Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Agent Orange...Turning a Blind Eye?

The Monsanto Corporation, maker of the Agent Orange used during the1961 to 1975 Vietnam War which affected over 2million people, has again been causing a stir lately.

In Argentina, a suit was filed against Monsanto by several Argentinian tobacco farmers who say that the company knowingly poisoned them with herbicides and pesticides that subsequently caused ”devastating birth defects” in their children. The farmers are also suing many big tobacco companies that they said required them to use herbicides and pesticides.

In the US, a coalition of concerned members of America’s agriculture community and over 2,000 farmers and others within the food industry are threatening to take the US government to court to make sure the feds investigate the potential outcome of a new genetically modified crop. Monsanto Corporation and Dow Chemicals, another producer of Agent Orange have teamed up in what some described as “a match made in hell.” They are two of the world's leading producers of agro-chemicals and have joined forces to reintroduce the use of the herbicide 2, 4-D, one-half of the infamous defoliant Agent Orange.

Ironic that the Vietnamese government has been recently dealing with Monsanto to bring in genetically modified seeds that could “boost crop yields.” Though Vietnam’s purpose may be strictly agricultural, Monsanto’s Roundup, an herbicide with the active ingredient glyphosate that researchers have said kills human kidney cells, is the same chemical found in Agent Orange. It is said to work by being absorbed into a plant’s leaves and entering the sap system. From there, it works its way down to the roots where it begins to quickly kill the plant. Though Monsanto claims that Roundup is only active in plants, and that it becomes inactive once it touches the soil, Mansanto was convicted in France for false advertising in 2007 for its claims that Roundup was biodegradable and left the soil “clean.”

I suppose memories are short and the Agent Orange aftermath can easily be forgotten by a government whose millions of citizens suffered and are still suffering from it. Or maybe the practical aspect of feeding a growing nation made the decision easier to just forget the past. Whatever, the reason, I know I could not forget what I saw when I visited the War Remnant Museum in Saigon 2 years ago. The “remnants” left a vivid reminder of how the Vietnam War affected millions of innocent people. They were not just war artifacts. They were pictures of the devastating effects of Agent Orange on people who were directly or indirectly exposed to the substance. Disfigured men, women and children, Vietnamese and American, civilians and soldiers alike, some without limbs, with down syndrome, different forms of mental or physical defect, unborn fetus that never would have had the chance to survive with the obvious physical defects they had. It was a horrific experience just to look at them and I had to keep myself from crying and being so emotional. I could not imagine such atrocity. My friend who took me there was probably unaware that walking around at a distance from her made it easier for me because there was no need to talk about what I felt when I saw the pictures.

Visiting the Mái ấm Phan Sinh months later, a Home for the Disabled, showed living proof of the Agent Orange victims. You can imagine what it felt like up close seeing these children, some helplessly lying on the floor making loud moans, their only expression of what may be happiness at seeing visitors. They’ve been abandoned by their families who didn’t want them or couldn’t afford to take care of them.

The Philippines is no exception. It has been dealing with Monsanto for over 30 years and there are records of farmer protests over the use of Monsanto products. In early 2011, the Bureau of Plant Industry approved the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), food crops (including corn, soybean, sugar beet, alfalfa, potato, and cotton) for direct use in food, feed, and processing. 24 of the 29 GMOs approved are owned by Monsanto. The sale in the Philippines of YG2RRC2 which has contents of the Roundup herbicide, started in May 2011. This was supposedly after “rigorous regulated field trials for almost three years” in several locations across the country. I don’t know if that statement should give me a sense of comfort when the use of RoundUp herbicide which “kills weeds but not the biotech corn,” is the same chemical used in Agent Orange.

While one has to acknowledge the need for progress and to provide for the growing population, there is as much responsibility for every government and suppliers like Monsanto and Dow to look out for the people’s welfare and make sure people are protected and not exposed to health and environmental hazards. Transparency, proper information and training on the use and effects of such chemicals are critical in protecting the direct and end-users, and environment as a whole, especially in areas where farmers are not literate enough to read or write and understand the warning contents of chemicals. What’s as important is accountability for the consequences of exposure to these substances.

While scientific development is important, lives are even more important. They (governments and suppliers like Monsanto and Dow) cannot...should not turn a blind eye and say there is no scientific evidence that indicates Agent Orange/Roundup herbicide is not the cause of serious long-term health effects. The Vietnam disaster with living proof of the victims of Agent Orange and the 2007 conviction in France for falsely advertising the effects of the Roundup herbicide support the argument that herbicides can and do have adverse effects. Accountability does not end in the sale of these products alone. Unfortunately, there are always technicalities, legal or otherwise that hinder the truth from coming out.

To this day, the class suit filed by over 200,000 American soldiers and millions of Vietnamese through the VieItnamese Association of Victims of Agent Orange (VAVA), has not been resolved. The 4.8 million Vietnamese people exposed to Agent Orange, which resulted in 400,000 people being killed or maimed, at least 150,000 children born with birth defects, and 500,000 children born with birth defects (Wikipedia) still have to get the justice that has been deprived them for so long. . Maybe one day...when moral conscience and justice would rule over profit and personal interests, the victims will get their justice and not just be considered "collateral damage."

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