Monsanto's GM crop debate reopens Agent Orange wounds

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Activists are unhappy that a company that profited once by maiming Vietnamese civilians is allowed to profit again in the country


18-year-old Thang, believed to be an Agent Orange victim according to locals who know his mother, waits for customers at a market in Hanoi on January 9. It would be ironic if Vietnam becomes a willing party to a lethal product made by the same US company that manufactured Agent Orange, the toxic defoliant used during the Vietnam War, environmental activists say.

No biotech company has yet got the official green light for selling genetically modified organisms (GMOs), but it does not assuage the fears that Vietnam could end up with another tragic legacy from a company that once caused many deaths in the country, environmental activists say.

It would be ironic if Vietnam becomes a willing party to a "lethal" product made by the same US company that manufactured Agent Orange, the toxic defoliant used during the Vietnam War, they pointed out.

One activist said he was "unhappy" with the way the highest-ranking government official to ever speak about GMOs, Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Cao Duc Phat, evaded his question in the National Assembly on Monsanto.

Senior Lieutenant General Nguyen Van Rinh, former deputy defense minister, chairman of the Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange, and a sitting legislator, told Vietweek the portion of his question referring to the company had been taken out in the minister's written reply.

"I was asking about the position of his ministry on Monsanto trying to push for widespread application of GM maize in [Vietnam]," he said.

Between 2.1 to 4.8 million Vietnamese were directly exposed to Agent Orange and other chemicals that have been linked to cancers, birth defects, and other chronic diseases during the war that ended in 1975, according to the Vietnam Red Cross.

The minister's statement, obtained by Vietweek, said: "The field trials have been completed and all the materials and GM maize seeds were destroyed on the spot.

"Such GM crops will have to come under stricter scrutiny in accordance with Vietnamese laws before they are cultivated and produced on a large scale."

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In 2006 the government approved a blueprint that envisaged covering between 30 percent and half of the country's agriculture lands with the controversial gene-altered crops by 2020.

Only three companies Monsanto, Syngenta, and Pioneer have been licensed to carry out lab research and tests in Vietnam, the minister's statement said.

Monsanto accounts for almost one-quarter (23 percent) of the global proprietary seed market.

Rinh is also worried about the weedkiller Roundup Monsanto plugs for use along with its crops.

"By introducing [GMOs] paired with toxic weed killers, the tragic legacy of Agent Orange might repeat itself," he warned.

According to the Missouri-based Monsanto 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 was convicted in France for false advertising in 2007 for 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.

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With Roundup having been proven toxic to the environment and cause birth defects in humans, activists are wary of another tragic legacy of Agent Orange.

Jeffrey Smith, author of the bestseller Seeds of Deception and founder and executive director of the California, US-based NGO Institute for Responsible Technology, said: "It is not inconsequential that a new genetically modified corn up for review is designed to be tolerant to the herbicide 2,4-D, a component of Agent Orange.

"This means that much higher amounts of toxic 2,4-D will drench the agricultural lands where this new crop is planted.

"It would be a harsh and ironic consequence if Vietnamese people suffer from birth defects from both of these Monsanto products, Roundup and Agent Orange."

Vietweek asked Monsanto about the activists' concerns, but had yet to get a reply at the time of going to press.

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