(Beyond Pesticides, August 8, 2014) Despite the continued documentation of weed resistance all over the United States, as well as the world, another line of herbicide-tolerant crops developed by Monsanto is currently in the pipeline awaiting likely approval by U.S. regulators. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) released a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) on Tuesday, which, according to regulators, will pave the way for the approval of new genetically modified cotton and soybean plants tolerant to a mixture of the herbicides glyphosate and dicamba.
Monsanto’s new soybean and cotton crops were developed to withstand their new herbicide formulation, called Roundup Xtend, which combines the pesticides dicamba and glyphosate. The “Roundup Ready Xtend crop system” was developed to curb the proliferation of millions of acres of weeds that have grown resistant to Monsanto’s glyphosate-based Roundup, which has been used on the company’s biotech corn, soybeans, and cotton.
Weed resistance due to cropping systems dependent on herbicides has been documented for years, making APHIS’ conclusions in the EIS all the more alarming. A report that Beyond Pesticides published 12 years ago, “The Environmental Risks of Transgenic Crops: An Agroecological Assessment is the failed pesticide paradigm being genetically engineered?” argued that as the industry pressures to increase herbicide sales, it will increase the acreage treated with these broad-spectrum herbicides, thus exacerbating the resistance problem and keeping farmers on a “pesticide treadmill.” Additionally, the occurrence of “super weeds” coincides strongly with the use of toxic herbicides on genetically engineered (GE) crops. According to one study, “Impacts of genetically engineered crops on pesticide use in the U.S. ””the first sixteen years,” author Charles Benbrook, Ph.D., writes that the emergence and spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds is strongly correlated with the upward trajectory of herbicide use. Glyphosate resistance is just one of many examples where overuse on GE crops has brought about not only environmental contamination and risk to human health, but the explosion of super weeds as well.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently denied a request by Texas regulators for the emergency use of propazine to combat glyphosate-resistant Palmer amaranth, or pigweed, citing risks to drinking water and other hazards. However, this victory only serves to highlight the work that still needs to be done. Although Texas cotton growers who use chemical-intensive practices were denied the use of this toxic chemical due to drinking water concerns, EPA states in its letter that these Texas growers had otherwise met emergency criteria. But weed resistance in GE crop fields is predictable, and should be ineligible for requests such as this. Ultimately, chemical-intensive growers in Texas and throughout the U.S. should not, as EPA suggests, simply move to another pesticide when their unsustainable practices lead to weed resistance.
The health consequences of dicamba exposure include neurotoxicity and adverse reproductive and developmental effects, while glyphosate has been linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, as well as endocrine disruption, reproductive effects, and kidney and liver damage.
In stark contrast to these ecological and health concerns, Monsanto, the patent holder of the genetically engineered seed, said that the APHIS action was “a noteworthy sign of progress.”
APHIS also issued a final EIS on Tuesday for genetically altered corn and soybean plants developed by Dow AgroSciences, a subsidiary of Dow Chemical Company. The EIS states that the agency intends to approve the products. APHIS said back in January that it was inching toward approval for Dow’s products, which are corn and soybean strains called Enlist that resist a new herbicide that includes glyphosate and 2,4-D, also developed by Dow. 2,4-D has been linked to cancer, reproductive effects, neurotoxicity, kidney/liver damage, and birth and developmental effects.
The final EIS on 2,4-D resistant crops will be available for public review for 30 days upon publication in the Federal Register before APHIS makes its final regulatory determination on the petition for deregulation. APHIS will publish its record of decision for the final EIS and its final regulatory determination after the conclusion of the 30-day public review period.
Regarding Monsanto’s new products, APHIS said in its Tuesday statement that farmers would see benefits, but also acknowledged that there would also likely be “an increased chance of the development of weeds resistant to dicamba.”
The draft EIS will be available for a 45-day public review and comment period upon publication by EPA in the Federal Register.
While APHIS finalizes its assessment of these GE plants, EPA is concluding its concurrent review of the related herbicides.
Pursuing sustainable alternatives can prevent the pesticide treadmill that results from the overuse of GE crops and pesticides like glyphosate. Integrated pest management strategies, organic practices, and solutions that are not chemical-intensive would be the most appropriate and long-term solution to battling pigweed. Additionally, organic agriculture is an ecologically-based management system that prioritizes cultural, biological, mechanical production practices, and natural inputs. By strengthening on-farm resources, such as soil fertility, pasture and biodiversity, organic farmers can minimize and even avoid the production challenges that most genetically engineered organisms have been falsely-marketed as solving. To learn more about organic agriculture, see Beyond Pesticides Organic Program Page.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides