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Viet Nam approves GM corn varieties

Update: November, 03/2014 - 11:02

Agriculture Minister Cao Duc Phat: "Genetic modification technology is a major achievement of humankind that Viet Nam should not miss. The agriculture ministry will continue to study and evaluate the cultivation of GM crops."

The General Department of Customs reported that Viet Nam imported 1.34 million tonnes of corn and 897,000 tonnes of soybean to produce animal feed from January to August. It mainly imports corn from Brazil, Argentina, the US, India and Thailand.

In Viet Nam, and around the world, scientists still debate the possible impacts of genetically modified (GM) crops on the environment and human health.

In August, for the first time, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development just started allowing agriculture firms to produce four genetically modified corn species. It granted licences for two corn varieties produced by Dekalb Vietnam, a subsidiary of US mega-corporation Monsanto, and two produced by a Swiss company, Syngenta.

Viet Nam News spoke to experts about the controversial farming practice.

What is your opinion on the recent decision to allow GM corn to be used for both human and animal consumption?

Pham Van Toan, head of the Viet Nam Academy of Agricultural Sciences

In order to get those four corn varieties approved for both human and animal use, we have done quite a bit of research on the biological safety of GM plants. This process has been in the works since 2010, starting with small-scale areas, and then on larger ones. The research showed that there is no difference between GM corn varieties and the traditional corn varieties, in terms of impacts on the surrounding environment.

This is quite a historic decision for Viet Nam.

Bui Manh Cuong, National Maize Research Institute

I think this is a very important decision that paves the way for GM farming in Viet Nam.

Think about 1990: Thailand granted Viet Nam five tonnes of corn at that time. Without such corn varieties, Viet Nam would not have been able produce as much corn as it does.

The GM corn strain approved by the ministries can resist flies and herbicides, so we can expect corn productivity to be more stable.

How would the decision impact Viet Nam's corn industry?

Nguyen Tri Ngoc, former head of the Cultivation Department of MARD

Nguyen Tri Ngoc

Son La Province has long been considered the one that produces the most corn, with an area of nearly 250,000 hectares. The corn varieties currently used need to be planted on hilly areas, where it is difficult for farmers to spray herbicides and insecticides, so the productivity is relatively low. We expect a breakthrough in corn production if the GM varieties can resist insects and herbicides. It's ironic that we still have to import more than a million tonnes of corn every year.

Currently we have almost one million hectares of corn fields nationwide. Hopefully the GM plants can help us increase both productivity and quality.

Previously, farmers have had to throw away a portion of their harvest destroyed by plant diseases. But GM corn can resist certain kinds of insects.

We need to make sure farmers understand that GM crops won't increase productivity – they will protect the corn crops' original harvest amount, because fewer plants will be ravaged by disease and insects.

Toan: Up to now, we have only been able to create plants with one or two gene modifications, so the changes haven't been obvious. Some plants, with tens of genes modified, can prevent more plant diseases or problems. Then we will more clearly be able to see their effectiveness. But we have to start with small steps, right?

As a coastal country, Viet Nam really needs plants resistant to drought. Those plants would be very important for us.

Will GM plants have any negative impacts on the environment or hurt consumers at all?

Toan: The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment has recently assessed the negative effects of GM plants. It carried out experiments based on recognised methodology, and the results confirmed that GM plants do not affect the environment, thus soothing concerns about the negative impacts of GM plants.

Nguyen Lan Dung, scientist

Nguyen Lan Dung

There has been no evidence to prove that GM products are bad for human health.

I think we are a little late in taking advantage of what GM plants have to offer. The slower we introduce GM plants, the more losses our farmers will have to suffer. These kinds of agricultural products have been in the market for a long time. We've imported genetically modified corn, soybeans and soybean meal from the US and China. Why don't we plant these on a large scale?

If GM plants have so many advantages, why do many countries still protest their use?

Toan: European countries do not want to use genetically modified plants because they want to focus on their own advantages – they want to develop other kinds of production. But for many American countries, like Brazil and the US, they have the demand for GM plants so they develop them and use them. I think it depends on the demand of each country.

Dung: I think countries that are not in favour of GM products just prefer organic or natural products. I think it's the duty of the authorities to provide information about GM products.

Complicated procedures and a bias against genetically modified plants were the main reasons for the delay in using biotechnology. Scientists must contribute evidence that proves these plants are harmless to human and animal health. They are just like other kinds of crops.

Viet Nam imports corn and soybeans mostly from the US, Argentina and Brazil, where over 90 percent of those products are genetically modified. Does this means that Viet Nam has consumed food containing GM crops for the past decade? It seems like consumers in Viet Nam do not know they are already using GM products.

Toan: In 2010, after the Law on Biodiversity was passed, we started to require labels on products that are more than 5 per cent genetically modified.

The ministry manages these products. It has finished drafting a document on labeling GM products. The document has been sent to experts, ministries and sectors for recommendations, so we can issue official regulations on labeling GM products by the end of 2014.

I agree that many consumers do not know about GM products or that they are using GM products, since they have little information. This needs to be made clear and public to consumers. - VNS

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