CORN and SKYA new generation of genetically modified crops, designed to resist the old-line herbicide 2,4-D, is fast nearing government approval, despite wide criticism from experts and an exasperated public that these “new” GM crops will unleash industrial-scale application of a chemical herbicide with a notorious past.

The public has just two more weeks to comment on the proposal by Dow AgroSciences to sell its corn and soybeans engineered to withstand 2,4-D. So far comments are running strongly against any more GE crops, and especially those that use dangerous 2,4-D.

Wendy Mielke, of Lake Placid, FL, could be considered a typical, concerned citizen: “I agree with the coalition of 144 farming, fishery, environmental and public health groups that have asked the USDA not to approve the 2,4-D resistant crops. Citing studies that predict dire consequences to both human and environmental health, they add the concern among [organic] farmers that 2,4-D would drift onto their property and kill their crops, causing serious economic damage in rural communities.
If all this is not dangerous to our health then why do the Obamas only eat organic foods????????????”

(See more comments excerpted below.)

The US Agriculture Department has already given its preliminary approval for 2,4-D GM (also known as GE for genetically engineered) crops. The agency is now collecting public input, because it’s required before it can issue a final decision on approval of the 2,4-D corn and soybeans.

Critics warn that approval of these new crops will enable farmers to use vast quantities of the harsh herbicide, which was a key ingredient in Agent Orange, a compound that was used to defoliate Vietnamese jungles to gain visibility for the American troops during the Vietnam War. Agent Orange devastated agriculture and exposed thousands of Vietnamese and American soldiers, who later were beset by a variety of health problems, including fertility issues and autoimmune diseases that they linked to the chemical. Aerial applications killed or maimed an estimated 400,000 Vietnamese, many of them children. Veterans’ offspring also were affected, born with birth defects. Later, Monsanto, Dow Chemical and others paid $180 million to settle a class action suit by veterans. (More on Agent Orange.)

2,4-D in Turf Builder for lawns

2,4-D — it’s already in lawn products like this “Turf Builder”

Some say it’s not fair to call 2,4-D the “Agent Orange” herbicide, because it was just one component of the defoliant. The other half was a related herbicide 2,4,5-T, and when combined these two created toxic dioxin.

The USDA says 2,4-D is safe and has been approved by the EPA for many uses –“to control broadleaf weeds on a variety of food/feed sites including field, fruit, and vegetable crops.”

“It is also registered for use on turf, lawns, rights-of-way, aquatic sites, forestry applications, and is used as a plant growth regulator in citrus,” the USDA reports, citing this as evidence of the chemical’s safety.

2,4-D, however, is known for toxic effects of its own, according to its many critics.

Because studies have repeatedly linked its use to Non Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and other cancers, the Natural Resources Defense Council has petitioned the EPA to ban 2,4-D.

“Over the past 40 years, dozens of studies have been published on the links between 2,4-D and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, as well as soft-tissue sarcoma in humans. In 2010, approximately 65,540 people in the United States were diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The rate of this disease in the United States nearly doubled since the 1970s, even when adjusted for population size and age. It is reasonable to conclude that 2,4-D is likely a contributing factor to cases of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma,” the NRDC notes on a fact page about 2,4-D. In addition, the chemical has been found in the urine of children ages 6 to 11, who are apparently being exposed by lawn treatments containing the chemical and in residues of 2,4-D in dust, water and soil.

The EPA reports 2,4-D has not been credibly linked to cancer or Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

The Center for Food Safety, like the NRDC, disagrees with the EPA’s position, pointing to studies that have shown an association between 2,4-D exposure and Parkinson’s disease.

These watchdog groups and others, such as Beyond Pesticides, point to research showing that 2,4-D acts as an endocrine disruptor, causing lowered fertility and reproductive problems in animals and humans.

2,4-D — An herbicide with deep roots

The new crop of 2,4-D resistant corn and soybean seeds and plants, dubbed “Enlist” crops, would rely on the chemical to kill weeds, just as it did for generations before genetic modification came along in the mid-1990s. 2,4-D was first approved for use in 1948, the DDT era.

The new Enlist crops, though, will be engineered to resist the application of 2,4-D. This enables farmers to spray 2,4-D directly on the crops at virtually any time in the growing cycle, killing the weeds, but not the crop plants.

The chemical companies argue that allows farmers to spray less, because the herbicide/plant pairing is so effective. Critics say the opposite will happen, as it did with the first generation of GM corn and soybeans, which were modified to resist Monsanto’s RoundUp.

2,4-D Wikimedia Commons

Chemical structure of 2,4-D (Graphic: Wikimedia Commons)

Monsanto promised fewer chemicals would be needed. But sales of RoundUp climbed as the weeds developed resistance to the herbicide and began overrunning fields.
The RoundUp program, say environmentalists and organic farmers, was poised to fail because it flouted longtime agricultural practices in which crops are rotated and fields rested to keep ahead of the weeds. Furthermore, the “RoundUp-Ready” crops relied on one chemical year after year – a near-perfect formula for helping weeds adapt and become resistant.

The new Enlist program presents all the same problems, and will lock farmers into a similar GM-crop treadmill, just with a new chemical with a particularly bad environmental health record, saysThe Center for Food Safety’s Executive Director Andrew Kimbrell.

“We expected better from the Obama Administration,” Kimbrell said in early January after the USDA gave its initial approval to the Enlist crops.

“This is among the worst applications of biotechnology. ‘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.”

Other reactions can be found on the public comment site, where the overwhelming majority of citizens registering an opinion oppose the 2,4-D crops and a continuation of the GM/GE program. A few of those commenting say they are farmers eager to get started with 2,4-D.

A sampling of remarks on Dow AgroSciences petitions to sell unregulated 2,4-D Resistant Corn and Soybeans:

  • What on earth are you thinking??? We need more regulation and labeling of ALL GMO products. Where is the runoff of these chemicals going to go? Why will we never learn ? Larry L. McClean, Eau Claire, WI Jan. 28, 2014
  • Hello Dow Agro Science petitions, I am dying from my 24 year old Dow Corning implants and they are poisoning my body from the inside. I am currently fighting to get my implants out. My body doesn’t really have a chance because it is also fighting off all of the poisonous chemicals in and on our foods, in our water, and in the air. My father died from the Agent Orange poisoning that our Government sprayed on him in Vietnam. It’s is no wonder I feel like a freight train has hit me. Please do the responsible, moral, and right thing for our country and our fellow man kind. I am praying for the truth to reveal itself. Thank you for this opportunity. Laneisa Veronick, Moreno, CA Feb. 3, 2014
  • We should be eliminating the use of this chemical, not increasing our dependency on it in food production – especially given the success of organic production systems. Keep us all healthy by not allowing the use of Agent Orange type substances in our food. Barbara D’Emilio, Feb. 20, 2014
  • I am writing to urge the USDA to deny Dow AgroScience’s petition for non-regulated status for its 2,4-D-tolerant corn and soybean varieties. As a food consumer, I have grown increasingly concerned about the use of chemicals such as 2,4-D and others in food production. I have seen cancers on the rise in my community, among my friends and colleagues and I strongly feel major contributors to this are the chemicals in our environment from food production. It’s use also threatens organic farming, for which I rely for clean healthy non-chemically laden foods. . . Throughout its analysis, the USDA has failed to give proper attention to the many risks of 2,4-D tolerant crops and the elevated levels of 2,4-D and other herbicide use that will be triggered with an approval. The USDA, while recognizing the 2,4-D has numerous health and environmental impacts, has failed to address the inevitable increase in its use that will occur if these crops are approved for commercial planting. The approval of 2,4-D corn is likely to trigger up to a 25-fold increase in the amount of 2,4-D being sprayed in fields across the country. This increase in 2,4-D use will endanger agricultural workers and the general public with health risks such as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Additional 2,4-D in the environment would lead to elevated surface water pollution, which will not only affect water quality but also plants and animals, including endangered species. The increased use of 2,4-D also poses a threat to specialty crop and organic farmers, including grape growers and tomato producers. Increased drift from 2,4-D applications could destroy their crops. . . I urge the USDA to deny Dow’s petition and maintain regulation on the 2,4-D tolerant crops in order to protect both farmers and consumers. Robert Volinksy, Jersey City, NJ Feb. 20, 2014
  • Just like with the failed RR ready GMOs, this will only increase the use of a proven toxin, 2,4D. We do not need any more poisons hidden in foods or contaminating the environment. The health risks are known and will only increase the incidence of diseases in humans, and create more herbicide resistant weeds. Another environmental disaster in the making. Bob Balliet, Frenchville, PA Feb. 20, 2014
  • Why are our government agencies trying to kill us? Oh, yeah… money — Elen Fassett, Lake Havasu City, AZ Feb. 12, 2014
  • Myself and my family have always been free of allergies. But all 3 of my grandchildren have food allergies. This is because of the pesticides that are so rampant in our modern food production. They have all been found to cause the same problems that these babes are experiencing. That is why countries that are concerned with the health of their citizens refuse to let these chemicals into their country. Their people are more important than the money that the major companies will make when the authorities look the other way. This is a very stupid way for powerful people to behave. Eventually it will affect your children, too. Aren’t you a better defender than that? Claire O’Donnell, Homer, AK Jan. 21, 2014
  • I urge you to move quickly to deregulate the Enlist corn and soybean traits and complete the review process for the advanced 2,4-D herbicide. American agriculture needs new technologies to address weed control challenges on our farms for the next growing season. Racheal Neal, Linneus, MO
  • Dear USDA representatives – I am so disappointed in your decision to allow Dow Chemical to poison our food chain and our children. Have you no heart, no sense of duty or responsibility? Stop selling out the American people! Take pride in your duty to represent and protect the food of America and reclaim your integrity! Sincerely, Nathan Peterson, Austin, TX Feb. 20, 2014