Monsanto may catch a lot of flak for its high profile in the world of biotechnology and GMOs, but it’s also important to remember that it’s not the only player in the game. Dow AgroSciences is currently pushing the USDA for approval of “Enlist,” a new line of corn, soybeans, and cotton. Of course, these aren’t just any corn, soybeans, and cotton seeds – the Enlist line is genetically modified for resistance against 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D), a potent defoliant best known for its supporting role in fellow Dow Chemical/Monsanto joint Agent Orange. Proponents of the new seed line are touting it as an effective successor to once-Roundup Ready crops now overrun with glyphosate-resistant superweeds. Critics, on the other hand, are expressing fears that any benefits of this “Agent Orange corn” will be far outweighed by its costs to public health and the environment.
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Reuters reports that opponents of the genetically modified Enlist corn, a group that ranges from farmers to consumer interest groups to health care professionals, spoke out at a news conference on Thursday urging the USDA to reject Dow’s application to make Enlist available for commercial use. One concern is that, what with these potential crops being so resistant to 2,4-D, usage of the herbicide would rise exponentially in the near future – a troubling prospect for some health experts:
Several medical and public health professionals have sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture warning of health threats that could accompany such an increase in 2,4-D use.
"Many studies show that 2,4 D exposure is associated with various forms of cancer, Parkinson's Disease, nerve damage, hormone disruption and birth defects," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. "USDA must take these significant risks seriously and reject approval of this crop."
Although the main health effects of Agent Orange were blamed on the other component of the mixture (2,4,5-T) and dioxin contamination, the data indicate that 2,4-D has significant health risks of its own, according to Gina M. Solomon, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
Are these fears accurate? It’s debatable, or at least it’s been up for debate. According to the New York Times, those in favor of the Enlist seed line are calling comparisons to Agent Orange not only false – attributing its potency to the formula’s other main ingredient 2,4,5-T – but insulting to those who were harmed by the chemical in Vietnam:
The victims of Agent Orange do not deserve “to have their tragedy exploited in an irresponsible way,” Steve Savage, an agricultural consultant wrote in his blog, Applied Mythology.
Most experts agree that the harm from Agent Orange was caused primarily by its other ingredient, 2,4,5-T, which was taken off the market long ago. By contrast, 2,4-D, first approved in the late 1940s, is considered safe enough for use in many home lawn care products.
The Environmental Protection Agency, after repeated reviews, continues to say that there is not enough evidence to call 2,4-D a human carcinogen. This month, the agency rejected a petition from the Natural Resources Defense Council seeking the removal of 2,4-D from the market on health and safety grounds.
But public health is not the only concern regarding Dow’s Enlist corn and soybeans. Farmers and agricultural experts are also worried about the effect that increased 2,4-D use will have on neighboring crops and the environment. One farmer told the Times of the damage that was done to his own crops by powerful herbicides carried by the wind from a nearby farm; another farmer, however, expressed eagerness to the Times about Dow’s new developments:
For farmers like Mr. Hurst, the approval couldn’t come too soon. “I think it’s a crisis, and we need something to have a solution to get rid of resistant weeds,” Mr. Hurst said. He said that without new chemical approaches, farmers would have to plow more, increasing soil erosion.
There’s no getting around it – superweeds are a major problem that need to be addressed. Could 2,4-D be a supereffective weapon against the harmful plants plaguing crops? Sure, at least in the short term, but it’s part of a vicious cycle. But there will no doubt come a time when superweeds get hip to 2,4-D just as they did with glyphosate – what stronger-still chemical will we turn to then, and how much will we have to alter our food supply’s DNA just to survive the attack? When we’ve reached the point where dousing our own crops in a chemical once used to devastate an enemy’s agriculture sounds reasonable, maybe it’s time to step back and think about how things are done.