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Vietnam Debates GMO Crops With Eye on History

FILE - Rice terraces in Sapa, Vietnam.
FILE - Rice terraces in Sapa, Vietnam.

When Vietnam moved economically from communism to capitalism in the 1980s, it enjoyed an agriculture boom that lifted millions from poverty. But today, new trade deals could threaten Vietnamese farmers, who are considering using genetically modified seeds to stay competitive.

In the water, the soil and the genes of newborns, Vietnamese people believe the chemical Agent Orange still endures 40 years after it was sprayed to kill plants in the Vietnam War.

Duong Thi Thanh Ha said that’s why she doesn’t forgive chemical producers Monsanto and Dow.

Today the companies sell genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. But because of the war history, Ha doesn’t want these companies to bring their products to Vietnam.

“We don’t believe them because they already create the Orange Agent to kill our Vietnamese people. Don’t one word say apologize. So we doubt. The guy is not a good guy. So how can they create something good for the human?” she said.

The decades-old resentment adds baggage to an already heated debate as Vietnam considers using GMOs on its fields. Farmers have been essential to transforming this communist country into a powerhouse exporter. But yields have stagnated in recent years, and farmers don’t know if they can compete with more foreign growers as new free trade deals start to take effect.

GMOs could help, said Tran Dinh Long, chair of the Vietnamese Seed Association. He believes planting genetically modified seeds could improve productivity, so that Vietnam can become a self-sufficient grower. But he wants farmers to look beyond GMOs, too, and adopt high-tech farming methods so they can compete

“Technology is not advanced enough yet, human resources aren't great yet, and capital is low, so we'll definitely be depending on foreigners. But if we want to increase our competitiveness, then we have to use high tech at an international level,” said Long.

Consumers are not sure about what to make of lab-modified seeds. Chung Hoang Chuong said he is skeptical of all the money GMO companies spend to lobby politicians. He also worries about the risks — for his health, and for the environment.

“By introducing this genetically modified kind of thing, will it be healthy for the Vietnamese population? That’s one. Number two is, these kind of plants, when you introduce into a new ecological environment, would they be pushing away the normal, regular, natural Vietnamese subtropical vegetation?” asked Chuong.

In July, the Pew Research Center in the United States said it surveyed the American Association for the Advancement of Science about GMOs. It found that 88 percent of scientists consider genetically modified food to be safe, compared with just 37 percent of U.S. adults.

Nguyen Phuong Thao agrees with the other scientists. She teaches biotechnology at Vietnam National University and has researched GMOs for 18 years.

“My research, many others’ research shows that besides the good side, let’s say that, of the GMO, we care about the side effect of the GMO as well. But there is, so far, no evidence to show that the GMO will cause a problem for the animals or the human health,” said Thao.

Thao said GMOs don’t hurt the environment either. On the contrary, she believes they will help Vietnam endure climate change. Some seeds are genetically altered to withstand flooding or drought, the threat of which could increase in Vietnam if climate change worsens.

“Right now it’s not so serious, but in 30 years, you will need those drought-tolerant crops for sure or many kind of GMO crops. At that time the natural crops will not work for Vietnam, as well as other countries,” said Thao.

With its long coastline on the South China Sea, Vietnam is considered one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change. That factor will make it even harder for Vietnamese leaders to decide how to move forward with GMOs.