In Vietnam, genetically modified organisms find fertile ground to grow

By An Dien, Thanh Nien News

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Monsanto faces global disdain, but Vietnam welcomes and even honors the Agent Orange maker


A man holds a painted ear of corn during one of many worldwide ‘March Against Monsanto’ protests against genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and agro-chemicals, in Los Angeles, California on October 12, 2013. PHOTO: REUTERS

In its latest show of endorsing controversial genetically modified organisms (GMOs), Vietnam is set to allow three foreign companies to plant their GMO corn varieties on a small scale even before they have approval to sell the seeds here.

Dekalb Vietnam, which operates under US mega-corporation Monsanto, Pioneer Hi-Bred Vietnam under the US’s Dupont, and Syngenta of Switzerland, were licensed to carry out lab research and tests on the seeds here in 2011.

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The results of that research are currently being examined by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, which will have the final say on approving their sale in the country.

 

The companies also late last year received the endorsement of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, which announced that their worm- and weed killer-resistant varieties are environmentally friendly.

These developments are in line with an ambitious 2006 government blueprint to develop GM crops as part of a “major program for the development and application of biotechnology in agriculture and rural development” aimed at improving yields and feeding a population of 90 million.

The plan aims to have some GM crops cultivated in Vietnam by 2015 and then envisages covering 30-50 percent of the country’s farmland with GMOs by 2020.

But environmental activists point to the irony that just as Americans are revolting against GMOs in greater numbers, Vietnam is throwing away its great advantage as a non-GMOs producer.

“There has been an unprecedented upsurge of consumer rejection against GMOs in the US,” Jeffrey Smith, author of the bestseller Seeds of Deception and founder of the Iowa-based NGO Institute for Responsible Technology, told Vietweek.

In the US, the most recent figures show that non-GMO labeled products grew 26 percent in 2012, more than any other category of foods with labeling claims.

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.

More and more conventional food companies are giving up GMOs. Breakfast cereals Cheerios and Grape Nuts, the home brand of the Target chain, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and Chipotle’s chain of Mexican food restaurants have all gone GMOs-free or will do so shortly. In Europe, the entire food industry has been forced to abandon GMOs altogether.

Just last week Chinese importers canceled purchases of four cargoes of US corn, after one cargo was diverted to Vietnam a week earlier as a dispute over an unapproved GM strain remained unresolved. The newswire quoted the US Department of Agriculture as saying that the cancellation of 220,000 tons of corn by China for shipment in the current marketing year.

Analysts say that by allowing GMOs into the country via field trials, the Vietnamese government risks its entire export market advantage as foreign markets do not necessarily trust exporters’ ability to segregate non-GMO shipments.

They point to one prominent case in which Europe shut down 99 percent of its corn imports from the US when only 25 percent of the corn was genetically engineered.

“The economics of GMOs just doesn’t add up,” Smith said. “The [Vietnamese] government is getting skewed advice from the biotech industry and from their chief supporter—the US government.”

A little too ironic

Monsanto, one of the three companies flaunting their GM corn varieties in Vietnam, was also the main manufacturer of Agent Orange, the toxic defoliant used during the Vietnam War that left a devastating legacy still claiming victims today.

Activists point out that by introducing GMOs paired with the toxic weed killer Roundup, the tragedy of Agent Orange might repeat itself.

According to the Missouri-based company website, Roundup works by being absorbed into a plant’s leaves and entering the sap system. From there, it works its way down to the roots where it begins to quickly kill the plant. The company states that Roundup is only active in plants, and that it becomes inactive once it touches the soil.

But Monsanto, the world’s leading producer of GM seeds, was convicted by a French court in 2007 for false advertising due to its claims that Roundup was biodegradable and left the soil “clean.”

It has also been caught falsifying data in its studies. Despite company claims to the contrary, various independent studies have pointed out that lab animals that consumed soybeans or corn treated with Roundup developed serious reproductive problems. There were changes in testicles, uteruses, the DNA functioning of their offspring, up to a fivefold increase in infant mortality, fewer and smaller babies, and sterile offspring.

Last May, activists around the world joined annual marches against Monsanto. The date was chosen because it was when Monsanto shareholders convened for their annual general meeting in St. Louis, Missouri.

The movement took place against a company that “bribed an Indonesian official to block an environmental impact study of its genetically modified cotton, sued farmers for allowing Monsanto seeds accidentally blown onto their fields to grow, and helped defeat California labeling proposition,” according to the New York Times.

But the global disdain and backlash against the global seed giant has apparently failed to thwart Monsanto’s progress in Vietnam.

“Monsanto's interest in Vietnam is without doubt as a lucrative market for patented genetically engineered (GE) seeds and chemical pesticides manufactured by US corporations,” Paul Towers, a spokesperson for the US-based Pesticide Action Network, told Vietweek.

The irony hit its crescendo as the government honored Monsanto as a “sustainable agriculture company” at a national function last month.

“At Monsanto, we are committed to sustainable agriculture. We are pleased that this honor recognizes that commitment,” Nguyen Hong Chinh, a spokesman for Monsanto Vietnam, told Vietweek.

“This recognition reflects the dedicated work of Monsanto employees who have been working together with farmers and partners in Vietnam since 1995 to improve agriculture and improve lives,” he said.

Chinh said the demonstration of GM corn is scheduled to take place in April or May to show the public the need to grow GM corn to reduce Vietnam’s dependence on imports. Vietnam 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.

But experts have long cringed at Monsanto’s repeated claims that it supports sustainable agriculture in countries like Vietnam, saying high-priced GE 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 costs for 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.

“Please don’t make the mistake of not listening to the more than 400 scientist authors of this comprehensive report,” Smith, the Iowa-based expert, said.

“Monsanto is consistently voted each year as the most hated corporation on earth.”

‘BIO-PIRACY’

Activists say scant attention paid by the local media and a lack of public pronouncements by the authorities about the controversial aspects of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have played into the hands of multinational corporations like Monsanto who have been touting the “technology” as a solution to Vietnam’s agriculture problems.

It is only recently that a debate of sorts has emerged in Vietnam, and the country’s scientific community seems to be split into pro-GMO and anti-GMO camps as well.

The pro-GMP group considers the introduction of GM crops the logical conclusion to efforts to improve yields and feed a population of around 90 million people at reasonable prices. They promote it as a highly promising solution to food security in Vietnam.

The 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 healthy.

They say that since GMOs are categorized in Vietnam under the fancy umbrella of biotechnology, there is a belief among some people that genetically engineered crops are an excellent agricultural innovation.

But Vandana Shiva, an Indian scientist and activist who has been at the forefront of the fight against GMOs, writes on her Zspace page: “Seeds are not an invention. They embody millions of years of biological evolution, and thousands of years of cultural evolution and farmers’ breeding. When corporations claim patents, they basically ‘pirate’ traits that nature and farmers have evolved.

“This is not innovation and invention, it is bio-piracy.”

 

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