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US Nearing Approval of Next Generation of Herbicide-Resistant Crops

The implications of the biotechnology revolution in agriculture go well beyond the United States.

(Image: GMO corn via Shutterstock)

Washington – Two key federal agencies here are in the final stages of approving a new herbicide-resistant crop “system” that would constitute the second phase of genetically engineered agriculture, following an announcement this week.

To date, the only herbicide-resistant plants approved in the United States have been related to Monsanto’s Roundup Ready system. This system uses six crops genetically engineered to withstand the herbicide Roundup, also produced by Monsanto, a U.S.-based company.

Yet use of Roundup Ready crops has been so widespread in the United States over the past decade and a half that farmers have increasingly found themselves battling weeds that have evolved resistance to the herbicide’s key ingredient, glyphosate.

According to an industry survey released last year, the amount of U.S. farmland infested with glyphosate-resistant weeds has almost doubled since 2010, to more than 61 million acres, with half of U.S. farmers reporting glyphosate-resistant weeds in their fields in 2012.

In response, Dow AgroSciences, another U.S. company, has produced a new set of crops that have been genetically engineered to be resistant to both glyphosate and another chemical, 2,4-D, known most notoriously as half of the infamous Vietnam War-era defoliant Agent Orange. The company says approval could bring in a billion dollars in revenues.

“The Dow proposal would be the first major product of the next generation of genetically engineered crops,” Bill Freese, a senior policy analyst with the Centre for Food Safety, a watchdog group here, told IPS.

“It’s advertised as a solution to the problem of glyphosate-resistant weeds, but in fact the weeds will rapidly evolve resistance and become more difficult to control – leading to what we call the pesticide treadmill. As we’ve seen with Roundup Ready, these systems are extremely good at fostering resistant weeds.”

On Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) opened a 30-day public comment period on Dow’s application, specifically on its specialised use of 2,4-D. The other agency in charge of deciding on the application, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), has already given its provisional approval for the new cops, which include a corn plant and two types of soybean.

In announcing the start of this final phase of the regulatory process, the EPA was clear in the rationale behind Dow’s product, which is known as Enlist Duo. (An EPA fact sheet is available here.)

“Weeds are becoming increasingly resistant to glyphosate-based herbicides and are posing a problem for farmers,” the agency said in a statement. “If finalized, EPA’s action provides an additional tool to reduce the spread of glyphosate resistant weeds.”

Indeed, it appears that additional tools may soon abound. According to the Center for Food Safety’s Freese, nine of the 14 applications for genetically engineered crops currently pending before U.S. regulators are for herbicide-resistant varieties.

Sixfold increase

Critics are warning of a spectrum of concerns around Dow’s application, particularly regarding the impacts of increased use of 2,4-D. This compound is already in use, with U.S. farmers currently using around 26 million pounds per year.

Yet according to the USDA’s own estimates, this usage would likely jump by more than sixfold following the approval of Enlist Duo, perhaps resulting in some 176 million pounds used per year. That would constitute higher U.S. use than any pesticide other than glyphosate.

Even at the comparably low usage of 2,4-D of recent years, worrying health effects are already being seen. According to public health advocates, 2,4-D has been linked to increases in non-Hodgkin lymphoma and Parkinson’s disease, as well as heightened risk of birth defects among the children of farm workers who apply 2,4-D.

“The herbicide itself is in various ways more toxic than glyphosate, leading to cancer, lower sperm counts, liver disease and other problems. And it’s still contaminated with dioxins,” Paul Achitoff, an attorney with Earthjustice, a legal advocacy group, told IPS.

“Remarkably, you have government regulators openly admitting that, due to previous deregulations, you already have 60 million acres of glyphosate resistance, and now they want to address this by increasing the use of a toxic chemical. And so far, Congress has just yawned!”

Impact could also be significant for both nearby agriculture and environmental systems. 2,4-D has been shown to be highly volatile, tending to drift easily on the wind or to enter groundwater via runoff.

Given that the compound is specifically designed to be lethal to any broad-leafed plant, the impact of a sixfold increase in the use of 2,4-D would likely be significant. The EPA and the National Marine Fisheries Service have both found that the even relatively low use of 2,4-D of recent years is likely already having a negative impact on endangered species.

Agricultural crossroads

In a public letter released earlier this year, 144 “farm, food, health, public interest, consumer, fisheries, and environmental organizations” called on the federal government to reject the Dow proposal, warning that U.S. agriculture is at a “crossroads”.

“One path leads to more intensive use of old and toxic pesticides, litigious disputes in farm country over drift-related crop injury, still less crop diversity, increasingly intractable weeds, and sharply rising farmer production costs,” the letter stated. “This is the path American agriculture will take with approval of Dow’s 2,4-D corn, soybeans and the host of other new herbicide-resistant crops in the pipeline.”

Yet the implications of the biotechnology revolution in agriculture go well beyond the United States. Although genetically engineered crops first took root in the U.S., this approach has since spread across the globe, in developing and developed countries alike – though the U.S. regulatory system continues to be more lax on the issue than in other countries.

At times these new technologies are contextualised as an important opportunity to increase yields, particularly in adverse environments, and thus to combat hunger and strengthen food security. But the Center for Food Safety’s Freese says this is whitewash.

“The rhetoric is about biotech feeding the world, but really it has no place in developing countries. Most poor farmers can’t afford this type of product in the first place,” he notes.

“Biotech is not a humanitarian endeavour. It’s about promoting pesticide use by industrial farmers in developed countries.”

Freese says his office will likely push the EPA to extend its public comment period for Enlist Duo, given what he dubs the significance of the regulator’s decision. Dow is currently hoping to have its new crops in the ground by next year.

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