No welcome mat for Monsanto: Vietnam must draw the line

June 14, 2016 | 09:10 pm PT
Monsanto - the U.S. biotech company that manufactured the devastating Agent Orange chemical used against civilians during the Vietnam War - has been quietly welcomed back into Vietnam to cultivate genetically modified animal feed, even as it has continued to refuse to compensate its Vietnamese victims.

This grotesque irony is just one of a series of ironies associated with the recent rapprochement between the U.S. and Vietnam.

During President Barack Obama's visit to Vietnam last month, the U.S. announced that it would lift the lethal arms sales embargo on Vietnam in a largely symbolic move that has been touted as a watershed in burgeoning ties between the two countries. In other words, peace and reconciliation between the two former foes are being exhibited by Washington agreeing to sell weapons to Hanoi.

Meanwhile, it has also come to public knowledge that Bob Kerrey, accused of committing "war atrocities" for his leading role in a grisly massacre in the Vietnam War, has been appointed as chairman of the board of Fulbright University Vietnam. To put things in perspective, Kerrey, who was behind the brutal slaughter of 20 women, children and elderly men during that operation, is now at the helm of an educational institution that is named after Sen. J. William Fulbright, a vociferous opponent of the American-Vietnam War.

Amid these ironies, it should perhaps be no surprise that the Vietnamese government is also welcoming Monsanto back with open arms.

Since 2014, Monsanto has been licensed to cultivate three genetically modified corn varieties for animal feed in Vietnam, and aims to have more approved in the near future in the very country where the toxic defoliant continues to take its toll.

Even if Vietnam has apparently made some behind-closed-door trade-offs for the lifting of the arms sales ban, or has condoned the appointment of Kerrey, its rapprochement to the U.S. must not involve unfettered pandering to Monsanto. Doing so would not only rub salt into an already festering wound of millions of Vietnamese victims, but could also portend a dangerous march away from food sovereignty for the country.

The threat of GMOs under the TPP

GMOs are likely to become more widespread in Vietnam if the U.S. Congress passes the American-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which has been repeatedly billed as a harbinger of rapprochement between the two former foes. There is a precedent: following the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in the 1990s, the U.S. flooded Mexico with cheap American corn, including Monsanto's GMOs strains.

The Vietnamese authorities have been more than eager to endorse the TPP, but at the same time, have not been transparent enough about the risks of growing GMOs per se, as well as the ramifications of the ambitious trade deal in this regard.

Aside from the health and environmental concerns some activists have about GMOs, introducing that kind of crop could be detrimental to small-scale farmers that still dominate Vietnam's agriculture sector. The TPP is the first trade deal to create specific protections for biotechnology, which were designed to strengthen the hand of the biotech seed industry in pressing TPP nations to accelerate field trials and approve commercial cultivation of biotech crop varieties.

On patents and intellectual property, it requires all TPP countries to adopt the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants as revised in 1991, known as UPOV91. Patrick Woodall, research director of the Washington, DC-based advocacy group Food & Water Watch, paints a grim picture. "UPOV91 restricts or bans seed sharing, allows companies to patent traditional crop varieties, limits or bans seed saving and seed selling, and it provides for strict sanctions against farmers that violate plant variety intellectual property rules," he said.

This gives the seed companies considerable leverage over farmers and strengthens their ability to enforce their seed patents. With the country looking to have GMOs crops on 30 percent of its farmland by 2020, in the long run Vietnam's dependency on GMO seeds could end up handing over national food sovereignty to Monsanto. 

Monsanto's refusal to compensate Agent Orange victims

Let's also not forget that Monsanto made Agent Orange and has continued to refuse to compensate its victims for the damage. But in a country where much of the population was born after the war and is either unaware of the details of its horrors or is willing to bury the hatchet with the U.S., Monsanto has been able to get away with the backlash it is facing in other parts of the world.

The Vietnamese officials who signed off on Monsanto's return appear to be glossing over the country's ugly history with the company too, capitalizing on its forward-looking young population to unhelpfully give credence to Monsanto. To these officials, it makes no more sense to restrict Monsanto than to limit Boeing, which made the B-52s that dropped tons of bombs on the country

That is a false equivalence, however. Several courts have ordered Monsanto, but not Boeing, to pay compensation for its wartime products. What's more, those Monsanto-leaning Vietnamese officials are defending a company that in 2005 admitted to having bribed an Indonesian official to block an environmental impact study of its genetically engineered cotton. It is also this company that has often sued farmers whose fields are inadvertently contaminated by its products. Last September, a French court upheld a 2012 ruling that held Monsanto accountable for the chemical poisoning of a French farmer.

But now that Monsanto is back in Vietnam, the Vietnamese government must first do right by its people. Vietnamese consumers deserve the right to know what is in the food they are eating. The government enacted a law last January requiring companies to label all food made with ingredients derived from genetically modified processes; it must be strictly enforced in a country that has a poor record of implementing its own laws.

Even though Monsanto is adamant that it is not to blame for the Agent Orange tragedy, the Vietnamese government must set a prerequisite for what the company must do to do business in Vietnam: Monsanto must foot the bill for the cleanup of major hotspots where Agent Orange and other toxic herbicides were mixed, stored, loaded onto planes and used by U.S. military personnel during the war.

The U.S. government began a cleanup at a former American military base in the central city of Da Nang in 2012, but that was only one of several contaminated sites in dire need of serious cleanup across Vietnam. During his visit, Obama only said briefly that his government "committed to partnering with Vietnam to make a significant contribution to the cleanup of dioxin contamination at Bien Hoa Airbase", another major hotspot.

Before any further concrete action is taken, each Vietnamese government agency must stop acquiescing to Monsanto's charm offensive in the country. By honoring Monsanto as a "sustainable agriculture company", Vietnam's agriculture ministry is coddling a company that is routinely voted as one of the most hated corporations on earth. By accepting a paltry amount of nearly $70,000 worth of scholarships over a five-year period, the Vietnam University of Agriculture - the country's leading agricultural institution - has enabled Monsanto to buy its way into the media.

At a time when the world has started to shun genetically engineered crops, it would be a harsh irony if Vietnam became a success story for Monsanto. Clearly, the question of Agent Orange is now buried under the broader contemporary issues facing Vietnam and the U.S., chief among them the rise of China. But at the end of the day, the Chinese threats must not be an excuse for the U.S. government and Monsanto to walk away with a tacit nod from Vietnam.

Luong Nguyen An Dien is a Vietnamese journalist with a master's degree from Columbia Journalism School in New York and a recipient of the Fulbright scholarship. His work has appeared in the Guardian, Al Jazeera, the Diplomat, YaleGlobal, Asia Sentinel and other publications. Copyright, Reprinted with permission. 

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