Monsanto facing global resistance, but Vietnam welcomes Agent Orange maker and dubious technology
|Worker Javier Alcantar tends to corn crops at the Monsanto Co. test field in Woodland, California, US, on August 10, 2012. Monsanto Co., an American multinational agricultural biotechnology corporation, is the world's leading producer of the herbicide glyphosate and the largest producer of genetically engineered (GE) seed. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG
Thuy frowned and almost immediately shook her head when asked if any of the foods sold at her supermarket carried genetically modified (GM) labels.
"Labeling is not our company policy," the employee of a Co.opmart supermarket outlet in Ho Chi Minh City's District 1 said. "But why do you have to bother about it? Is it because GM foods are better?"
Her question was neither rhetorical nor ironic. Thuy is among many people in Vietnam who are essentially clueless about and indifferent to the worldwide debate raging around genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
While the Vietnamese government enacted last June a law requiring companies to label all food made with more than 5 percent of ingredients derived from genetically modified processes, including additives and flavorings, this has never been enforced. Relevant agencies have said they cannot enforce the law without detailed guidelines.
Not labeling GM foods have environmental activists worried about the possible health risks an unwitting population is exposed to, but it has apparently allayed concerns of the US government that has been providing diplomatic cover for biotech giants to push the GMO agenda worldwide.
A diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks reveals that when the National Assembly, Vietnam's legislature, started to debate mandatory labeling of GMO food in 2009, the US embassy in Hanoi expressed "strongly voiced US concerns" over the draft law. The embassy aired its worries to the Department of State in Washington.
Activists say the US officials fear that such labeling laws will raise public awareness of the widespread prevalence of genetically engineered (GE) ingredients in food, fueling in turn a public debate about the health, environmental and economic consequences of GMOs in the food and farming systems. They say the US official fear that this would ultimately lead to public rejection of GE seeds and a reduced market for GE products, limiting the reach of the aggressive US corporations both biotech companies and food processors.
The activists have lambasted the US government for putting the interests of the seed companies ahead of the interests of consumers. A report released this month by Food & Water Watch, a Washington-based anti-GMO group, corroborates such criticism.
"The report confirms what we have already known for years," said Jeffrey Smith, author of the bestseller Seeds of Deception and founder of the Iowa-based NGO Institute for Responsible Technology.
"The US government has aligned with the biotech industry and has been bullying countries around the world into taking genetically engineered foods, even though these products have never fulfilled the long list of promises made," Smith told Vietweek.
Food & Water Watch considers the report, titled Biotech Ambassadors: How the US State Department Promotes the Seed Industry's Global Agenda, "the first comprehensive analysis of the strategy, tactics and US foreign policy objectives to foist pro-agricultural biotechnology policies worldwide."
It has pored over 900 cables culled from the quarter-million Wikileaks cables from 113 countries between 2005 and 2009 that discussed agricultural biotechnology and genetically engineered crops.
It documents widespread US diplomatic efforts to advance the interests of very large biotech seed companies like Monsanto worldwide but especially in the developing world "often over the opposition of the public and governments, to the near exclusion of other more sustainable, more appropriate agricultural policy alternatives."
A handful of giant seed companies are trying to establish a foothold in the developing world, force skeptical countries to accept biotech food imports, and pave the way for cultivation of genetically engineered crops in these countries, the report says.
The US government is providing diplomatic cover for the seed companies, according to the report. US embassies around the world have lobbied foreign governments to adopt pro-biotechnology policies and laws, orchestrated a "rigorous public relations campaign to improve the image of biotechnology and challenged commonsense biotechnology safeguards and rules even including opposing laws requiring the labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods."
Pooja Jhunjhunwala, a State Department spokeswoman, declined to comment on the authenticity of the report.
But "it is important to note that the State Department works to ensure market access for all US agricultural products, including organic, conventional and GE crops," she told Vietweek.
Monsanto said in a statement that it would maintain an "open dialogue" with many stakeholders in agriculture, including government authorities and trade associations.
"We remain committed to sharing information so that individuals can better understand our business and our commitments to support farmers throughout the world as they work to meet the agriculture demands of our world's growing population," the statement said.
Independent experts who have endorsed the report consider its findings significant.
"They expose beyond doubt the aggressive role that [the US] government has taken in promoting foreign policy objectives that benefit a handful of large transnational seed companies and that, despite claims to the contrary, actually undermine the food security and food sovereignty of developing countries," said Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, a senior scientist with Pesticide Action Network North America.
While there has been support for GMOs in all US administrations dating back to the Reagan administration, the Obama administration has been "more aggressive in support of Monsanto than its Bush predecessor," said Smith, the Iowa-based activist.
Although 26 states in America have introduced bills requiring labeling of GMOs, none of them have been passed. The US Food and Drug Administration, the agency tasked with ensuring food safety for the population, is steered by ex-Monsanto executives, which has raised the hackles of activists over the obvious conflict of interest involved.
The US Congress and President Obama have collectively passed the so-called "Monsanto Protection Act" that, among other things, bans courts from halting the sale of the corporation's GM seeds.
Scientists in the pro-GM camp have dismissed the report as "biased, unscientific and highly subjective."
"The findings are highly patronizing of people in developing countries"¦ and assume that farmers are incapable of making up their own minds about the costs and benefits of GMOs," said Mark Tester, a research professor at the University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia.
"I find this type of patronizing anti-GM stance immoral, for it is denying farmers in developing countries even the opportunity to test a new technology for themselves," Tester said.
Tom Sanders, head of the nutritional sciences research division at King's College London, said GM crops offer a number of advantages and have no human safety issues so far.
"China has already embraced GM crops and so it is not the prerogative of the capitalist Western countries," he said.
Both Tester and Sanders were also critical of a French study last September that said rats fed on Monsanto's GM corn or exposed to its top-selling weedkiller suffered tumors and multiple organ damage.
In 2006, the Vietnamese government approved a plan that would cover between 30 and 50 percent of the country's arable land with the controversial gene-altered crops by 2020.
But scant attention paid by the local media to this issue and a lack of public pronouncements by the authorities about the controversial aspects of 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 former sees the introduction of GM crops as 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 bolstering 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.
The anti-GMO activists also say there are legitimate concerns 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.
The world's leading producer of GM seeds, Monsanto was also the main manufacturer of Agent Orange that has left a devastating legacy in Vietnam that continues to claim victims generation after generation.
Some experts have even said it is possible that the Agent Orange saga is repeated with the introduction of GMOs paired with toxic weed killers like Roundup, also produced by Monsanto.
Nguyen Hong Chinh, a spokesman for Monsanto in Vietnam, said when he joined the company years ago, his mother had asked him why he was doing so after what it had done to the country.
"No one can deny that it was a sad history," said Chinh, who was born one year after the Vietnam War ended in 1975. "But it was already history.
"Let us now look at how Monsanto is contributing to the agriculture of Vietnam and helping the Vietnamese farmers improve their incomes."
On May 25, activists around the world joined annual marches against Monsanto. The date has been chosen because it is the date Monsanto shareholders convene for their annual general meeting in Saint Louis, Missouri.
The movement takes 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," a New York Times piece last month.
But the global backlash against the corporation has not prevented Monsanto's progress in Vietnam.
Chinh said given that the debate on the health impacts of GM food is still raging, the Vietnamese government and scientists have an important role in informing the people about the products so that they can make up their own minds on whether or not to buy them.
But there is no sign that Vietnamese authorities will seriously enact mandatory labeling of GM food in the country anytime soon.
Smith, the Iowa-based expert, said when he met with members of the Vietnamese government and experts during a visit to years ago, "it was clear that certain government agencies had been already convinced by Monsanto and the US government that GMOs were going to be the source of greater economic expansion and scientific achievement."
Le Dinh Luong, a professor of genetics at the Hanoi University of Sciences who has studied genes and DNA for 40 years, said he would always stand by his position that GMO is a "pinnacle" of scientific achievement.
He said Vietnam's leaders "are fully aware of the benefits of the GMOs," and slammed local scientists and media reports that have objected to the large-scale application of GMOs in the country.
"Those who are making a fuss over the hazards of GMOs are not putting the national interest above all," Luong, a Russian- and Dutch-trained scientist, told Vietweek.
Luong said he has no vested interest in Monsanto and was well aware that the company had manufactured Agent Orange used during the Vietnam War.
"That was their war crime." But, Monsanto is just like any other company now, and should not be discriminated against, he said.
However, 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."
After describing the highly adverse environmental, health and social impacts GM crops have had in India, she says that fraudulent science has been used to promote the technology while independent public scientists doing "high quality research on the bio-safety and health and environmental impact of GMOs are attacked by an organized mafia working for industry parading as scientists."
She says Arpad Putzai of the UK was "driven out of his job" after results of his study commissioned by the UK government showed that the brains of the rats in his feeding study had shrunk, the pancreas had expanded, and the immunity had collapsed.
Shiva quoted Basudeb Acharia, who chaired an Indian Parliamentary Standing Committee set up by the nation's Supreme Court to study the issue safety of GMOs, as saying: "The committee has come to the conclusion that since concerns on the potential and actual impacts of GM crops to our food, farming, health and environment are valid, GM crops are just not the right solution for our country."
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