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The bad news: Both Monsanto and Dow have developed—and have applied for USDA approval on—new crops that have increased resistance to even deadlier pesticides. The good news: Thanks to consistent pressure from the Center for Food Safety (CFS), this approval has been halted for several years and will probably be stopped altogether.
“Need” for Deadlier Pesticides
Some of the earliest genetically engineered crops were developed to be resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide—so-called Roundup Ready crops. Now, years down the road, we’re seeing the results of what was promised to be decreased herbicide use.
“It’s ironic that one of the big early claims about GMOs was that they were supposed to reduce pesticide use,” Bill Freese, CFS science policy analyst, told Organic Connections. “That’s simply not true; it’s just the opposite.
“Soybeans, corn, cotton and canola have been genetically engineered to withstand spraying with Roundup herbicide. They’re grown on about 150 million acres in the United States. They’ve had some really adverse impacts. We have a whole epidemic now of weeds that have become resistant to Roundup, on the same principle by which bacteria become resistant to antibiotics when they are overused.”
The biotech industry has arrived at a “solution” for this problem. “It turns out that if you’re Monsanto and Dow, the solution is to engineer crops for resistance to more toxic herbicides,” Freese said. “That’s where these new crops come in. They’re being marketed as the supposed solution to Roundup-resistant weeds.”
For CFS, the heart of this issue lies in the danger of the pesticides these proposed crops will resist.
“The new crops up for approval include several varieties of corn and soybeans resistant to Dow Chemical’s 2,4-D,” Freese explained. “2,4-D is one of the oldest herbicides, first introduced in 1945. It became most famous as part of Agent Orange, used in the Vietnam War. It’s a very potent herbicide. It’s been associated with a number of different human health issues including increased rates of cancer, especially in farmers who use this herbicide.
“We’ve all come to note compounds called dioxins, very highly toxic substances that are in the environment. It turns out that 2,4-D is contaminated with dioxins. If 2,4-D-resistant corn and soybeans are introduced, we’ll have a really big increase in the use of this toxic herbicide. That’s not good for people, not good for the environment, and ultimately not good for farmers either.”
Also on the approval line are crops resistant to Monsanto’s Dicamba herbicide, which has likewise been linked to severe health hazards.
“Pretty soon the weeds will be resistant to not only Roundup but 2,4-D and Dicamba as well,” Freese pointed out. “Then the companies will come out with new crops resistant to multiple herbicides. It’s what I like to call the ‘toxic spiral’ of increasing toxic herbicide use and resistance in weeds. These herbicide-resistant crops are what spur that toxic spiral, which is why we have to stop them.”
An additional danger such crops bring is pesticide drift into other farmers’ fields.
“Drift is another serious issue,” Freese continued. “Both those two herbicides—2,4-D and Dicamba—are very volatile and tend to drift an awful lot. If a farmer next to you is growing those crops and spraying those herbicides, you could get a drift onto your crops and have some severe damage from even low levels of drift. It can cause significant yield loss. You can actually see the impacts—your crop could start to shrivel up. Or it could be more subtle and you don’t see too many effects, but down the line your yield goes way down.”
GE Approval Progress Ground to a Halt
From the first moment these new crops were submitted for USDA approval, CFS was on the line making its voice heard. “We’ve been following the administrative process very closely,” Freese related. “The USDA has the primary authority over these crops, so we’ve submitted very detailed comprehensive science-based comments to the USDA explaining why they shouldn’t approve them.
“The USDA doesn’t like to listen to us very much, but we’ve sued them and we’ve won before, so they realize that they have to take us seriously.”
And listen they indeed did.
“Just this morning it came out that the USDA has agreed to do Environmental Impact Statements on the 2,4-D- and Dicamba-resistant crops that are pending approval,” said Freese. “What does that mean? The USDA normally does a cursory kind of an assessment called an Environmental Assessment, after which they always recommend approval. This time they’ve agreed to do a full Environmental Impact Statement, which is a much more in-depth review of the crops. It will probably take a couple of years.
“Originally Dow said that they were going to introduce their 2,4-D-resistant corn this year. Then a few months ago they said, ‘We’re not going to be able to do it this year, so next year.’ Now it’s clear that it won’t be introduced sooner than 2015—if even then—because this process has to take place.”
The fact that the USDA is conducting the EIS voluntarily constitutes a win for CFS. “The only two Environmental Impact Statements that have been done in the past have been under court order because of our lawsuits,” Freese indicated. “We sued the USDA on approving Roundup Ready Alfalfa and Roundup Ready Sugar Beets. In both cases we won those lawsuits, and the judge in both instances said, ‘You know you shouldn’t have approved these crops.’ They reversed the approval for each of those crops and said, ‘You have to do an Environmental Impact Statement and really consider the issues that CFS raised.’ This is the first time that they’ve done an EIS voluntarily.”
This victory is most definitely not the end of the story. “Our goal is to stop these crops, to prevent them from being introduced—not just to delay but to prevent them,” Freese concluded. “These EISs give us some breathing room to do that.”
For the latest from CFS, please visit the Food Safety Action Center on the Organic Connections website.
Or visit the Center for Food Safety at www.centerforfoodsafety.org.