(Beyond Pesticides, May 14, 2013) The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has determined that environmental impact statements (EIS) are required for Dow and Monsanto’s new genetically engineered (GE), 2,4-D resistant crops. According to Reuters, Dow had anticipated that their new crop would be on market by year’s end. Monsanto released a statement calling the move “unexpected.” USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is requiring the reviews in response to overwhelming concern expressed by farmers, consumers, and public health officials during the comment period for these new herbicide-resistant crops.
Dow’s new GE corn, dubbed “Enlist,” tolerates repeated applications of both glyphosate and the powerful herbicide 2,4-D, while Monsanto’s GE cotton and soybean (produced in partnership with their “competitor,” agrichemical giant BASF) is resistant to the herbicide dicamba. Both companies champion their crops as solutions to the widespread occurrence of weeds resistant to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, even though the ultimate cause for this resistance can be traced to overuse of the chemical on “Roundup-Ready” crops. A 2011 study in the journal Weed Science found at least 21 different species of weeds to be resistant to applications of Monsanto’s Roundup. Even without the presence of herbicide-ready crops, recent research reveals weed resistance to 2,4-D developing in areas of the western United States. As evidenced by these reports, new GE crops will not “solve” resistance issues, but merely push the problems of weed management further down the road.
The actions by the agrichemical industry represent a very dangerous precedent for USDA to endorse, as an approval of these products essentially indicates that the United States’ answer to herbicide resistance is more powerful, more dangerous and highly toxic chemicals. Many environmental groups have expressed concern about an impending spike in 2, 4-D and dicamba usage, which will be exacerbated by new herbicides that combine these chemicals with glyphosate. These new blended herbicides will be sprayed repeatedly during the growing season after weeds emerge and begin to compete with crops. Both 2, 4-D and dicamba are highly susceptible to drift and dicamba is known to volatilize (evaporate) and travel upwards of two miles from the point of application. The spraying of more 2, 4-D and dicamba during periods when specialty crops and home gardens are at their greatest risk of exposure is likely to increase the incidence of pesticide contamination and resultant damages. Growers of fruit, vegetable, and other non-row crops are particularly concerned about the potential introduction of these crops.
According to APHIS, there were approximately 500 individual comments and 31,000 petition signatures against Monsanto/BASF’s dicamba resistant plants, and 8,200 individual comments and 400,000 petition signatures against Dow’s 2,4-D resistant plants.
USDA has lost court challenges in the past due to hasty approvals of GE crops without an EIS.
2,4-D is a chlorophenoxy herbicide that kills broadleaf weeds by inducing rapid growth. The chemical has been linked to numerous human health problems, including cancer, particularly soft tissue sarcoma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, neurotoxicity, kidney/liver damage, and harm to the reproductive system. 2,4,-D is made up roughly half of the herbicide known as Agent Orange, which was used to defoliate forests and croplands in the Vietnam War. Research by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests that babies born in counties where high rates of chlorophenoxy herbicides are applied to farm fields are significantly more likely to be born with birth defects of the respiratory and circulatory systems, as well as defects of the musculoskeletal system like clubfoot, fused digits, and extra digits. These birth defects were 60% to 90% more likely in counties with higher 2,4-D application rates. The results also show a higher likelihood of birth defects in babies conceived in the spring, when herbicide application rates peak.
Dicamba is a chlorinated benzoic acid herbicide that, among other potential health effects, is neurotoxic and has been connected with reproductive and developmental problems in humans. The herbicide is extremely mobile in soils, regardless of organic matter or clay content, and has high water solubility. Dicamba residues are both quite persistent (2 months to 1 year) and able to move vertically in the soil column.
EPA does not test the human or environmental health implications of chemical mixtures, so these combined herbicides will be a novel hazard for farmers and rural communities.
Agriculture does not have to work this way. Farmers do not have to remain stuck on a pesticide treadmill that demands ever greater synthetic inputs and rewards chemical suppliers at the expense of community, worker, farm and environmental health. Organic agriculture is an ecologically-based management system that prioritizes cultural, biological, and mechanical production practices and natural and least-toxic inputs. By strengthening on-farm resources, such as soil fertility, pasture and biodiversity, organic farmers can minimize and even avoid the production challenges that chemical inputs such as synthetic pesticides, fertilizers and antibiotics are marketed as “solving.”