HO CHI MINH CITY — It’s 5 a.m. and the streets already are buzzing. People know that the best time to shop at open-air markets is before daybreak. And they know to ask for fresh, firm vegetables grown locally, rather than in China, where dangerous pesticides are routinely overused.
Soon they also might be asking whether their potatoes and soybeans are genetically modified. Not only is the Vietnamese government considering lifting the current ban on genetically modified organisms, it hopes to blanket as much as one-third of the country’s farmland with genetically engineered crops by 2020.
This is too much too soon. Vietnamese officials are reasonably worried about how to feed a country of 90 million. But the policy change is based on one-sided information from those who would profit from G.M.O. sales, and it displays little concern for consumer protection.
What’s more, Monsanto, the chemical company that would help bring biotechnology to Vietnam, is the one that brought it Agent Orange during the war four decades ago.
Advocates say genetically modified seeds produce greater yields, in part because they are resistant to insects, herbicides and drought. Opponents say the promise of higher productivity is a myth and warn of overdependence on single-crop agriculture, damage to the environment and for consumers.
These are the kinds of costs and benefits that a country should weigh for itself. But in Vietnam the issue is barely being discussed, even though the state has a knack for public-service announcements. When politicians make a push for motorcyclists to wear helmets or teenagers to abstain from drugs, they slather the streets with Soviet-style posters and the newspapers with editorials.
Jeffrey Smith, director of the Iowa-based Institute for Responsible Technology, told me that government officials he met in Hanoi in 2011 seemed troubled by the dangers of genetic modification — and of their colleagues’ disregard for their concerns. The people Smith talked to, he said, worried that some members of the government “were basically taking dictation from Monsanto” and ignoring information that genetically modified foods are “potentially damaging to the economy and food sovereignty.”
Most people have no idea that chemical companies could soon be tinkering with their food.
Certainly some leaders are flippant about G.M.O.’s. At a conference earlier this year, the dean of biotechnology at a Vietnamese college dismissed health concerns outright. “I accidentally picked up and drank genetically modified soy milk in Europe in 1992,” Ngo Xuan Binh said. “Nothing has happened to me so far.”
Of course, it might take decades for scientists to be able to measure the health impact, if any, of genetically modified food. But that’s all the more reason for the government to give people in the meantime all the facts about what they’re eating. Other countries have asked food companies to indicate which products are genetically modified so that consumers can decide for themselves whether to buy them. As a Californian, I cast an absentee ballot in the November election for my state to require such labels.
Although that’s not feasible in Vietnam — supermarkets are still a new convenience, and 70 percent of Vietnamese live in rural areas where they buy produce at outdoor markets — officials could raise awareness with a public campaign.
Most people have no idea that chemical companies could soon be tinkering with their food. It has been reported that Monsanto has obtained a green light from the Vietnamese government to test how modified corn affects surrounding flora and fauna. The company denies this.
The American war veteran Chuck Searcy has spent years in Vietnam working to clean up the remnants of the conflict, including land mines and chemical pollution. “Like a lot of veterans in Vietnam with experience with Agent Orange, I don’t trust that company,” he said of Monsanto’s genetic engineering.
Monsanto has largely left it to the Vietnamese government to deal with the health problems that the use of Agent Orange during the war is believed to have caused. Few of the defoliant’s three million victims have taken Monsanto to court.
After I visited the company’s small, quiet office in a sleek Ho Chi Minh City high-rise — it has giant photos of green corn stalks on the walls — I received an e-mail from a representative that said, “Of course, we are interested in the opportunity to introduce biotechnology seed to Vietnamese growers in the near future when the Vietnamese government has completed its regulatory framework.” To Monsanto’s credit, it sent me information from both supporters and critics of genetically modified crops.
Still, I’m wary of a company that bribed an Indonesian official to block an environmental impact study of its genetically modified cotton, sued farmers for allowing Monsanto seeds accidentally blown onto their fields to grow, and helped defeat that California labeling proposition I voted for. Vietnamese regulators should be wary, too.
Lien Hoang is a writer covering Southeast Asia.