In 1961, as part of America’s escalating war of counterinsurgency in Vietnam, President Kennedy approved a military plan to use defoliants and herbicide in South East Asia. Operation “Ranch Hand” was intended to kill foliage and destroy crops, depriving the Viet Cong of cover and supplies during the conflict. It is estimated that 76,000,000 litres of chemicals were sprayed between 1962 and 1971 over rural areas of South Vietnam and, later, in parts of Cambodia and Laos.
The most commonly used herbicide during this period was called Herbicide Orange which is better known as Agent Orange. This herbicide was made from equal parts of 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T) and 2,3-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) but also contained a small quantity of a dioxane impurity called 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzodioxin (TCDD). This impurity is what we now know today caused the rise in cancer and birth defects we see associated with the Vietnam war, which in Vietnam is known as the Resistance War Against America.
At the time the American government, under the Defence Production Act, compelled a number of companies to produce Agent Orange for the ongoing conflict in South East Asia. These companies included DOW, Hercules, Diamond Shamrock, Uniroyal Inc., T-H Agriculture and Nutrition Company, and Thompson Chemical. However, most people are only aware of one company who made this herbicide during this period – Monsanto. This is probably due to the fact they produced the largest quantity out of all the suppliers, but whilst other companies seem to have distanced themselves from Agent Orange unscathed, Monsanto seems to have been irreversibly linked to the pain and suffering its herbicide caused.
Monsanto’s reputation has been so badly tarnished from their involvement in the Vietnam war that now any field of research they are associated with is met with blind animosity and somehow linked to Agent Orange. For example, today, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have almost become synonymous with Monsanto, despite the company being only one in a sea of thousands who produce them. A perfect example of this can be seen in Ben Goldacre’s ‘Bad Science’, a book that claims to lift the lid on scaremongering journalists and to be a journey through the bad science we are fed daily which, rather embarrassingly, contains the following…
“Despite all that, I remain extremely wary of GM for reasons that have nothing to do with the science, simply because it has created a dangerous power shift in agriculture, and ‘terminator seeds’, which die at the end of the season, are a way to increase farmers’ dependency, both nationally and in the developing world, while placing the global food supply in the hands of a multinational corporation. If you really want to dig deeper, Monsanto is also, very simply, an unpleasant company (it made Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, for example).”
This nugget of bullshit, in an otherwise awesome book, is not only factually incorrect (Monsanto don’t, and never have, sold ‘terminator seeds’ nor has any other company to this date), but also helps to perpetuate ignorance amongst the general public against a plethora of unique organisms created using a wide range of technologies that happened to fall underneath the umbrella term of “genetically modified techniques”. I have seen this ignorance first-hand at various March Against Monsanto protests, where I have met people who genuinely believe that the mere mention of “Agent Orange” is enough to counter any argument made in the defence of GMOs. These protests also contain a large number of people who lack basic knowledge on the very thing they are protesting against. For example, whilst attending the London March Against Monsanto protest back in 2015, I met a woman who wanted to ban all GMOs because she believed Round-up (a herbicide, not a GMO) was an “ingredient in Agent Orange which was used in Vietnam to kill people”.
The fact that so many people are unable or unwilling to separate the company Monsanto and Agent Orange from GMOs has put me in a very uncomfortable position. I have quite often found myself having to defend the products of this huge multimillion dollar company, who I am not affiliated with, in order to defend a technology whose potential I believe is being throttled by those who don’t understand it. In doing so, I have been accused of being a shill ad nauseam, and am routinely asked to defend the spraying of Agent Orange during the Vietnam war. I have chosen not to comment on the herbicide because I believe it has nothing to do with GMOs, which some see as an omission and proof that my arguments have a gaping hole in them….well no longer.
Over the next few months, I plan to produce a series of blog posts followed by a series of videos documenting the history of Agent Orange by discussing its discovery and synthesis, the first warning signs which were ignored, its use in Vietnam, the aftermath of its use, the people who tried to convince us that it was safe, and the legal case against Monsanto et al and what is happening now to help those affected.
My hope is to try and convince you, the reader, that the company Monsanto, the Herbicide Agent Orange, and GMOs are all separate and not interchangeable. I also plan to point out parallels between the history of Agent Orange, leading up to it inevitably being accepted as a carcinogen and teratogen, and GMOs, to try and better understand why some people are so vehemently opposed to them.
I think the best place to accomplish my task is to explain how Agent Orange works and how it was discovered which I plan to do in my next blog post.