HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam ― Fifty-five years ago this month, the U.S. Army began spraying millions of gallons of the toxic defoliant known as Agent Orange over large swaths of southern Vietnam. Today, however, instead of resentment and isolation from the U.S., the country is awash with Americanophilia.
Ho Chi Minh City, once the capital of the U.S.-backed regime under the name of Saigon, is now teeming with McDonald’s and Starbucks businesses. The present economic hub of Vietnam also boasts an increase in Apple stores, which see their clientele anxiously waiting for the debut of the latest iPhones and are often considered by many here as an emblem of chic Americanization. And with a large portion of the population of more than 90 million born after 1975 (the year the war ended), the masses tend to look forward to the future rather than dwell on the bitter past with the Americans.
But this Americanization and what it ushers in, including the expansion of companies like biotech giant Monsanto, risks burying the history of Agent Orange that is alleged to have resulted in the deaths and injuries of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese.
To this day, the views on Monsanto’s involvement in Agent Orange vary greatly. Both the United States and Monsanto have issued statements indicating that the chemical was made at the behest of the U.S. government. Monsanto has therefore claimed that it bears no direct responsibility. The Vietnamese government has a more complex perspective, never officially stating its stance on the responsibility of individual actors, but instead focusing on the general call for reparations for victims ― from all American actors involved.
Monsanto’s record in the country goes back at least a half century, when it was first 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. The organization was one of a handful of companies that supplied the U.S government with the chemical during the war. Between 1961 and 1971, the U.S. Army sprayed some 12 million gallons of Agent Orange containing the highly toxic substance dioxin over a large portion of southern Vietnam.
In 1997, just two years into the normalization of bilateral relations with the United States, Vietnam started to raise the Agent Orange issue in bilateral meetings. Then-Communist Party chief Do Muoi told then-U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin that he hoped the two countries could work to resolve the issues surrounding Agent Orange. That has since become Vietnam’s official stance on Agent Orange on the diplomatic front. On the civil front, in 2004 the nongovernmental organization, the Vietnamese Association for Victims of Agent Orange, filed a class action lawsuit in a New York court against Monsanto and several other manufacturers of the toxic defoliant. But that was the only lawsuit Vietnam has ever brought against Monsanto and other chemical companies. The case was later dismissed in court.
Monsanto also claims no responsibility for Agent Orange, saying the company is itself completely separated, apart from in name, from the version of Monsanto that aided in the creation of Agent Orange.
“Monsanto today, and for the last decade, has been focused solely on agriculture,” Charla Lord, a spokesperson for the company, said when asked to comment on the company’s past history in the country. “But we share a name with a company that dates back to 1901. The former Monsanto was involved in a wide variety of businesses including the manufacture of Agent Orange for the U.S. government. … The U.S. courts have determined that the contractors who manufactured Agent Orange for the government are not responsible for damage claims associated with the military use of Agent Orange because the manufacturers were government contractors carrying out the instructions of government.”
The U.S. government has also issued statements backing away from responsibility for deaths and devastation in Vietnam. Instead it acknowledges a number of dire conditions, diseases and fatalities as “presumed” to be associated with Agent Orange exposure in its own veterans.
“'GMOs are a scientific achievement of humankind, and Vietnam needs to embrace them as soon as possible.'”
Some 69 miles northeast of Ho Chi Minh City in Dong Nai province, Nguyen Hong Lam and his generation of Vietnamese farmers associate Monsanto with its parties and its genetically modified seeds, rather than the Agent Orange attacks that they lived through. According to Lam, the parties, more officially known as launch events hosted by Monsanto, were held between 2012 and 2014, in line with the launch of Monsanto’s genetically modified crops in Vietnam. While Lam doesn’t affiliate Agent Orange with Monsanto, he does know the feeling of community that Monsanto created.
“There were parties that lasted even three days,” he said of the events, which were meant as promotional outreach to farmers. “Dozens of tents would be put up right in the fields to accommodate up to 400 farmers. They were always as much fun as wedding parties.”
Monsanto gatherings such as these were not uncommon here, especially with the company aiming to increase its contact with farmers around the country
“We do hundreds of these [launch] events in the field. Seeing is believing. Their livelihood depends on that,” Narasimham Upadyayula, CEO of Monsanto’s subsidiary Dekalb Vietnam, which is fully owned and operated by Monsanto, said. “We gave them a vision.”
The GMO Debate
The debate over GMOs has divided activists and Nobel laureates alike, and that is no different when it comes to Monsanto and Vietnam.
To Monsanto, genetically modified seeds are a more relevant topic today than the history of Agent Orange associated with a previous version of their company. This agrarian development, it says, serves to benefit farmers and produce greater yields due to the seeds’ resistance to insects, herbicides and drought. The company believes that agricultural biotechnology is critical to the sustainability of agriculture in Vietnam and the region, according to Upadyayula. The organization says it believes genetically modified corn is crucial for a country that imported around 6 million metric tons of corn in 2015.
“The government of Vietnam really believes that this country can become self-sufficient and that science and technology can help farmers,” Upadyayula said. “Our goal is to have maximum penetration of the technology.”
Upadyayula added that it has taken the company a decade to get the green light to sell GMOs in Vietnam. “It has been a long journey,” he said. “A lot of people were rowing the boat. Now we have finally reached shore.”
“'People are scared of ghosts because they’ve never seen them; some are concerned about GMOs because they’ve never seen them.'”
Some members of the pro-GMO camp here see the introduction of GMO crops in Vietnam as the logical conclusion to efforts to improve yields and feed a population of 90 million at reasonable cost, in addition to bolstering food security. But anti-GMO activists point to the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development report, 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.
According to the environmental activist group Greenpeace, one of the most vociferous critics of GMOs, “genetic engineering enables scientists to create plants, animals and micro-organisms by manipulating genes in a way that does not occur naturally.” The group, which addressed the debate on its website, added that GMOs “can spread through nature via cross-pollination from field to field and interbreed with natural organisms, thereby making it impossible to truly control how GE modified crops spread.”
As GMO seeds become more and more common in Vietnam, the debate over their benefits and setbacks adds an additional layer to the unfortunate irony of allowing the former Agent Orange producer and current GMO producer, Monsanto, back into Vietnam.
Back in Dong Nai province, Lam, the soft-spoken 64-year-old farmer, seems undaunted by the debates. He has been growing Monsanto’s genetically modified corn on 7,000 square meters of what were once paddy fields since the seeds were first planted in Vietnam in December 2014. Sitting in a makeshift hut in the middle of one field, Lam spoke admiringly about his first two harvests and the fact that his profits increased by up to 20 percent.
The farmer, however, does not seem to believe that Monsanto was one of the companies that manufactured Agent Orange. Instead, he focuses on the potential for the new technology to increase the profits of his farm and passes the toxic devastation off as a possible act by the U.S. government.
Lam’s focus on his crops and his inability to read English language publications have kept the former soldier, who fought for the U.S.-backed southern regime during the Vietnam War, skeptical of the validity of the discussion around the company’s dark past and controversial present. He expressed frustration when presented with the details of the surging prices of Monsanto’s patented GMO seeds or its possible involvement in Agent Orange.
“'I trust my government to make the right decision for its people.'”
With access limited to Vietnamese publications, even reading about Monsanto in local publications would not have helped. Until recently, Vietnamese media had more or less given Monsanto and GMOs a free pass. Only after April 2015, when the first GMO corn crop was harvested, did the country’s two biggest print newspapers, Tuoi Tre and Thanh Nien, run stories questioning the feasibility of cultivating GMOs and the rationale for Monsanto’s return.
When exposed to information of Monsanto’s involvement in the war, however, Lam calls the lack of information on the company “dangerous,” but is still dismissive and questions its validity, instead placing trust in his government and the company.
“If all allegations against Monsanto are true, then that is a major concern,” he said. “I would have boycotted Monsanto’s products if they really are that harmful. But … I trust the government to make the right decision for its people.”
The fact that people like Lam are unable to accept the already stated connection between Monsanto and Agent Orange is the flip side of the company’s rising profile in Vietnam, and it is forcing activists to grapple with some vexing questions: Why has Monsanto been able to come back and easily sell a product that has divided scientists across the globe? And why are Vietnam and its farmers so welcoming of the Agent Orange maker which has continued to deny responsibility for the deaths of so many?
The Expansion of Monsanto in Vietnam
Despite tensions over differing opinions on Monsanto’s complicity in the use of Agent Orange, the company has recently been licensed to cultivate three GMO corn varieties for animal feed in Vietnam, and aims to have seven approved by the end of next year, according to Dekalb Vietnam’s director Narasimham Upadyayula. Local media has praised Monsanto for making donations to top agricultural universities and educational NGOs. Indeed, Monsanto has provided funds to the Vietnam Red Cross, which keeps count of the number of victims of Agent Orange, now at an estimated 3 million.
While many have been critical of Monsanto’s investment in the Vietnam Red Cross, the company recently indicated in a blog post on its website, that its funding to the Vietnam Red Cross was part of its larger efforts to support the Vietnamese farmers.
“The focus on improving economic relations is part of a campaign by the U.S. government to rebuild trust and trade in a country it once nearly obliterated.”
In the blog post, Monsanto said that the project aimed, “to provide sustainable assistance to the communities in need,” adding that the partnership with the Vietnam Red Cross, “helped to improve lives of 2,000 rural households via providing [a] fund to improve sanitation conditions” among other things.
The reasons for Vietnam’s trust in Monsanto are varied and complex, ranging from the country’s need to grow more grain – and provide more protein – for its growing middle class, to a broad desire to make peace with the U.S. and enjoy the fruits of a new trade pact, the American-led Trans-Pacific Partnership. The focus on improving economic relations is also part of a campaign by the U.S. government to rebuild trust and trade in a country it once nearly obliterated. It is a campaign emphasized by U.S. President Barack Obama on a recent three-day visit to Vietnam. The trip aimed to cement trade partnerships between the two countries and ensure Vietnam remains a useful bulwark against China in the region.
U.S. Involvement in Monsanto’s Return to Vietnam
The groundwork for the rise of American companies and expansion of GMO crops in Vietnam ― especially Monsanto ― has in fact been many years in the making. The company, with the assistance of the U.S. government, has been establishing its economic and cultural presence in the country since relations between the two nations was restored in 1995.
Vietnam won the military battle against the U.S., but lost the economic battle because it could not thrive without foreign capital. According to Nayan Chanda’s post-war history of Indochina, “Brother Enemy: The War After the War,” American banks and oil companies were invited to Hanoi as early as 1976 to explore trade and financial relations. But the Americans opted for a trade embargo that crippled the country until 1995. The very year the U.S. lifted the trade embargo, Monsanto opened a representative office in Vietnam and began its outreach efforts to approach Vietnamese farmers and partners. According to public documents and WikiLeaks cables, the U.S. embassy in Vietnam arranged for what activists call Monsanto-leaning scientists to visit the country and preach the alleged benefits of GMOs when Vietnam was drafting biotech regulatory laws in Vietnam a decade ago. Chief among them was Paul Teng, an internationally renowned biotech expert at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
Teng was the keynote speaker at a series of U.S. embassy-sponsored conferences on biotech development in Vietnam in 2008, just two years after the government drafted a blueprint to develop GMO crops. He was himself a senior executive for Monsanto in Asia between 2000 and 2002.
In an interview in January via Skype, Teng said he has no conflict of interest despite his time at Monsanto. He believes Vietnam had good reason to welcome the company back.
“This company already has the technology,” he said. “I think it’s wise for any country to transfer the best technology it can use. It saves you time to catch up with other countries in terms of competitiveness and ability to produce more food.”
“'The [Vietnamese] government was getting skewed advice from the biotech industry and from their chief supporter -- the U.S. government.'”
The U.S. government also sent Vietnamese officials abroad to learn about biotech development, according to the Vietnam Biotechnology Update, in a series of annual reports commissioned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In December 2007, the U.S. embassy coordinated a weeklong biotech study tour with eight senior Vietnamese officials. One of the USDA reports indicated that the outcome of the visit was to make “key connections with Monsanto.”
After visiting a Monsanto biotech research facility in the U.S. in 2009, then-agriculture minister Cao Duc Phat said 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.”
“I’ve sent a letter to Monsanto asking them to bring their seeds to Vietnam,” he told Vietnamese newspaper Nong Nghiep Vietnam. “It’s just a matter of procedures. GMOs are a scientific achievement of humankind, and Vietnam needs to embrace them as soon as possible.”
The U.S. embassy in Vietnam was also aggressive in trying to influence Vietnamese laws in favor of Monsanto.
According to a WikiLeaks cable, in September 2009 U.S Ambassador to Vietnam, Michael Michalak, wrote to Nguyen Xuan Phuc, then head of Vietnam’s Office of the Government and now newly installed prime minister, seeking removal of provisions requiring mandatory labeling of all GMO food and agricultural products from food and biosafety bills.
Another cable quoted Michalak as saying at a meeting with Phuc a month later that the legislation “would also harm Vietnam’s nascent biotechnology program at a time when both global food requirements were rising and climate change could negatively affect crop production.”
The U.S. government has often declined to comment on the authenticity of WikiLeaks cables. However, Kerry Humphrey, a State Department spokesperson, reiterated via email that biotechnology helps address global challenges of the growing demand for high-quality food, climate change and other environmental pressures.
“Monsanto is just one of many companies in the United States and elsewhere ― along with governments and research institutions ― that are applying biotech to seek solutions to these global challenges,” she said.
“'If we are overly accommodating, we will inevitably surrender our culture.'”
The U.S.’s lobbying efforts have been well received.
Jeffrey Smith, author of the best-selling book “Seeds of Deception,” minced no words in interviews about the topic. “The [Vietnamese} government was getting skewed advice from the biotech industry and from their chief supporter—the U.S. government,” he said.
After meeting with officials and experts in the country Smith said, “It was clear that certain government agencies had been already convinced that GMOs were going to be the source of greater economic expansion and scientific achievement.”
Sidelining the Issue of Agent Orange
Le Huy Ham, director general of the Vietnamese government-run Agricultural Genetics Institute, defended Monsanto’s return, 41 years after the end of the war. In Vietnam, Ham is at the helm of a pro-GMO camp that has apparently gained the upper hand.
“If we reject Monsanto because it was the manufacturer of Agent Orange, we should also boycott Boeing and not let it get into Vietnam,” he said in an interview. Boeing made the B-52s that dropped tons of bombs on the country.
But Monsanto does have a few vocal opponents in Vietnam. Chief among them is Nguyen Thi Binh, Vietnam’s vice president from 1992 to 2002.
In 2004, she enlisted international support for the class-action lawsuit brought against Monsanto and other chemical companies. The same year, the Vietnamese government endorsed the class action lawsuit by the NGO the Vietnamese Association for Victims of Agent Orange in a New York court against Monsanto and several other manufacturers of the toxic defoliant.
“The ruling has enabled Monsanto to continue to refuse compensating Vietnamese victims, and deflect blame to U.S. government.”
That was the same court that heard the only previous lawsuit brought against Agent Orange manufacturers by American war veterans. The original lawsuit was settled in 1984, when Monsanto and several other American chemical companies reached a settlement with the plaintiffs, paying out $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. The ruling has enabled Monsanto to continue to refuse compensating Vietnamese victims, and deflect blame to U.S. government.
Binh is a legendary figure in Vietnam. Now in her late 80s, Binh remains a “feisty activist who refuses to wait in the wings. ... the world still listens,” American author Lady Borton wrote.
But in a country where GMOs are categorized under the fancy umbrella of biotechnology, there has been a growing belief among academics that it is a great agricultural innovation; any objection to them is tantamount to being backwards and conservative. Binh, who warns of the biotech firm’s dark past in this country’s history and worries about its future here, has thus had little impact.
She does, however, have the ears of Nguyen Kim Phuong, 86, who lived through both wars involving the French and the Americans. Phuong is forgiving about the war and is happy to see U.S.-Vietnam relations moving forward. But he is not happy to see Monsanto continually increasing its reach in his country, with little consequence for its actions.
“The government must ask [Monsanto] to apologize to the victims of Agent Orange and their families as the Vietnamese people,” he said. “Monsanto also must compensate the affected victims properly.”
But Binh’s voice, and the voices of people like Phuong, appear to be lost to those in the government, many of whom see GMOs, and Monsanto, as promised land. It is in this context that it seems unlikely that anything can stop the Monsanto push in Vietnam. Vietnam now looks to have the GMO crops on 30-50 percent of its farmlands by 2020.
That will not stop people like Phuong, and other victims of the war, from voicing their concerns.
“If we are overly accommodating, we will inevitably surrender our culture,” he said. “All we want is justice.”