Recently a court ordered the corporation Monsanto to pay $93 million in reparations to the citizens of Nitro, West Virgina for poisoning them with Agent Orange. This included up to 30 years of testing and treatment. All cynical musings aside, this is a win–a corporation was legally forced to pay the people it harmed. Considering the ongoing trials of the people of Ecuador against Enron, this is no small feat.
For those unfamiliar, Agent Orange is a chemical used in warfare by the United States against the citizens of Vietnam. The United States poured 20,000,000 gallons of it on Vietnam.
The exact number of Vietnamese that were killed or suffered health problems—often horrific in children—is hard to estimate. However, 2 to 3 million seems to be a reliable estimate. This does not include the effects of Agent Orange on US soldiers, however, for chemicals do not discriminate on nationality. It should also be noted that the Vietnamese were unable to attack US soil with chemical or military warfare of any kind, and the deaths of Vietnamese people far outnumbered the deaths on the American side. In essence, it was a completely lopsided war, and with a more objective view of history, and a more democratic use of language, it could be viewed as a lengthy war of terror on Vietnam by the United States.
Unfortunately, the use of chemical warfare by the United States is not an isolated event—we’ve used other chemical weapons with equally disastrous effects on human beings in other countries during war: Depleted Uranium in Iraq and White Phosphorus in Korea. To be fair, many other countries have used white phosphorus in warfare. But the heart is still left to question why a nation–itself just a combination of ideas, tradition, and power acquiesced by the few to the many–feels the need to poison another segment of the planet bounded by a different definition of nation.
But to the main question that stood out to me about the lawsuit: why was Monsanto producing Agent Orange at all? From a moral stand point (not that morality realistically matters to Monsanto, nor is it required to given the rules of profit driven capitalism), Agent Orange is undeniably harmful to humans. From a legal stand point, Monsanto is an agricultural company, not a defense contractor—why would it manufacture a chemical weapon?
It turns out that Agent Orange’s first use was as an herbicide. It was used in the United States and around the world on crops to kill weeds. Unfortunately, Agent Orange also had a tendency to kill the crops themselves. Fast forward a few decades and Monsanto has bio-genetically engineered different types of GMO crops that are resistant to Agent Orange. Thus, farmers are free to dowse crops in Agent Orange with no immediate downside: the crops don’t die from Agent Orange and they aren’t eaten by weeds.
So that’s why Monsanto is still producing Agent Orange. The problem is that—as Vice documented excellently in Episode 9 of Season 3 –not only are the weeds becoming resistant to Monsanto’s herbicides like Agent Orange, but the herbicides themselves are what’s causing cancer in humans—not the GMO’s. When farmers pour Agent Orange on crops to kill weeds, some of it is absorbed by the crop, and then we consume it when we eat the crops. And there you go, Agent Orange consumed by citizens around the globe, free from the restrictions of declarative war.