The US Department of Agriculture is leaning toward approving varieties of corn and soybean seeds that are genetically engineered to be resistant to several herbicides, including the controversial chemical known as 2,4-D.
Dow Chemical developed the genetically engineered seeds with the brand name Enlist to address the growing problem of "superweeds" that have become resistant to Monsanto's Roundup herbicide. Roundup is widely used on genetically engineered crops, which are also known as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
Dow claims that Enlist seeds will give farmers an important tool to fight weeds, but pesticide critics and independent researchers say that 2,4-D is linked to health problems. Fighting resistant weeds with tougher chemicals, critics say, is not a sustainable solution to the challenges of modern agriculture.
Just before the start of the weekend January 3, 2014, the USDA released a draft environmental impact statement on the genetically engineered corn and soy seeds, which have been under a strict review since 2011 because of pressure from organic farmers and activists who are concerned about widespread use of 2,4-D. The USDA found that the GMO seeds do not pose a "plant pest risk," and the agency is expected to approve the seeds for general use.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which regulates pesticides, is also reviewing the proposal to inject crops resistant to 2,4-D into the agricultural system. GMO crops such as the Enlist seeds are genetically engineered to resist pesticides marketed by the companies that develop them, allowing farmers to spay entire fields with patented herbicides that kill only weeds and non-GMO plants. In the coming months, the EPA will announce its decision in coordination the USDA.
Food safety activists and environmental activists call the GMO seeds "Agent Orange crops" because 2,4-D was a component of the notorious herbicide used by American forces during the Vietnam War that caused serious illnesses among veterans and the Vietnamese population. Industry proponents point out that Agent Orange's other ingredient, a chemical known as 2,4,5-T, was contaminated with dioxin and made the herbicide dangerous to human health. Meanwhile, 2,4-D has continued to be used in the United States and across the world.
Pesticide critics, however, point to studies that have linked 2,4-D to health problems such as non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a type of cancer.
“Any increase in the use of 2,4-D with Enlist corn and soybeans will hit rural communities especially hard, as numerous medical studies have linked 2,4-D and related herbicides to increased rates of cancer and Parkinson’s disease as well as low sperm counts in farmers and to birth anomalies in their children,” said Andrew Kimbrell, director of the Center for Food Safety.
Denmark, Sweden, Norway and parts of Canada have banned 2,4-D in light of such research, but the EPA considers the chemical to be relatively safe. In 2012, the EPA denied a petition from environmental groups to cancel the chemical's legal registration.
2,4-D is the third-most-popular herbicide in the United States, and farmers already are using it to fight Roundup-resistant weeds. The USDA estimates that use of 2,4-D will increase by 75 percent in the next six years if the Enlist crops are not approved. If the Enlist corn and soy are approved, the USDA estimates that the amount of 2,4-D used by farmers will increase further by two to six times.
Researchers at Penn State estimate that the widespread planting of soybeans resistant to 2,4-D would increase the amount of 2,4-D sprayed on American fields to 100 million pounds per year, about four times the current level. The researchers criticized the plan to address resistant weeds with heavy 2,4-D applications as a "quick fix" that would have negative environmental impacts and, over time, increase the superweed epidemic by encouraging weeds to be resistant to multiple herbicides.
A coalition of 144 farming, fishery, environmental and public health groups have asked the USDA not to approve the Enlist seeds, citing health studies and concerns among farmers that 2,4-D would drift onto their property and kill conventional or organic crops, causing serious economic damage in rural communities.
Dow, however, claims to have developed a 2,4-D formulation that is less prone to drift. In its environmental review, the USDA said that a "stewardship agreement" requiring the use of the new formulation has put some farmers' fears to rest. The USDA also claims that, if the Enlist technology is not made available to fight herbicide-resistant weeds, farmers may return to more aggressive tillage practices that can cause soil erosion and other forms of environmental damage.
The USDA has proposed several alternatives to approving the 2,4-D-resistant soy and corn, but approving all the seed varieties is currently the agency's "preferred" option. The public has six weeks to comment on the proposal.