The U.S. has produced genetically engineered corn and soybeans for years, but now farmers are plagued by weeds that are resistant to popular weed killers they were designed to withstand, including Roundup. According to Dow AgroSciences, the solution is to engineer plants that can resist an even stronger herbicide: 2,4-D.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) must assess the potential environmental impact of new seed technologies in an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Last Friday, the organization released a draft EIS supporting the complete deregulation of seeds designed to resist 2,4-D, and is opening it up for public comment for 45 days.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is also performing a review of the new herbicide-resistant crops, and is expected to release its own report in the coming months.
The Science Behind the Seeds
Ed Curlett, director of public affairs for the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), noted that some reports are saying the new seeds can withstand Agent Orange. He emphasized that 2,4-D is not the same thing.
“Comparing 2,4-D to Agent Orange is concerning, as 2,4-D is not Agent Orange,” Curlett said. Agent Orange, used for defoliation during the Vietnam War, was a mixture of herbicides 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, mixed with trace amounts of kerosene or diesel fuel. It contained small amounts of dioxin, a highly toxic contaminant by-product of 2,4,5-T.
In 1985, the EPA banned the use of 2,4,5-T, but the agency has approved the use of 2,4-D and considers it safe when used according to specifications, Curlett said.
However, environmental groups strongly oppose the approval of 2,4-D-resistant crops, saying it will likely increase the volume of chemicals sprayed on food products and into the soil.
“We expected better from the Obama Administration,” Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety said in a statement, calling the seeds “Agent Orange crops.”
“This is among the worst applications of biotechnology," Kimbrell said. "'Agent Orange crops' are designed to survive a chemical assault with 2,4-D. They will increase the use of toxic pesticides in industrial agriculture while providing absolutely no benefit to consumers.”
Jeff Wolt, a professor of agronomy at Iowa State University’s Biosafety Institute for Genetically Modified Agricultural Products, said that discussion on the matter is being hindered by activists who are stigmatizing the new seeds and 2,4-D, which has been used across the globe for many decades.
Wolt also said that it may take some time to commercialize the products even if the USDA approves their deregulation, because other information could arise that may warrant a re-evaluation.
“I would expect that the intent is to have a decision in time for the coming planting season,” he said.
What the USDA Decision Could Mean
Many in the food safety arena say that the move to deregulate 2,4-D-resistant seeds could set a dangerous precedent—and simply be dangerous.
Felicia Stoler, a nutritionist based in New Jersey, said the issue of these seeds being regulated at all is “quite disturbing.” She believes there is so much controversy surrounding genetically modified (GM) organisms that opening the door to another type of GM seed goes against what most consumers want.
“While weeds and pests are a huge threat to plants, and admittedly farming is hard work, we need to find ways to incorporate more affordable organic farming methods,” she said. “People want less ‘stuff’ sprayed on the food they put in their mouths.”
Andy Bellatti, a registered dietitian, said that the move raises a red flag for him, too. He admits that Roundup-resistant weeds are a problem, but also asks what would keep 2,4-D from creating the very same issue with 'super-weeds.'
“It’s pretty much a no-brainer that, in time, we’ll have 2,4-D-resistant weeds infesting farmland,” Bellatti said. “Once those ‘super-weeds’ are everywhere, will we have another herbicide ‘du jour?’”
Bellatti said that GM corn and soy are typically used to feed livestock an unnatural diet or to make byproducts like high fructose corn syrup for minimally nutritious, highly processed foods.
“This possible deregulation is not a victory for human health or world hunger; it’s simply a victory for biotech’s already deep pockets,” he added.