Monsanto, the not so quiet American in Vietnam

The chemical giant is entangled in war tragedies and uncertain future of genetically modified crops as it tries to move from foe to friend in Vietnam.

In 2004 Nguyen Thi Binh, a legendary figure in Vietnam who was vice president for a decade until 2002, enlisted international support for the only class-action lawsuit Vietnamese victims have ever brought against Monsanto and other chemical companies that produced Agent Orange.

In 2016, Dang Thi Ngoc Thinh, who became Vietnam’s vice president earlier that year, attended a function that honored Monsanto as one of the top 10 “sustainable businesses” in the country. The title was conferred by an influential local business advocacy group on Monsanto for its “efforts in sustainable development, especially in improving agriculture and communities’ lives,” the company said on its website.

The way Vietnam’s two vice presidents treat Monsanto differently in a 12-year period epitomizes the perplexing relationship the country has embraced with the main manufacturer of the toxic defoliant responsible for the deaths and injuries of millions of Vietnamese.

Vietnam’s separate stances on Monsanto on the diplomatic and economic fronts somewhat reflect the long-established defense that the controversial company has adopted to deny its responsibility for Agent Orange. The global seed giant is adamant that it is totally separate, except in name, from the version of Monsanto that made Agent Orange.

“Monsanto today, and for the last decade, has been focused solely on agriculture, but we share a name with a company that dates back to 1901,” Charla Lord, a spokesperson for Monsanto, said in a statement. “The former Monsanto was involved in a wide variety of businesses including the manufacture of Agent Orange for the U.S. government,” Lord said.

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Monsanto’s history in the country goes back at least a half century, when it was called upon by the U.S. government to produce Agent Orange, used by U.S. troops to strip Vietnamese forces of ground cover and food. Between 1961 and 1971 the U.S. Army sprayed some 80 million liters of Agent Orange over 30,000 square miles of southern Vietnam.

Dioxin, a highly toxic chemical in the defoliant, stays in the soil and at the bottom of lakes and rivers for generations. It can enter the food supply through the meat of fish and other animals and has been found at alarmingly high levels in breast milk. Monsanto, along with Dow Chemical, was the main manufacturer of Agent Orange.

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 has enabled Monsanto to continue to refuse compensating Vietnamese victims, rendering any condemnation against the company in this regard nothing but merely political rhetoric.

“Monsanto has never acknowledged the damage done by Agent Orange which the company produced during the war, nor has Monsanto offered any help at all to the millions of victims of Agent Orange,” said Chuck Searcy, an American war veteran who has spent more than two decades working to clean up the war remnants in Vietnam.

When it comes to indicting 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 in a rare move, Vietnam last month pointed fingers at Monsanto after an informal international tribunal condemned the U.S. government, which ordered a handful of chemical companies to supply Agent Orange.

The two-day tribunal, which wrapped up in mid-April in The Hague, 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.”

In a statement, Le Thi Thu Hang, the foreign ministry spokesperson, said Vietnam welcomed the tribunal’s verdict. “This is an objective reality of the grave consequences of the war in Vietnam,” Hang said. “We requested that Monsanto respect the tribunal’s opinion and soon take remedial action to address the consequences left by Agent Orange.”

Monsanto was quick to snub the tribunal, saying it was “staged by a select group of anti-agriculture technology and anti-Monsanto critics who played organizers, judge and jury.”

“It denied existing scientific evidence and judicial outcomes on several topics; and was organized with a pre-determined outcome,” Lord, the Monsanto spokesperson, said. “The opinion – characterized by the Tribunal panel itself as advisory only –was the anticipated next communication from this group.”

16-year-old Le Dang Ngoc Hung, who suffers from mental and physical health problems, rests under a mosquito net in the family house in Phuoc Thai village, outside Da Nang April 12, 2015. Le Dang Ngoc Hung's grandfather Le Van Dan, a former artillery soldier with the South Vietnamese army, said he was exposed to Agent Orange more than once, including being directly sprayed by U.S. planes near his village before he joined the military. Health officials confirmed two of his grandsons’ disabilities are due to his exposure to the defoliant, Le Van Dan said. Photo by Reuters

Another rare occasion in which Monsanto was mentioned in Vietnam’s political arena was five years ago, when a sitting legislator grilled the agriculture minister on the rationale for allowing Monsanto to return to the country to sell GMOs.

At a parliamentary hearing in 2012, Nguyen Van Rinh, a former deputy defense minister who has been chairman of the Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange since 2008, asked the then agriculture minister Cao Duc Phat why a company that profited once by maiming Vietnamese civilians was allowed to profit again in the country.

Phat did not immediately address the question, but sent Rinh a written response later on. Rinh said in an interview at that time that he was unhappy as the portion of his question referring to the company’s dark past had been taken out in the minister's reply.

Despite the global disdain and backlash the company is facing elsewhere, Monsanto has found Vietnam a fertile ground to grow and sell another controversial product that has divided scientists across the globe: genetically modified organisms (GMOs), of which Phat and his ministry was an ardent promoter.

Phat visited a Monsanto biotech research facility in the U.S. in a trip sponsored by the U.S. embassy in 2009. He told his ministry’s newspaper Nong Nghiep Vietnam (Vietnam Agriculture) a year later: “People are scared of ghosts because they’ve never seen them; some are concerned about GMOs because they’ve never seen them.”

He said further: “I’ve sent a letter to Monsanto asking them to bring their seeds to Vietnam. It’s just a matter of procedures. We’ve got to actualize the cultivation of GMOs here to assuage such fears. GMOs are a scientific achievement of humankind, and Vietnam needs to embrace them as soon as possible.”

Since then, Monsanto’s subsidiary Dekalb Vietnam has been licensed to cultivate several GM corn varieties for animal feed in Vietnam, and aims to have seven approved by the end of this year. While Monsanto is roundly criticized for its policies worldwide – the anti-GMOs group Natural Society routinely labels it one of the most hated corporations on earth – it has enjoyed a warm welcome in Vietnam.

It has been featured by the local media for making donations to top agricultural universities and educational NGOs. Indeed, one of Monsanto’s beneficiaries is the Vietnam Red Cross, which keeps count of the number of victims of Agent Orange.

In Vietnam, where GMOs are categorized under the umbrella of biotechnology, there has been a growing belief among academics that it is a great agricultural innovation. Thus, any objection to them can be seen as backwards.

It is in this context that it seems unlikely that anything can stop the Monsanto push into Vietnam.

Proposed amendments to Vietnam’s Investment Law had originally contained language that would ban investment and trade in genetically modified products in the country. But in the latest version of the bill sent out for approval in 2014, lawmakers loosened that provision and prohibited only “transgenic animals.”

In March, at a meeting with Adam Blight, Monsanto’s director of government affairs in Asia and Africa, Vietnam’s agriculture minister Nguyen Xuan Cuong encouraged the company to apply new, environment-friendly technology and “stay patient” when doing business here in the country.

An activist protests against the merger of Germany's pharmaceutical and chemical maker Bayer with U.S. seeds and agrochemicals company Monsanto as shareholders look on before Bayer's annual general shareholders meeting in Bonn, Germany, April 28, 2017. Photo by Reuters

Meanwhile, the fierce debate on GMOs has even pitted more than 100 Nobel laureates against the environmental activist group Greenpeace, one of the most vociferous critics of GMOs. In a letter directed to Greenpeace last year, the Nobel laureates rammed home their message: GMOs and foods are a safe way to feed the growing global population and it is time Greenpeace stopped disparaging them.

The pro-GMO camp sees the introduction of GM crops as the logical conclusion to efforts to improve yields and feed Vietnam’s population of nearly 92 million.

For them, GM seeds produce greater yields because they are resistant to insects, herbicides and drought. They say GM corn is crucial for a country that imported around 8.3 million metric tons of corn in 2016. 

But in the opposition camp, anti-GMO activists point to a report by the International Assessment of Agriculture Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, which concluded that the high costs of seeds and chemicals, uncertain yields and the potential to undermine local food security make biotechnology a poor choice for the developing world.

With the country looking to have GMO crops on 30 percent of its farmlands by 2020, in the long run Vietnam's dependency on GMO seeds could end up handing over national food sovereignty to Monsanto, activists say.

Anti-GMOs group also point to glyphosate, the active ingredient in the weed killer Roundup that Monsanto plugs for use along with its crops. It has been classified as “probably carcinogenic to humans” by the World Health Organization, allegations Monsanto has bristled at.  The company also has the backing of a EU watchdog, which said the weed killer is safe for public use.

The European Chemical Agency, charged with gauging its toxicity after EU countries failed to agree on a reauthorization for the best-selling herbicide last summer, said in March “the available scientific evidence did not meet the criteria to classify glyphosate as a carcinogen, as a mutagen or as toxic for reproduction”.

“This conclusion was based both on the human evidence and the weight of the evidence of all the animal studies reviewed,” Tim Bowmer, the chairman of Echa’s Committee for Risk Assessment, said in an online briefing.

But to add a baffling complexity to the story, also in March, the U.S. media cited a series of internal Monsanto documents, as revealed via a court order, that the company’s claims about the safety of Roundup appear not to rely on sound science but its relentless efforts to manipulate the science.

According to Jeffrey Smith, author of the book “Seeds of Deception” and founder and executive director of the California-based NGO Institute for Responsible Technology, Monsanto’s modified corn and the weed killer Roundup could have tragic consequences much like Agent Orange.

Monsanto has also rejected these allegations. But activists maintain that by introducing GMOs paired with toxic weed killers, the tragic legacy of Agent Orange might repeat itself.

“With a new genetically modified corn designed to be tolerant to the herbicide 2,4-D, a component of Agent Orange, much higher amounts of toxic 2,4-D could drench the agricultural lands where this new crop is planted,” Smith said.

“It would thus be a harsh and ironic reality if Vietnamese people suffer from birth defects from both of these Monsanto products, Roundup and Agent Orange.”

Story by Dien Luong

Top image: File photo of activists protesting against the production of herbicides and GMO food products outside Monsanto headquarters in Creve Coeu. Photo by Reuters

By Dien Luong