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Herbicide-tolerant Corn Subject of Regulation Debate

Dow wants regulations lifted for its herbicide-tolerant corn, but sustainable-ag organizations say the product threatens agricultural traditions and personal and environmental health.

By Abby Tripp, Hobby Farms Assistant Editor

January 27, 2012

Genetically engineered corn
Courtesy Hemera/Thinkstock
Dow Agrosciences wants its herbicide-resistant corn to be deregulated, despite resistance from sustainable-agriculture and environmental groups.  
The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is considering a petition by Dow Agrosciences to deregulate a corn genetically engineered for herbicide tolerance. The corn, which is engineered to resist several grass and broadleaf herbicides, including 2,4-D, would be marketed as part of Dow’s Enlist weed-control system.

Dow’s petition for deregulation comes on the heels of the company’s November 2011 announcement of the successful production of 2,4-D choline in a commercial scale-up setting. According to company spokesperson Garry Hamlin, the new formula has a leg up on earlier iterations of the herbicide, which used amines or esters. While Hamlin says it’s just as effective as its precursors, he adds that 2,4-D choline boasts “better characteristics [and is] less prone to drift and less prone to volatize.” This is a boon for diversified operations, he explains, because it decreases the likelihood of “particularly susceptible crops,” such as grapes and cotton, from coming into contact with the herbicide.

Several sustainable-ag- and environmental-advocacy groups have voiced opposition to the petition, including The Cornucopia Institute, an organization that works toward economic justice for small-scale farmers. The organization’s co-director, Will Fantle, says there are several reasons to be concerned about weed-control-product suites, like Enlist. He cites issues surrounding 2,4-D in particular, as well as the broader implications of herbicide use and genetic engineering.

The herbicide 2,4-D has a troubled history due to its use as one-half of Agent Orange, a defoliant used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War to strip jungle vegetation and wipe out field and food crops. Hamlin says the stigma attached to 2,4-D is unfair, pointing out that the chemical associated with Agent Orange’s serious health effects wasn’t an intentional ingredient, but rather a contaminant that made its way into barrels of 2,4,5-T, the defoliant’s second ingredient.

“[The herbicide] 2,4-D was even left off of 1980s class-action lawsuits related to Agent Orange,” he adds.

Hamlin also stresses the significant difference between the potency of a defoliant formulated for military use and an herbicide licensed for agricultural purposes, saying that to conflate 2,4-D and Agent Orange is “a little bit like describing sushi as cold, dead fish.”

Nonetheless, a December 30, 2011, action alert on The Cornucopia Institute’s website enumerates several reported 2,4-D side effects, including eye and skin irritation among agricultural workers, fetal abnormalities in rats, and the potential for infertility, birth defects, organ toxicity and neurological defects. As the organization prepares its comments for the USDA, Fantle says they’ll continue to gather and synthesize research on 2,4-D effects and toxicity.

The Cornucopia Institute is also concerned about the escalation of herbicide use, with Fantle citing what he calls “the herbicide treadmill.”

“We’ve seen the growing resistance of weeds in this country to herbicides in general and glyphosate in particular,” he says, referring to the formulation best known by its Monsanto trade name, Roundup.

As a result, he says, agro-chemical companies, such as Dow and Monsanto, are constantly searching for more effective weed-control formulas. 2,4-D fits the bill, Fantle says, adding that it’s “considered by many to be a much harsher herbicide [than glyphosate].” Because “weeds evolve and develop resistance to various types of products over time,” Fantle says that, eventually, we’re likely to see 2,4-D-resistant weeds, as well.

“I don’t know if there’s a way off the treadmill,” he says.

2,4-D and other crops engineered for herbicide resistance don’t just present threats to personal and environmental health, Fantle says. They also threaten sustainable-ag practices and entrench farming traditions, such as seed-saving. In addition to chemical drift, Enlist users’ neighbors will also have to worry about pollen drift from Dow’s corn, Fantle says. In addition to impacting their crops’ genetics, Fantle says the appearance of 2,4-D-resistant crop residues in their fields could open them up to a (mistaken) lawsuit, thanks to technology-licensing practices designed to block the practice of seed-saving. Even when applied correctly, technology-licensing is objectionable, Fantle says. “Seed-saving is a fundamental piece of agriculture’s history that these companies are trying to restrict.”

Documents pertaining to Dow’s petition can be found on the APHIS website. The USDA is accepting public comments on the petition through Feb. 27, 2012, via mail and online.

Fantle says The Cornucopia Institute, along with other organizations, has filed for a 30-day extension to the comment period.

“[APHIS] announced the potential deregulation [in the Federal Register] in the week between Christmas and New Year’s, a busy time for many people,” he explains, adding that many of the supporting documents weren’t available to the public until the second week of January. This extra time could be crucial, Fantle says. “We know that with the [glyphosate-resistant] alfalfa approval last year, hundreds of thousands of people voiced their opposition … To really have our voices heard, it’s going to take even more than what was done [in that case].”

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Herbicide-tolerant Corn Subject of Regulation Debate

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Reader Comments
a', Houston, TX
Posted: 11/3/2013 2:59:10 AM
The problem with GMO is we don't have enough information to label it as "safe". Over the past 20 years, as you say, we have seen a dramatic increase in diseases and disorders. For instance, cancer has nearly doubled in the last 20 years, so has diabetes, kidney disease, liver and heart disease, depression, macular degeneartion, obesity, and so on. Look at the number of children on Ritalin due to the increased diagnosis of ADD/ADHD. You're correct that over the last 20 years GMOs have been incorporated into our daily diet. Over 80% of all corn grown in this country is GM. Since that time High Fructose Corn Syrup has made its way into hundreds of processed foods from cereal to soda. HFCS is linked to obesity in children and adults as well as many other health problems. This is a modified food our bodies don't even recognise as food. And I guess that is my point, why put something in your body that it doesn't recognise and could possibly harm your health. I do not use endophyte enhanced grass for my ruminants because of known health problems. There are studies of mass deaths of Monarch caterpillars eating milkweed plants that contained pollen from GM corn that was fields away. Honey bees are also being killed off by some GM crops. These are just some of the unintentional side effects. We must be more cautious of what we are doing to ourselves for the sake of convenience. There are always unintentional consequences.
Tom, Dayton, OH
Posted: 2/8/2012 12:01:04 PM

The point of these herbicide-resistant GMOs is to make farmers even more dependent on herbicides -- we're already using over 400 million lbs. a year of herbicides in the U.S., that's 2/3 of our total pesticide use. Roundup Ready crops led to huge increase in Roundup use, and triggered an epidemic of roundup-resistant weeds. Now Dow is selling 2,4-D crops to permit dousing with 2,4-D to kill the roundup-resistant weeds. But the weeds will quickly develop resistance to 2,4-D too. So you make the crop resistant to more and more herbicides, spray more and more, and the weeds become more and more resistant. It's a chemical arms race. The winners are the biotech-pesticide companies like Dow and Monsanto. The losers are the farmers who pay out the nose for expensive seeds and herbicides but still can't control weeds; consumers who get more pesticide residues in their food; and the environment loaded with more toxins.

See LINK for more.

Want to stop this madness? Sign our petition: LINK
Bill, State College, PA
Posted: 2/7/2012 2:00:08 PM
So, where is the problem with GMO? We've been eating genetically modified corn and soybeans for close to 20 years without a single reported health problem. Where are the bodies if this stuff is so dangerous? And what about weed resistance? We don't use it to prevent weeds from becoming resistant? What is the point? This technology has repeatedly been proven safe, effective, economical and environmentally safe. Time to come around people.
Gordon, Tyler, TX
Posted: 2/5/2012 4:53:12 PM
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