WHILE in Hawke's Bay on Tuesday and Wednesday for a funeral, I saw an odd connection between the family member who's passed on and a local campaign that appears to be developing strong grassroots support.

The funeral was for my brother-in-law, Arthur Frederickson, who died after a very long illness, the roots of which go back 55 years.

Arthur was a lovely bloke and although he trained as a professional factory inspector for what was then the Labour Department, his heart lay in the New Zealand Army and many years of his life were spent as a soldier. This commitment was almost certainly the cause of his many years of ill-health. Sometime in the 1960s, Arthur volunteered to be part of the New Zealand Army contingent that went to fight in Vietnam.

This was not a cushy number; he was a sergeant in an artillery group that was very close to the frontline.


With the enemy, known as the Viet Cong, making use of the dense jungle for hit and run raids against the American forces and their allies, the Americans decided that a quick way of cramping the Viet Cong's jungle tactics would be to destroy the jungle. To implement this strategy, more than 72 million litres of defoliant was sprayed over 1.8 million ha of Vietnam in the 10 years of the war. The most widely used was named "Agent Orange", after the identifying stripe on the barrels. Arthur and his comrades, being deployed close to the battle front as artillerymen were doused with this malign concoction on a regular basis.

The soldiers were told that the chemical was perfectly safe and would "kill the lice". Agent Orange contained the widely used defoliant 2,4,5-T but it was later discovered that this was contaminated with a dioxin, 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzodioxin (TCDD), and that the TCDD was causing many of the previously unexplained adverse health effects which were correlated with Agent Orange exposure.

Studies have shown that Vietnam veterans "have increased rates of cancer, and nerve, digestive, skin, and respiratory disorders, in particular, higher rates of acute/chronic leukaemia, Hodgkin's lymphoma and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, throat cancer, prostate cancer, lung cancer, colon cancer, ischemic heart disease, soft tissue sarcoma and liver cancer".

A scientific journal reports "In addition to the massive environmental impact of the US defoliation programme in Vietnam, that nation has reported that some 400,000 people were killed or maimed as a result of exposure to herbicides like Agent Orange. In addition, Vietnam claims half a million children have been born with serious birth defects, while as many 2 million people are suffering from cancer or other illness caused by Agent Orange."

It proved very difficult for Arthur to convince government agencies of the cause of his poor health, though he was eventually awarded a small pension.

He did, however, triumph in the end, with his doctor entering Agent Orange exposure as a cause of death. Arthur's health did not impair his commitment to Sandra, his wife, his three beautiful daughters and five grandchildren. Largely housebound, he surfed the web and supplied me and others with a regular flow of oddities and jokes.

The experience with Agent Orange is one reason for the widespread distrust of innovations like genetic modified organisms or GMOs, as reflected by the poster campaign I saw in Hawke's Bay this week. The Hastings District Council draft plan includes a ban on GMOs which Federated Farmers intends to oppose. Some quick research shows that outside the US, GMOs are widely distrusted and even in America large food companies, in response to public demand, have begun labelling foods containing GMOs.

Federated Farmers president Dr William Rolleston in a recent speech bemoaned the lack of interest in GMOs in New Zealand agriculture and the barriers to the development and propagation of genetically modified plants. In Rolleston's world the Hastings District Council's proposed ban on GMOs is irrational, but in the real world, in which our farmers and growers trade, there is no demand for genetically modified foods. Indeed the reverse is the case - GMOs are mostly treated with revulsion.

A powerful trend in international food production is towards natural, unadulterated and traceable products grown in a clean green environment like Hawke's Bay; hence the success of organic production, especially in Hawke's Bay.

This preference is forcefully reflected in prices in the international marketplace. In August 2015, the international retail price of organic milk powder was $14,600 per tonne compared to about $2800 for non-organic. Skim organic powder fetches $12,500. The dairy industry would not be in the parlous condition it now finds itself if more of its farmers had converted to organic production.

Mike Williams grew up in Hawke's Bay. He is CEO of the NZ Howard League and a former Labour Party president. All opinions are his and not those of Hawke's Bay Today.