be named, expressed concern about the use of weed-killers in growing GM crops.
"While working on national rural development programs, I have been to the northern mountainous region where farmers bought into the claims of effectiveness of weed-killers associated with GMOs.
"They sprayed a lot of weed-killers on their land, especially during the rainy season.
"They are paying the price as the weed-killers ran downhill and contaminated water bodies, causing fish to have enlarged heads and skinny bodies. Their hens and ducks are unable to lay eggs either."
Activists also express worry about the opportunity available for Vietnamese people to make the right choices about the food they eat and how it is produced.
"The GMO process is unlike natural evolution or hybrids, when nature can reject some combinations that don't work, aren't healthy, or aren't right," Searcy pointed out.
"The GMO process involves blasting with a genetic gun, maybe one million times, a gene with particles from another gene until, maybe after 999,000 times, the gene is damaged enough so that another gene can be implanted into it.
"It lives and recovers, heals, maybe scars, but it continues to live as a different organism. That's not a natural process, and we do not yet know the consequences."
Hazards of GMOs
Several independent research works on food safety indicate that GMOs have serious bio-safety issues. Arpad Putzai, a Hungarian-born biochemist and nutritionist commissioned by the UK government, studied rats fed with GM potatoes. He found they had shrunken brains, enlarged pancreas, and damaged immune systems.
According to the American Academy of Environmental Medicine, certain animal studies also showed altered structure and functioning of the liver as a consequence of eating GMO foods.
There were metabolism and cell changes that could lead to accelerated aging, it said.
Safety assessment of GM foods has been based on the idea that "if a new food is found to be substantially equivalent in composition and nutritional characteristics to an existing food, it can be regarded as safe as the conventional food," it said.
Other animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with GM foods like infertility, immune dysregulation, accelerated aging, dysregulation of genes associated with cholesterol synthesis, insulin regulation, cell signaling, and protein formation, and changes in the liver, kidney, spleen and gastrointestinal system.
Genes account for only a part of the control of the biochemistry of organisms, and organisms have a level of control above genes that interact with genes. This explains why genetic engineering is so unpredictable, with different results produced by each attempt and why the products are often unstable and dangerous.
However, since GMOs have not been used long enough for scientists to accurately measure their impact on human health, and only now are they beginning to see some results that raise questions about diseases and aliments caused or linked to them, much more research is needed before GM-related products are used.
Meanwhile, even as the safety of GMOs is still being debated, GM seeds have already been sold to Vietnamese farmers on the black market and started their invasion of the country's food chain.
Eradicating them will entail enormous effort and costs, experts said. But before it is too late Vietnamese authorities and scientists have to act to prevent the contamination from spreading further, they added.
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