WASHINGTON — Federal regulators are moving toward the deregulation of three new genetically engineered crops that, for the first time, would be resistant to multiple herbicides. These would include a potent chemical linked to a spectrum of environmental and human health hazards and previously used in the Vietnam War-era defoliant Agent Orange.
If approved, the new products would be only the second herbicide-resistant crop “systems” available on the U.S. market, and critics say their approval would initiate a new generation of products of this type.
Many of the country’s largest chemical companies reportedly have similar products in their development pipelines, making the current regulatory process particularly important for the industry.
“Monsanto’s Roundup Ready is currently the only herbicide-resistant crop, so this would be the first of the second generation,” Bill Freese, a science policy analyst with the Center for Food Safety, an advocacy group in Washington D.C., told MintPress.
“With the greatly amped-up use of these clearly dangerous substances, we’re clearly moving into new territory, a new era of more toxic agriculture. All of the major biotech companies – Dow, DuPont, Monsanto, Syngenta – are currently developing herbicide-resistant crops.”
Freese says that nearly two-thirds of the genetically engineered crops currently awaiting approval from the Department of Agriculture are herbicide resistant, with many having been created with multiple resistances.
“That pretty clearly goes to show where this industry is moving,” Freese said.
On Friday, the USDA is slated to formally publish a draft environmental impact assessment on three new product proposals from Dow AgroSciences. Under the brand name Enlist, these include a corn plant and two types of soybean, each of which have been engineered to be able to withstand high doses of several herbicides. These include, most controversially, a herbicide known as 2,4-D.
Friday’s publication will kick off a 45-day public comment period, following which the USDA will offer a final recommendation on the Enlist products. Simultaneously, the Environmental Protection Agency is conducting its own analysis of the crops’ impacts, which should be made public in the next few months. Both agencies will need to sign off before the Dow products are released.
Approval of the Enlist crops would lead to a massive increase in the use of 2,4-D in the U.S. – “another two fold to six fold … relative to current use,” according to the USDA’s new assessment. Under one scenario, the agency envisions as much as 176 million pounds of 2,4-D being used in this country per year. Activist groups suggest that the chemical’s use on corn alone could increase by a factor of 30.
Some worry that regulators, operating under current guidelines, are unable to analyze the full impact of such massively increased use of 2,4-D.
“Fundamentally the regulatory system is broken, as has become very clear with these crops,” Freese said. “USDA is considering the crop as if the herbicide were not an issue, and EPA is considering the herbicide without thinking of the crop.”
Dow’s proposals for the Enlist crops were first publicized in 2011 and 2012. Since then, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service says it has undertaken multiple though narrow studies on the products. Based on those results, the agency says that a law known as the Plant Protection Act now requires that it recommend the full deregulation and release of the Enlist crops into the general market.
“[U]nder the Plant Protection Act (PPA), APHIS determines if the GE plants pose a ‘plant pest risk’ to agricultural crops or other plants or plant products. The PPA defines a ‘plant pest’ as organisms such as insects, bacteria, or fungi that can injure or damage plants or plant products,” the agency explained Friday when it released the new assessment.
“If the proposed GE plants do not pose a ‘plant pest risk,’ APHIS must then move forward with the deregulation of those GE plant varieties. APHIS’s preliminary plant pest assessment of these three new GE plants finds that they do not pose such a plant pest risk.”
Beyond these confines, however, scientists, environmentalists and human health advocates warn that multiple problems have been traced to the 2,4-D herbicide, to which the Enlist products have been engineered to withstand. This chemical has been around since the 1940s, and thus its effects have been known for a uniquely long time.
Further, 2,4-D was one of the two components to make up Agent Orange, the Vietnam War-era defoliant known to be contaminated with dioxin, a notoriously toxic substance. Indeed, the new crop products are being proposed by Dow AgroSciences, a subsidiary of one of the original manufacturers of Agent Orange.
Although 2,4-D is not thought to have been the particularly noxious part of Agent Orange, researchers, including the Center for Food Safety’s Freese, say they have evidence to suggest that this substance, too, is contaminated with dioxin.
Either way, over the past several decades 2,4-D has been linked to immune system cancer by National Cancer Institute scientists, as well as to Parkinson’s disease, liver disease, birth anomalies in the children of farm applicators that have used the herbicide, among other health concerns. In part due to these concerns, 2,4-D has been banned in certain European countries.
Further, these are potential problems not only for those applying the herbicide but also, given the potential for massively ramped-up use of the substance, for communities much further afield, if 2,4-D were to get into soil and groundwater. (Dow AgroSciences failed to respond to request for comment for this story.)
In addition, greater 2,4-D use would almost certainly have a broader impact on surrounding agricultural fields and native plants and animals than current herbicide use. For one, 2,4-D is known to drift on breezes more easily than other herbicides, making it far more difficult to keep solely at the point of application. In addition, use of Enlist products would necessitate the application of 2,4-D during much of the growing season, thus greatly increasing the possibility that it would impact on other nearby crops.
Due to these concerns, the potential introduction of the new 2,4-D-resistant crops has divided the farming community. On the one hand, large-scale grain producers have embraced the new proposals.
The National Corn Growers Association has publicly noted that it is “pleased that the USDA is moving forward with the process necessary to deregulate these important products … It is important that farmers have access to the proven, innovative technologies that continually allow them to improve American agriculture.”
Another major trade group, the National Farmers Union, likewise told MintPress that it supports “the regulatory process and the availability of tools to make our producers more efficient and productive.”
Yet the introduction of the Enlist products is being opposed by others in the agricultural community, including many vegetable farmers and vineyard owners, both of which grow products that would be particularly vulnerable to 2,4-D. In a recent public letter, 144 “farm, food, health, public interest, consumer, fisheries, and environmental organizations” called on the USDA to reject the Dow proposals.
“American agriculture stands at a crossroads,” the groups state. “One path leads to more intensive use of old and toxic pesticides, litigious disputes in farm country over drift-related crop injury, still less crop diversity, increasingly intractable weeds, and sharply rising farmer production costs. This is the path American agriculture will take with approval of Dow’s 2,4-D corn, soybeans and the host of other new herbicide-resistant crops in the pipeline. Another path is possible, but embarking upon it will take enlightened leadership from USDA.”
The motivation behind the creation of the Enlist products and the rest of the second generation of herbicide-resistant crops is clear enough: they are meant to deal with the ramifications of the first generation of these plants.
A decade and a half after the introduction of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready herbicide-resistant seeds – which now include six crops, each of which are resistant to an herbicide known as glyphosate – farmers have increasingly being forced to deal with weeds that have, themselves, evolved to be resistant to glyphosate.
According to an industry survey released last year, the amount of U.S. farmland infested with glyphosate-infested weeds has almost doubled since 2010, to more than 61 million acres. The same survey found that near half of U.S. farmers reported glyphosate-resistant weeds in their fields in 2012.
The USDA, too, is clear on this aspect. “Dow AgroSciences’ GE corn and soybean plants are the first developed to be resistant to 2,4-D and are intended to provide farmers with new plants to help address the problem of weeds that have developed resistance to other herbicides,” the agency stated on Friday.
Yet critics say that such an approach will inevitably lead to a cascading use of increasingly potent chemicals, dubbed by some the “pesticide treadmill.” In fact, many other weed-control techniques exist.
In part, the USDA is contextualizing the discussion over 2,4-D-resistant crops as a way to cut down on so-called aggressive tilling techniques, wherein weeds are physically uprooted or cut down. While such practices have been linked to both erosion problems and higher greenhouse gas emissions, some say the science is still out on this issue.
“It’s up in the air as to what form of field management is most advantageous from an environmental standpoint, but the basic claim that use of these crops reduces tillage is debatable,” Paul Achitoff, managing attorney with Earthjustice, a legal advocacy group, told MintPress.
“While tilling is an approach to get rid of weeds, and these [2,4-D-resistant] crops in theory reduce that need, what we see over time is that they don’t do that. After all, that’s why these new crops exist in the first place, because the prior generation resulted in infestations of resistant weeds.”
Meanwhile, other management approaches are being largely sidelined by the USDA, Achitoff said. The agency has rejected the ideas, for instance, of requiring certain crop-rotation practices or creating geographic limitations of where genetically engineered crops can and can’t be grown, stating that it doesn’t have the jurisdiction to do so.
“Basically, they adopted these positions because they had been losing in the courts, and they wanted to put these new crops on the market no matter what,” Achitoff said.
“USDA is doing everything it can to avoid addressing the known problems that these crops present in the regulatory process. They’ve really twisted themselves into a pretzel trying to read the regulations in such a way as to minimize their obligations. But for the moment that’s the most we can expect from the agency, unless we see some action from Congress – and currently there’s nothing like that on the horizon.”