Activists play Agent Orange scare card in hopes of derailing USDA approval of 2,4-D resistant corn and soybeans

| January 6, 2014 |
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Note: A version of this report appears on Forbes.

New genetically modified corn and soybean seeds, already approved in Canada for rollout this year, are closer to being green-lighted in the United States—unless activist protests derail the process yet again.

Last Friday, a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) released by the US Department of Agriculture recommended that full deregulation is the “preferred alternative” for Dow AgroSciences’ corn and soybean traits resistant to the herbicide 2,4-D–products known as the Enlist Weed Control System.

What is 2,4-D? According to scientists, it’s an effective herbicide and plant growth regulator widely and safely used for decades in household weed killers, such as Scotts TurfBuilder, and also by farmers. To opponents, it’s “Agent Orange”.

That’s factually untrue. As agricultural scientist Steve Savage has written on the independent website Biofortified, “Agent Orange, a defoliant used in the Vietnam War, was made with two herbicides: 2,4-D (the one that the new corn tolerates), and 2,4,5-T. The 2,4,5-T was unknowingly contaminated with a dioxin, something that was only later recognized as a significant human safety issue. Yes, 2,4-D was part of Agent Orange, but it wasn’t what made Agent Orange a danger back in the 1960s.”

The facts haven’t slowed the anti-GMO demonization express, let by Michael Pollan, in a tweet dispatched within minutes of the USDA announcement.

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“If finalized, this decision would launch American agriculture into a new era of vastly increased dependence on more toxic pesticides,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the anti-GMO Center for Food Safety, which popularized the demonizing term “Agent Orange Corn” to stigmatize the chemical. “The Obama Administration must overturn this dangerous and misguided proposal.”

On her blog, Marion Nestle, New York University food scientist and organics promoter appropriately linked to independent government studies endorsing the safety of 2,4-D, but then provided a mouthpiece for one of the country’s most anti-science groups, Earth Justice. “The potent and toxic 2,4-D has been linked to many human health problems,” Nestle quotes the anti-GMO group. “It also is likely to harm non-genetically engineered crops in neighboring fields, threaten endangered species, and ultimately lead to the development of weeds that are resistant to it, leading to even more problems.

Following the Earth Justice quote, Nestle chortles: “Even more reason to buy and promote organics!”

That’s the cynicism. What do the facts show?1757.jpg.thumb_280x280

The Environmental Protection Agency has evaluated 2,4-D numerous times under increasingly stringent risk assessment evaluations and consistently found the comparatively mild herbicide safe. The Oregon State University and EPA-backed National Pesticide Information Center thoroughly reviewed the chemical and found it safe in its proposed usages.

USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) endorsed the safety of the traits years ago after extensive reviews, but the final approval process slowed to a crawl in the face of activist pressures. Citing “public concerns” about the potential increased volume of herbicides and their movement onto non-target crops, APHIS announced in May that it would require a more stringent environmental review of Enlist crops waiting to be approved for the market. That’s now completed. The draft EIS will be published in the Federal Register this week and open for public comment for 45 days.

After years of independent review, Canadian regulatory authorities approved the traits in October, opening the way for cultivation for the first time this year.

For environmentalists interested in higher crop yields with lower impact and more sustainable farming practices, including the use of less pesticides, the approval would come as welcome news. As Savage points out, farmers have been moving increasingly towards the control of weeds with herbicides rather than with mechanical methods called “tillage.”

Plowed and tilled soils are susceptible to erosion. Erosion carries not just sediments, but also fertilizers and pesticide residues into streams. The mechanical disturbance of soil degrades its properties over time so that it becomes less able to capture and store rain and less able to sequester nutrients. Beginning in 1960, some farmers began to experiment with “no-till” farming methods on a commercial scale. One of the reasons they were able to do that was because herbicides like 2,4-D had become available.

Pollan, Nestle and groups like the Center for Food Safety and Earth Justice harp on concerns that the use of herbicides can result in the evolution of so-called superweeds, requiring even more spraying. That has begun to happen in some farm areas in cases involving the overuse of glyphosate (Roundup Ready), where resistance has indeed emerged. But herbicide resistant weeds has been a problem long before GMO crops were introduced. Pro-active farmers combat this by employing multiple options, including herbicides with different modes of action, cultural methods like cover crops or planting date shifts and in some cases the judicious use of tillage. Invoking the problem of superweeds is often a crafty surrogate for attacking GMOs (one of Pollan’s favorite tactics)–typical of the way ideologues rather than scientists or independent journalists evaluate a complex problem. The introduction of a 2,4-D tolerant crop would actually lessen the problem, as farmers could rotate in another mode of action.

f09c77eb396b8c149656cd29318e8288The sustainability benefits of 2,4-D have been documented, which is why both farmers and cutting edge environmentalists are so eager for the approval process to conclude. “We are on a trajectory for continued weed resistance and thus major adverse impact on crop productivity,” said weed science expert, University of Western Australia professor Stephen Powles. “To fight resistance we need herbicide diversity and alternative technologies. Enlist is one such diversity tool.”

Monsanto’s Roundup Ready GMO seed line, which incorporates herbicide resistant traits, has led to a sharp reduction in the overall toxicity content of chemicals sprayed because glyphosate is so much less toxic and environmentally risky than the chemicals it replaced. The same would happen with Dow’s 2,4-D corn or soybeans. The new products would give farmers multiple options to further control the weed problems that have dogged modern agriculture for 50 years.

Even as the evidence for the safety and sustainability benefits of these new GM traits mounts, anti-GMO activists escalate the rhetoric. Pollan et al. not only invoke the Agent Orange canard to spread dicey environmental interpretations of complex issues, as part of their crusade they show no compunction about misrepresenting an unrelated national tragedy. As Savage has written:

This new corn, and the soybeans that will follow, are part of what will enable land-use efficient, low environmental footprint farming. They have nothing to do with a 50 year old defoliant. There is absolutely no doubt that the lessons from “Agent Orange” must be remembered.  The innocent victims of Agent Orange deserve that heightened awareness. What they don’t deserve is to have their tragedy exploited in an irresponsible way.

Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, is a senior fellow at the Center for Health & Risk Communication and STATS (Statistical Assessment Service) at George Mason University.

  • First Officer

    It always amazes me how anti-gmoer’s, such as Pollan, bemoan weeds becoming resistant to herbicides that they never want to see used in the first place. It underscores just how disingenuous they are.

    • Loren Eaton

      Weeds, no matter how super, are not currently resistant to an organic farmer walking the field and pulling it out by hand. I guess Pollan can’t take yes for an answer.

      • First Officer

        And, even that, evolution has come up with some defenses:

        http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2FBF02858881#page-1

        Stop organic farming! Lest we create super-mimics !

        • bluto42

          LOL — good one!

        • Loren Eaton

          Well if they create super mimes–I’m gonna protest.

        • RickL

          Bindweed is one that is tolerant to tillage. And thanks for linking that article. Also, a romantic notion that all weeding on organic farms is accomplished by hand pulling.

      • AgrSci1

        Certain weeds like galinsoga which germinate over a long period and produce seed rapidly are resistant to mechanical control.

  • mike

    Entine is such a promoter of all things GMO, he’d never recognize anything critical of his beloved project. Yet he’s supposed to be unbiased. Hogwash.

    • http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/ Jon Entine

      Mike, I don’t agree–I do believe optimistically in the reality and potential of biotechnology–as does the National Academy of Sciences, the World Health Organisation, and most mainstream science groups. But I welcome critical thinking. So here’s a challenge: Alert me to science based stories that you think raise perspectives that we are missing on the GLP–not Jeffrey Smith or Shiva junk, or quips by Michael Pollan–but thoughtful, science based critiques or analyses. I will post them. That’s what we do here–this a a community and we need/want a discussion, on GMOs and biotechnology in general. Send me an email through the website…I get them all..and I will definitely post ANY thoughtful analysis or critique, even if it questions GMOs or puts them in a negative light. So..let’s do it!!

      • Crush Davis

        Don’t hold your breath Jon.

  • Paul

    Nature has always a way of dealing with problems like weeds & sometimes has a surprising solution. Watch Dr. Mike amaranthus explain how Mycorrhizal fungi can actually help in controlling weed problems. http://m.youtube.com/watch?autoplay=1&v=kp_5J-aPbBQ&desktop_uri=%252Fwatch%253Fv%253Dkp_5J-aPbBQ%2526autoplay%253D1

    • Loren Eaton

      Fair enough, but don’t you think the weeds will figure out a way around the fungi? Always a moving target.

      • Eric Bjerregaard

        Please take what Loren says with a grain of salt. She is a Nole backer and therefore obviously not quite logicl. [reluctant congrats Loren] Jon has made an error “crafty”? No longer Jon. Actually quite predictable. And the track meet crack was intended as a bad pun.

        • Loren Eaton

          Where to begin? I’m a dude, dude. Married 27 years. Which track meet crack? I ran track so I think I would recognize it. Oh, and “ACC, ACC!!!”

          • Eric Bjerregaard

            Sorry Loren, I get confused by the English language. My Dad is retired director of bands at FSU. So, I pick a bit. Did you know that, in football ACC stands for Almost Competitve Conference. Used to work for Gator Athletic dept. We referred to discus as throwing heavy frisbees. Not Gator fan though just a smart aleck. M- go Blue.

          • Loren Eaton

            I loved when the FSU band played ‘Birdland’ during the 4th quarter. And I guess we ‘almost’ won that crystal football;-)

  • russTTU

    Nature will always find a way around barriers we put in front of it. Regardless what the Pollan utopians think, human agriculture and nature can not live in peace and harmony. We are constantly a war against bugs, weeds, weather and diminishing tillable ground. This is the nature of our world and it will be that way until we develop a foolproof way to stop the natural process within the natural environment. Good luck,with that.

  • Ripshed

    Please fix the link to the Forbes article.

    • http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/ Jon Entine

      Done, and thanks for the heads up!

  • egonzalez

    Intensive, large-scale farming of monocrops requires an arsenal of chemicals. No one denies this. Over time, weeds develop resistance, requiring new chemicals. No one denies this, either. How is it irrational to question whether it is safe to apply these chemical loads to our food and soil (and therefore water supply)? It’s a scientific fact that we’re seeing declines in insect and amphibian populations such as frogs and bees and possibly monarch butterflies. Is it irrational to consider that those declines might be related to the chemicals we’re applying to maintain thousand-acre monocrops? I don’t think so. And the fact that the USDA and FDA are populated by so many former Monsanto employees is hardly reassuring. I’m writing as a mother of two daughters, not as a scientist. I think the modern agricultural model is flawed. You can call me an idiot for thinking so–go for it. But you are the ones sticking your heads in the sand while claiming to want the truth, because you dismiss legitimate, rational questions as unscientific and those who pose them as fools. This isn’t an invitation to the debate table–it’s a dismissal of a whole frame of reference that sees human beings as mammals who are part of an ecosystem, rather than as masters of a biological universe who must pursue high-yield and low cost agriculture to secure humanity’s future. To me, that is a specious position, and one that will prove far more costly to humanity and the planet (our fates are, after all, tied) than the environmental backlash you dismiss here.

  • AgrSci1

    This article does not discuss new formulations of 2,4-D that have been developed. The ester formulation is fairly volatile and can move off target if used in hot, windy conditions. The amine formulation is much less volitale, but care still must be used. The new choline formuation that has been developed in fairly non-volatile.