First Agent Orange, now Roundup: what's Monsanto up to in Vietnam? Ecologist Special Investigation

A keyboard player, blind from birth due to a genetic defect induced by Agent Orange, performing at the War Remnants Museum. Photo: Mick Grant.
A keyboard player, blind from birth due to a genetic defect induced by Agent Orange, performing at the War Remnants Museum. Photo: Mick Grant.
With the International Monsanto Tribunal beginning this week (14-16 October) in The Hague, MICK GRANT reports from Vietnam with this special investigation for The Ecologist five decades after the company's lethal herbicide Agent Orange first devastated the country - and discovers the agribusiness giant is sneaking its way back into Vietnam with modern herbicides and 'Roundup-Ready' GMO crops.
Today, seed has become the ultimate weapon in a war against the Earth and her people. In this war, if corporations win, we will all lose our food and our future." - Dr Vandana Shiva, Who really Feeds the World?

Flying into Saigon at night - after an absence of more than a decade - I am struck by the American corporate logos lighting up the landscape, especially those related to food and drink.

Golden Arches are sprinkled along the boulevards, and Starbucks mermaids flash their twin tails everywhere. A neon Colonel Sanders even takes on Ho Chi Minh portraits, sporting the same wispy white goatee.

As Vietnam embraces American culture, the US food gang is back in force - McDonalds, Starbucks, KFC, Coca-Cola.

And Monsanto.

Well, Monsanto does not exactly advertise its presence because it is more on the Apocalypse Now side of things. Actually, when it comes to the food chain, Monsanto is more like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - War, Pestilence, Famine and Death.

As Monsanto rides roughshod over farmers, buys off politicians and pays off scientists, the Four Horsemen could easily be symbolic for the four GM crops they control: GM corn, cotton, soybeans and canola (rapeseed).

Back to the future ...

But let's rewind a bit: to the days when Monsanto Corporation started out as the maker of killer poisons like DDT, PCBs, and Agent Orange.

From 1961 to 1971, the US dropped 21 million gallons of defoliants over large swathes of Vietnam, of which 12 million gallons were Agent Orange - a herbicide manufactured for the US Department of Defense primarily by Monsanto Corporation and Dow Chemical.

Its name derives from the colour of the orange-striped barrels in which it was shipped. There were other colours in the 'rainbow herbicides', but Agent Orange was by far the most widely used.

The use of Agent Orange was an experimental form of chemical and biological warfare, designed to strip foliage and deny the enemy jungle cover - and to deprive enemy forces of their food supply (directly spraying rice-fields, for instance). Experimental in this instance meaning no idea of the long-term effects of this deadly herbicide, which can release dioxin - one of the most potent toxins known to mankind.

And now, five decades later, with the cooperation of the US government, Monsanto is knocking on Vietnam's door with another potentially carcinogenic herbicide: Roundup. GMO seeds are considered dangerous not only because they are modified, but also because they are designed to work with the chemical herbicide Roundup, Monsanto's market-leading glyphosate brand.

The build-up of glyphosate in crops is suspected as a leading cause of a spike in cases of autism, cancer, and long-term illnesses in America. Not to mention a possible link with bee colony die-offs. The use of Roundup is highly controversial and it has already been banned in a number of countries around the globe.

Pandora's Box

This month - from 14th to 16th October and coinciding with World Food Day (16th October), a special People's Tribunal focusing on Monsanto takes place in The Hague, in the Netherlands.

Today, seed has become the ultimate weapon in a war against the Earth and her people. In this war, if corporations win, we will all lose our food and our future." - Dr Vandana Shiva, Who really Feeds the World?

Founded in 2002, the UN-backed International Criminal Court (ICC) started out by prosecuting war criminals. But the Monsanto Tribunal will open up a whole new Pandora's Box. Although it has no power of enforcement, The Hague tribunal aims to set a precedent for prosecution for the crime of Ecocide - the deliberate destruction of entire ecosystems.

That opens the way for the successful prosecution of corporations for crimes such as illegal deforestation, and land grabbing for the purposes of resource exploitation. Since corporations can be state-run (as in China), this casts the net even wider for prosecution under Crimes Against Humanity. 

Six questions are under consideration at the Monsanto Tribunal in The Hague. Question 5 relates directly to Agent Orange: "Is Monsanto complicit in the commission of a war crime ... by providing materials to the United States Army in the context of operation 'Ranch Hand' launched in Vietnam in 1962?"

Question 6 relates to the crime of Ecocide: "Could the past and present activities of Monsanto constitute a crime of ecocide, understood as causing serious damage or destroying the environment, so as to significantly and durably alter the global commons or ecosystem services upon which certain human groups rely?"

Question 5 and 6 are highly relevant to today's situation in Vietnam because Monsanto is trying to slide its way back into the nation to wreak its particular kind of seed disaster. The company operates under the name DeKalb Vietnam, a subsidiary of Monsanto and its seed brand for corn, grains and canola. Or its presence in Vietnam could be under a very different corporate name.

In September 2016, Monsanto entered into a $66-billion deal to merge with Bayer, the German pharmaceutical giant. This is the perfect marriage of Ecocide and Genocide. The top global makers of fertilizers and bug-sprays for crops also have a history of making deadly munitions.

Monsanto acknowledges that in the past it made toxins to order, but these days it claims its focus is solely on agriculture. That's how Monsanto sees it - clearly failing to recognize Roundup's wider threat as a toxin.

The world's largest seed and pesticide company?

Bayer's history is even darker than Monsanto's. During WWII, Bayer was part of IG Farben, which collaborated with the Nazis to produce chemical weapons such as chlorine gas. Bayer also used scores of death-camp inmates as slave labour in its factories.

Moving on to the current era: Bayer was permitted to trial experimental GM rice at a US university. The experiment got out of control, wreaked havoc on local rice production, and infected 30 percent of US rice acreage. Bayer had to pay $750 million in damages to American farmers.

A merger of Monsanto and Bayer would mean the creation of the world's largest seed and pesticide company - controlling over 30% of the global market for seeds.

In 1995, as soon as the US lifted its two-decade economic embargo on Vietnam, Monsanto was in there, reaching out to farmers and business partners. The US Embassy arranged for Monsanto's leading scientists to visit Vietnam and convince officials of the benefits of GMOs.

Among the visitors was Paul Teng, a biotech expert from Singapore, who in 2008 was the keynote speaker at a series of conferences hosted by the US Embassy. By huge coincidence, Paul Teng was also a senior executive for Monsanto in Asia from 2000 to 2002. 

The strategy appears to have worked, with a number of government agencies in Vietnam convinced that GMOs are going to be the source of greater economic expansion and the way forward to solve Vietnam's food problems. Some government agencies envisage the growing of GMO crops on 30% to 50% of Vietnam's farmland by 2020. Which is not far away.

Monsanto's initial target in Vietnam is production of GM corn for animal feed, which the corporation claims will alleviate the nation's reliance on imported corn. In 2014, four corn varieties were approved for trial in Vietnam - MON89034 (which expresses a Bt insecticide) and NK603 (glyphosate-tolerant) by Monsanto, and Bt11 and MIR162 by Swiss giant Syngenta. The first Monsanto crop of GM corn was harvested in April 2015.

Monsanto is now looking to have more varieties approved by the Vietnamese agriculture department. This model uses the nefarious system whereby Monsanto owns patented seeds and farmers pay royalties. Monsanto is pressing for Vietnam to develop GM grain crops, to provide protein for the nation's growing middle class.

And the introduction of a glyphosate tolerant corn variety is already setting off alarm bells due to fears it will set off huge increases in the spraying of Monsanto's Roundup on farms across the country in an uncomfortable echo of the past.

Agent Orange strikes at random

In the foyer of the War Remnants Museum, in downtown Saigon, I purchase a keychain held by a dragonfly, made of transparent purple beads. But the young man who stringed it together will never see the colour of the beads, nor even the dragonfly. He is blind - due to Agent Orange congenital deformation. Third generation deformation - he is just 17. 

On weekends, a small group of Agent Orange survivors sell trinkets - keychains, kitschy decorations, and handbags - at the museum. Agent Orange strikes at random when it comes to genetic deformations. A couple has been affected, but their daughter seems fine. For others, Agent Orange has caused dwarfism, missing limbs, twisted limbs, spindly legs and gnarled backs.

Off in a corner is a blind keyboard player. Not just blind - he is missing entire eye sockets. He is singing a sad song about Agent Orange. Why him? Instead of being compensated by Monsanto, Dow Chemical and the US government, these Agent Orange victims are reduced to selling trinkets in a war museum.

When I last visited Saigon, this place was called The War Crimes Museum. The horrific effects of Agent Orange are analyzed in-depth through photo-essays on the walls. Not for the faint-hearted: these photos show monstrous birth defects, with children in vegetative states, retarded, grossly disfigured.

Monsanto has never acknowledged its role in the devastation wreaked by Agent Orange. But the corporation has contributed funding to the Vietnam Red Cross, which keeps a tally on the number of victims with health problems related to Agent Orange: estimated at over three million. For the first generation, that would be those who came into direct contact with Agent Orange, ate food grown in contaminated areas, or ate fish or animals contaminated with the toxin.

US Congress later offered $7 million toward assisting with health benefits for victims of warfare in Vietnam - an oblique nod toward the use of Agent Orange. That is a tiny drop in a very large bucket. 

So potent is Agent Orange that US airmen flying the planes that dropped the toxic herbicide - and others who came into contact with the dioxin - were DNA-damaged too. Their families have genetic deformations spanning three generations. In 1984, American war veterans settled a class action lawsuit against Monsanto and other chemical companies involved in the manufacture of Agent Orange.

There was a payout of $180 million to 291,000 plaintiffs over 12 years. In 1991, the US government extended payments and health benefits to American veterans affected by Agent Orange. In 2005, there was a further payout of $1.52 billion by those other companies to US veterans affected by dioxin.

No justice for Monsanto's Vietnamese victims

However, in 2004, when an NGO representing Vietnamese victims launched a class-action lawsuit in New York against Monsanto and other manufacturers of Agent Orange, the judge dismissed the case, deferring the blame to the US government.

In May 2009, an international people's tribunal was convened in Paris, France, to press on issues related to Agent Orange and Vietnamese victims. Both the US government and Monsanto declined to show up. So Monsanto has escaped censure - and so have the US government officials responsible for Agent Orange. Fifty years after the spraying, few of those folks are alive today. But one outstanding figure is: Henry Kissinger.

Kissinger rose to power after the election of Nixon as US president in 1968. By this time, Agent Orange had been in use for seven years and its severe effects were well-known to the US military. Kissinger's connection? In 1969, when he was the National Security Advisor, the Cambodian government filed a claim for over $12 million in damages caused by night-time spraying of Agent Orange in Kompong Cham Province. "Food is a weapon", said Kissinger. Evidence pointed to secret sorties flown by Air America pilots.

Kissinger is on record for blocking any compensation payment in this case. It not possible that Kissinger was oblivious to the terms of the Geneva Conventions, which US war policy clearly flouted by using biological and chemical warfare.

And all this in a covert war: there was no war officially declared on Cambodia, but indiscriminate bombing by B-52 planes continued around the clock - devastating Cambodia and Laos with cluster-bombs designed to maim rather than kill. This intense bombing was authorized by Henry Kissinger.

Far from being indicted or censured, Kissinger, now 93 years old, was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1973, along with his Vietnamese counterpart, the peace negotiator Le Duc Tho, who declined to accept his prize on the grounds that Vietnam was still not at peace and that "his opposite number had violated the truce." Le Duc Tho is the only person on record to ever decline a Nobel Peace Prize.

Good morning, Apocalypse

My eye is drawn to a detailed map at the museum, which shows where an estimated 12 million gallons of Agent Orange were sprayed by crop-duster-like planes. I study the map: some areas show greater concentration of Agent Orange spraying than others. The plan is to head for areas marked as maximum saturation, deep in the Mekong Delta.  

The next day, I set off in a car with a fellow researcher, a tall gangly human-rights activist. It doesn't take long to zero in on the agribusiness corporations. We spot an agricultural supply store, where chemicals and seeds from Dow Chemical, Bayer, Syngenta, BASF and other agri-giants are on sale - setting the groundwork for Monsanto.

Between them, six corporations control an estimated two-thirds of the world's seed market, having bought out most of the smaller seed producers. They also control three-quarters of global agro-chemical sales, and have cornered the entire GM seed market.

With potential mergers looming between Monsanto and Bayer, between Dow and DuPont, and between Syngenta and ChemChina, it may even come down to three or four corporations. Which would be a huge threat to biodiversity. And which would put the world's food supply at risk - because if seeds are all of the same type, disease could potentially annihilate them.

After a few days of travel, we reach U-Minh Park, a 'forest' preserve set aside deep in the Mekong Delta. This place was heavily targeted because it was a Vietcong stronghold. I have with me, on my camera, photos from the war museum in Saigon that show the land at U-Minh totally stripped, with shards of trees, no greenery, like the aftermath of a nuclear bomb.

Fifty years on, a stunted forest ...

Now there is greenery, but how has the forest fared? Access to the forest seems to be only via a longboat that cruises a river with high banks. The way is lined with banana trees - and we cannot see past them. Eventually, my colleague comes up with a ruse: he acts as if desperate to go to the toilet.

We scramble up an embankment. There, past the row of banana trees, sits stunted forest. Fifty years after Agent Orange was sprayed, it is clear that this region has only partially recovered. Eucalyptus trees were planted here because they have proven to be dioxin-resistant.

According to scientific surveys, quoted in the 19-page report from the 2009 Paris People's Tribunal on Agent Orange, land affected by Agent Orange could take 50 to 200 years to recover - and some regions may never recover. That is the foliage and the soil. Add to this the contamination of rivers and groundwater, and disappearance of all wildlife in some regions.

The boatman is anxious to get us back into his vessel. He employs his own ruse: he claims there are scores of deadly cobras lurking in the undergrowth. Why is Vietnamese officialdom hiding the damage? And why has the US not offered to revive the land after devastating it? President Obama has held out an olive branch to clean up heavily contaminated soil at former US airbases where Agent Orange was stored, but that's about it.

Good Morning, Apocalypse!

At the southern tip of Vietnam, the mangrove ecosystem looks to be in a lot better shape. But this is cosmetic too. The mangroves here were planted by various Vietnamese high-ranking officials in a concerted effort to look good.

Mangroves are very important to coastal ecosystems as they act as hatcheries for fish, and trap sediment coming down rivers. After being decimated by Agent Orange spraying, the mangroves of the delta face modern foes - shrimp farming, charcoal production, mega-dams upstream, and climate change.

And Monsanto aims to profit from climate change: it has taken out scores of patents for GMO seeds to deal with changing times. Among these patents are drought-tolerant crops, and strains of salt-resistant rice - for farmers in the Mekong Delta to counter salt-water intrusion from rising sea-levels. Until the waters get too high.

A plaque with GPS co-ordinates marks the southern-most tip of Vietnam at Camau. Vietnamese visitors jostle to take photos. Stepping up to the plaque is a girl with Good Morning, Vietnam emblazoned on her T-shirt. For some reason, she and her brother salute the camera as I take a picture. With its slogan from the Vietnam war movie, this T-shirt seems to put out the welcome mat for America.

But in Saigon, I spotted a T-shirt where two famous Vietnam war movies are fused together. The T-shirt message read: Good Morning, Apocalypse!

Which way will this go? Where will this end? It is considered poor form to end a story with questions, because that jump-starts everything again instead of winding down. But at this point in time, huge questions loom over Monsanto's penetration of Vietnam. Will this herald a second disaster for the food chain in Vietnam, disrupted by Monsanto, again in collusion with the US government? First Agent Orange, then Roundup. Who is going to stop Monsanto in Vietnam?

Will another drawn-out battle be fought in the rice-fields? And who will win that battle? 



Mick Grant is a researcher with a special interest in food and water security in Asia.

More information

The Monsanto Tribunal in The Hague will hand down its decision in December 2016. Follow developments at these sites: