It’s the next wave in a revolution of GMO crops—and it’s happening right under our noses.
One of the world’s leading groups of cancer experts has just classified the industrial herbicide 2,4-D as a possible human carcinogen, and that’s got one of the world’s biggest ag-tech companies in an uproar. But why should we care about some corporate kerfuffle?
Because the U.S. is about to be deluged with 2,4-D—an herbicide similar to Roundup but lacking the comfort of a consumer-facing, trademarked name.
This week, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an arm of the World Health Organization, released the results of its evaluation of three agricultural chemicals, including 2,4-D. The agency’s designation of the herbicide as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” is based on a review of the existing scientific evidence, which it deems “inadequate” in humans and “limited” in animal experiments—hence the emphasis on “possibly” carcinogenic. Nevertheless, the agency says, “There is strong evidence that 2,4-D induces oxidative stress, a mechanism that can operate in humans, and moderate evidence that 2,4-D causes immunosuppression, based on in vivo and in vitro studies.”
No surprise: Ag-tech giant Dow AgroSciences has reacted swiftly, calling the findings hogwash. The company says the IARC’s conclusions are “inconsistent with government findings in nearly 100 countries,” according to the Midland Daily News.
“No herbicide has been more thoroughly studied, and no national regulatory body in the world considers 2,4-D a carcinogen,” a Dow AgroSciences spokesman said in a statement.
So, Why Should You Care? It’s not as though Dow is an impartial observer in all this. The company has millions of dollars in profit at stake in keeping farmers from worrying too much about dumping countless pounds of 2,4-D on their fields. Dow is in the midst of rolling out the next generation of genetically modified crops—its Enlist Duo patented line of crops—which are engineered to withstand heavy application of 2,4-D as well as the herbicide glyphosate, itself deemed a possible human carcinogen by the IARC a few months ago. It’s all part of a dramatic escalation of the ag-tech industry’s mad-scientist warfare on Mother Nature. In the late 1990s, Monsanto “revolutionized” agriculture with its introduction of Roundup Ready crops, which were genetically modified to tolerate being soaked in glyphosate.
American consumers appear to be growing ever more wary of GMO crops, with an increasingly vocal number demanding the government step in and require companies to label any food that contains GMO ingredients. But the absence of such labeling thus far has arguably allowed Big Ag to engineer one of the most sweeping overhauls of agricultural production in the nation’s history—right under our noses. From virtually nothing just 20 years ago, today a staggering 90 percent of corn and 93 percent of soybeans grown in the U.S. are genetically modified.
How has that worked out? As farmers have become more reliant than ever on glyphosate, they’ve unwittingly created a scourge of “superweeds” that have naturally developed their own resistance to the herbicide. Just as the overreliance of the livestock industry on antibiotics has given rise to the threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, some areas of the country are now plagued by weeds that glyphosate alone just can’t kill.
Big Ag’s answer to this crisis (which only seems logical if you’re, well, a company whose profits depend on selling massive amounts of GMO seeds and the chemicals to go with them) has been to ramp up the chemical assault. Hence, Dow’s Enlist Duo, which combines glyphosate with 2,4-D in a bid to combat those resilient monster weeds.
According to the USDA, the use of Dow’s new crop “system” will result in a tripling of the amount of 2,4-D being sprayed by 2020, and the increase could be as much as sixfold. Agricultural communities in areas where 2,4-D-resistant crops are planted would be exposed to eight times the amount of the “possible human carcinogen” they are now. Nevertheless, the EPA in April expanded its approval of the use of Enlist Duo across an additional nine states, from North Dakota to Louisiana, bringing the total number of states where the chemical cocktail is approved to 15.
That may not sound like mad science to Dow—or to the EPA, for that matter—but it does to plenty of others, including Mary Ellen Kustin, a senior policy analyst for the Environmental Working Group.
“We have known for decades that 2,4-D is harmful to the environment and human health, especially for the farmers and farmworkers applying these chemicals to crops,” Kustin said in a statement. “Now that farmers are planting 2,4-D-tolerant GMO crops, this herbicide is slated to explode in use much the way glyphosate did with the first generation of GMO crops. And we know from experience—and basic biology—that weeds will soon grow resistant to these herbicides, making GMO crop growers only more dependent on the next chemical fix.”