(Beyond Pesticides, September 9, 2011) Despite rising concerns over the side effects of herbicide tolerant, genetically engineered (GE) crops, Dow AgroSciences has recently asked for approval of a new GE soybean variety that will be the first ever to be simultaneously resistant to three different pesticides. The soybean variety, which the company is calling “Enlist,” is designed to compete with Monsanto’s line of “Roundup Ready” crops, which are engineered to be resistant to the company’s glyphosate formulation. The Enlist soybean will be resistant to glyphosate as well as glufosinate and 2,4-D.
Antonio Galindez, CEO of Dow AgroSciences, told Reuters that the Enlist system is the company’s “most important project ever.” This is likely due to the company’s ambitious target of taking over Monsanto’s dominance of the GE market in American agriculture. Herbicide tolerant (HT) Roundup Ready crop varieties have become nearly ubiquitous in the corn, cotton, and soybean seed markets.
Dow will market the product as a replacement for Roundup Ready soybeans. If farmers are finding that weeds in their fields are not responding to applications of Roundup, Dow will argue, then planting Enlist soybeans will allow them to spray a combination of chemicals in order to eradicate the resistant weeds.
Research is increasingly showing that herbicide resistant crops are allowing farmers to rely on a single pesticide and apply it in such great amounts that weeds are also evolving herbicide resistance. This is causing significant problems for farmers as they are forced to either fall back on more toxic chemicals or resort to mechanical methods to control the weeds. Either course is likely to cost farmers more time and money to deal with the tenacious invaders.
While the new soybeans may be a boon to farmers at first, critics point to the likelihood that increasing applications of any chemical, no matter how toxic or in what kind of mixture it comes, will simply lead to weeds evolving resistance to that chemical as well. If the Enlist system is widely adopted, it will likely be only a matter of time before weeds become resistant to glufosinate and 2,4-D as well as glyphosate.
Additionally, the Enlist soybeans are particularly of concern due to the likelihood that their adoption will increase applications of 2,4-D, a highly toxic chemical which has been linked to cancer, reproductive effects, endocrine disruption, and kidney and liver damage. It is also neurotoxic and is toxic to beneficial insects (such as bees), earthworms, birds, and fish. Scientific studies have confirmed significantly higher rates of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma for farmers who use 2,4-D than those who don’t. It is the fifth most commonly used herbicide in the agricultural sector and total annual usage in the U.S. tops 40 million pounds.
Glyphosate is also cause for continued concern, as it has been linked to a number of serious human health effects, including increased cancer risk, neurotoxicity, and birth defects, as well as eye, skin, and respiratory irritation. One of the inert ingredients in product formulations of Roundup, polyoxyethyleneamine (POEA), kills human embryonic cells. It is also of particular concern due to its toxicity to aquatic species as well as instances of serious human health effects from acute exposure.
Simply spraying more and different pesticides of increasing toxicity will not solve the problems inherent in a system of agricultural production that relies on monocultures and chemical management rather than harnessing the power of natural systems and cycles. Industrial agriculture requires such intense management because it ignores the processes of the natural world and instead creates perfect breeding grounds for pests and disease. The only way to get away from the cycle of chemical dependence is to alter the way that the land is managed. Organic agriculture provides an alternative management system that reduces the need for external inputs such as pesticides and fertilizers through utilizing natural systems to enhance soil fertility and manage pests and disease.
Beyond Pesticides is currently involved in multiple lawsuits involving Roundup Ready and other GE crops. The first lawsuit is filed against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and seeks to end cultivation of GE crops on twenty-five national wildlife refuges across the U.S. Southeast. The suit is the latest step in a campaign to banish GE crops from all refuges. Filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on August 12, 2011 by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the Center for Food Safety (CFS), and Beyond Pesticides, the federal suit charges that FWS unlawfully entered into cooperative farming agreements and approved planting of GE crops in eight states without the environmental review required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and in violation of FWS policy. This is the third in a series of lawsuits filed by CFS and PEER challenging FWS’s practice of permitting GE crops on wildlife refuges. In 2009 and 2010, the groups successfully challenged approval of GE plantings on two wildlife refuges in Delaware — Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge and Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge — which forced FWS to end GE planting in the entire 12-state Northeastern region.
In another case involving GE crops, attorneys for CFS, Earthjustice, Beyond Pesticides, and others filed a lawsuit against USDA in March 2011, arguing that the agency’s unrestricted approval of GE “Roundup Ready” alfalfa violates the Endangered Species Act. USDA announced plans to fully deregulate GE alfalfa in January, despite contamination risks it poses to both organic and conventional farmers.
For more news and information on “Roundup Ready” and other GE crops, see Beyond Pesticides’ genetic engineering page.
To learn more about alternatives to industrial agriculture and chemical dependence, visit our organic food and farming page.
Image credit: USDA