In Vietnam, Monsanto can't be given a license to make a killing

By Dien Luong   August 27, 2018 | 11:00 pm PT
In Vietnam, Monsanto can't be given a license to make a killing
A woman raises a banner during a protest against Monsanto's GMO food products in Los Angeles. Photo by Reuters
Monsanto's return to Vietnam is already a harsh and ironic reality.

Monsanto’s controversial present is very much tethered to its dark past. And nowhere is this manifest more than in Vietnam, a country that has borne the brunt of the toxic defoliant it produced and is now facing the growing threat of its infamous weedkillers.

Vietnam has embraced a very perplexing relationship with Monsanto, crystalized in the unfortunate irony of allowing the former Agent Orange maker and current producer of the controversial genetically modified organisms (GMOs) back into the country, for all practical purposes, with a clean chit.

While Monsanto has repeatedly and consistently denied responsibility for the deaths and other forms of suffering, lasting generations, that have been caused by Agent Orange, there is evidence that the company knew that dioxin, a key ingredient, was toxic.

Now, with glyphostate, the active ingredient in the weed killer Roundup that the biotech giant plugs for use along with its GMO seeds, fears about causing cancer in humans have risen again.

Monsanto has bridled at these charges, maintaining that the weedkiller is safe for public use. The debate had dragged on, pitting some seasoned scientists against environmental groups worldwide. Until recently.

On August 10, the very day that the U.S. Army began spraying millions of gallons of Agent Orange over large swathes of southern Vietnam, 57 years ago, a San Francisco jury found Monsanto liable in a lawsuit filed by a school groundskeeper who said the company’s weedkillers, including Roundup, caused his cancer.

The court ordered the company to pay $289 million in damages. The case of the groundskeeper was the first lawsuit to go to trial accusing Roundup and other glyphosate-based weedkillers of causing cancer. More than 5,000 similar lawsuits await across the U.S.

On the other side of the Pacific, the court ruling should have compelled Vietnam to swing into action, at the very least putting an immediate ban on the commercial use of glyphosate in the country, pending further trial outcomes.

But in fact, it has appeared to have gone the other way. Agriculture officials were quoted by the Tuoi Tre newspaper as saying recently that a ban on glyphosate would not be possible without "adequate information."

It turns out, ironically, that while the product could have been approved without "adequate information," it now cannot be banned for the very same reason. It is difficult to pin down what kind of "information" Vietnam is looking for in this regard. But it is already crystal clear that the San Francisco court ruled that Monsanto’s Roundup and related glyphosate-based brands posed substantial danger to people using them.

Let us not forget how the court verdict also opened a can of worms, laying bare the entrenched pattern in which Monsanto was found to have suppressed and manipulated scientific literature, silenced critics, and browbeat and connived with regulators. The verdict also pointed to "clear and convincing evidence" that Monsanto’s officials acted with "malice or oppression" in sidestepping the required warning of the risks of its herbicides.

Monsanto has also turned to the backing of an EU watchdog, the European food safety authority (Efsa), which said the weedkiller is safe for public use. But the Guardian revealed last September that the Efsa report also copied and pasted analyses from a Monsanto study, fitting well with the pattern employed by Monsanto to peddle its own version of science.

It is in this context that no more "information" is needed to merit immediate action from Vietnam. Given its ugly history and controversial present, the presumption of innocence must be upended for Monsanto: The biotech giant is guilty until proven innocent.

An immediate ban on glyphosate must be enforced. The onus must be on Monsanto, which has been merged with the German conglomerate Bayer following a $62.5 billion acquisition, to produce independent studies proving that Roundup does not present any cancer or health risk.

On the Agent Orange front, Monsanto has continued to refuse to compensate its Vietnamese victims, thanks ironically to the double standards of another American court.

In 2004, the Vietnamese government endorsed a class action lawsuit by the NGO Vietnamese Association of Victims of Agent Orange in a New York court against Monsanto, Dow Chemical and more than 30 manufacturers of the toxic defoliant.

That was the same court that heard the only previous lawsuit brought against Agent Orange manufacturers by American war veterans. The original lawsuit ended in 1984, when Monsanto and several other American chemical companies reached a settlement with the plaintiffs, paying $180 million to 291,000 people over 12 years.

But when it came to the Vietnamese lawsuit, Jack Weinstein, the same judge who heard the 1984 case, sided with the chemical companies and dismissed the case, claiming that supplying the defoliant did not constitute a war crime. That ruling has enabled Monsanto to continue to refuse compensating Vietnamese victims, rendering any condemnation against the company in this regard nothing but mere political rhetoric.

When it comes to denouncing the perpetrators behind the Agent Orange crime, Vietnam has rarely singled out Monsanto. Hanoi has instead focused on urging all American actors involved to make reparations for its victims, now at an estimated 3 million.

But some headway has been made.

After the San Francisco ruling, Vietnam's Foreign Ministry reiterated its demand that Monsanto and other U.S. firms compensate Agent Orange victims. "This case is a precedent that dismisses previous arguments that the herbicides supplied to the U.S. Military by Monsanto and other American chemical companies during the Vietnam War are not harmful to people's health," deputy Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nguyen Phuong Tra said last week.

In April last year, an informal international tribunal also accused Monsanto’s deadly product of causing "serious harm to the health of people, including the risk of causing death, and [producing] severe and irreversible damage to the environment." Vietnam later welcomed the verdict, calling on Monsanto to take "remedial action" to address the Agent Orange consequences.

But such efforts to indict Monsanto would be derailed if other Vietnamese institutions continue to unhelpfully lend credence to the company’s charm offensive here in the country.

Last December, for the second year in a row, Monsanto was honored as one of the top 10 "sustainable businesses" in Vietnam by an influential local business advocacy group for its "efforts in sustainable development, especially in improving agriculture and communities’ lives."

The Vietnam University of Agriculture — the country’s leading agricultural institution — has continued to accept Monsanto’s $70,000 worth of scholarships over a five-year period, enabling the company to burnish its image in the local media.

Even if it has happened unwittingly, such acquiescence must stop.

It remains to be seen whether the San Francisco settlement will reignite debates about whether Monsanto should be held financially liable for Agent Orange, supplied at the behest of the U.S government during the Vietnam War. But before that ever happens, it is now time for Vietnam to make concerted efforts to hold Monsanto to account for other actions it has, and is taking.

Monsanto’s return to Vietnam already is a harsh and ironic reality already.

The irony would become even more difficult to stomach IF Vietnam became the carpet under which the company is able to sweep its Agent Orange dirt; and IF it is allowed to make a killing with yet another toxic product shunned by many countries.

*Dien Luong is a journalist who lives and works in Ho Chi Minh City. The opinions expressed are his own.

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