#12 Seeds of Doubt: USDA Ignores Popular Critiques of New Pesticide-Resistant Genetically Modified Crops

by Project Censored
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Despite nearly 400,000 petition signatures from citizens, health professionals, and farmers expressing public opposition, in September 2014 the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved a new generation of genetically engineered corn and soybeans, created by the biotech company Dow AgroSciences. The new Enlist brand seeds will tolerate a new weed killer also engineered by Dow, called Enlist Duo, which combines for the first time two common herbicides: 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, a component of the toxic Agent Orange herbicide used during the Vietnam War, and glyphosate, the key element in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. Since some weeds have developed resistance to either 2,4-D or glyphosate, Dow’s Enlist Duo aimed to combine the two into a single, more effective herbicide.

The USDA approved the new Enlist Duo–resistant seeds even though it acknowledged that this approval “could increase use of 2,4-D by as much as 600 percent and possibly affect nearby crops such as tomatoes and grapes not engineered to resist the chemical,” according to Anastasia Pantsios’s reporting. Her report continued:

As farmers have been encouraged to devote more and more acres to single crops (aka “monocropping”) and use huge doses of glyphosate-based herbicides to deal with weeds, so-called “superweeds” have cropped up that are resistant to the herbicides. But many farmers and food safety advocates fear that increased applications of more powerful herbicides will only cause more resistant weeds to appear.

2,4-D not only threatens crop integrity, but is also associated with public safety risks, including various forms of cancer, Parkinson’s disease, hormone disruption, and birth defects.

Spokespersons for numerous organizations, including the Center for Food Safety and the Organic Consumers Association, condemned the USDA decision, Pantsios reported. “The USDA ignored public opposition and its responsibility to protect public health and agriculture,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. She called the approval of 2,4-D–ready crops “one of the most negligent decisions that the USDA has made in the nearly twenty years since genetically engineered crops have been on the market.”

As Mary Ellen Kustin and Soren Rundquist reported, research shows that almost 500 elementary schools are located within 200 feet of soybean and corn fields. “This finding is alarming,” they wrote, “because young children are especially vulnerable to the toxic herbicide 2,4-D in Dow AgroSciences’ Enlist Duo.” Kustin and Rundquist noted that although Dow claims that Enlist Duo would not drift more than 202 feet if applied properly, the EPA’s own risk assessment found that other formulations of 2,4-D have drifted more than 1,000 feet. They concluded that “the EPA needs to pay considerably more attention to the additional exposure risks borne by young children who live or study near corn and soybean fields than it did in its risk assessment.”

Corporate news coverage of this story has been limited. For instance, CNBC’s coverage of the USDA decision emphasized the “controversy” over so-called superweeds and their billion-dollar cost to farmers, but did not address the human health affects of glyphosate or 2,4-D. The Los Angeles Timesrelegated the topic to its editorial pages—where, to its credit, it did take a strong position regarding a loophole in the federal regulatory process: noting that the USDA assesses whether genetically engineered crops threaten other crops, while the EPA is charged with overseeing the safety of herbicides, the Los Angeles Times pointed out that “no agency looks at the bigger policy question of whether the nation is embarking on a potentially dangerous path toward creating ever-more-resistant weeds and spraying them and crops with larger and larger doses of stronger herbicides.” That question, the Los Angeles Times editors wrote, “should be answered before the country escalates the war out in the fields.”

Anastasia Pantsios, “USDA Approves Controversial GMO Corn and Soy,” EcoWatch, September 18, 2014, http://ecowatch.com/2014/09/18/usda-dow-gmo-corn-soy-glyphosate.

Mary Ellen Kustin and Soren Rundquist, “Elementary School Students at Increased Pesticide Risk,” Environmental Working Group, August 14, 2014, http://www.ewg.org/agmag/2014/08/elementary-school-students-increased-pesticide-risk.

Student Researcher: Stephanie Santiago (Indian River State College)

Faculty Evaluator: Elliot D. Cohen (Indian River State College)