By Barbara Kessler -Green Right Now
In the brave new world of bio-tech agriculture, the big pesticide/herbicide makers have argued for years that their genetically modified crop manipulations would reduce the use of chemicals.
It made sense, that tactic. Almost everyone agrees that our health and the environment would benefit from reduced pesticide use. And Americans react strongly when they find their food has been compromised by chemicals. Think of the Alar apple scare, or the more recent outcry over strawberries doused with methyl iodide, a fumigant suspected of causing cancer.
Chemical companies tapped into citizen concern about pesticides by promising they could engineer corn and soybeans to resist certain “safer” chemicals, such as Monsanto’s Roundup. That would reduce environmental harm and give farmers a break, because they could use Roundup whenever they wanted without fear of harming their crops. They’d get higher yields with little downside, because the Roundup would biodegrade, and America would feed the world….
That was the promise of genetically engineered (GE) crops, also known as genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The actual results were nearly the opposite:
- Super weeds built up resistance to Roundup, creating a tidal wave of ever-taller, ever-more-resistant weeds, stymieing farmers, who had to buy more and more Roundup or face declining yields.
- Herbicide use shot up. Monsanto sold a lot of Roundup – 4.4 million pounds in 2000, and by 2010, 57 million pounds, according to Beyond Pesticides.
- Questions arose about the effects of Roundup on the soil and plants as farm animals being fed Roundup-raised crops experienced fertility problems.
This double backfire – an herbicide that causes more problems than it solves, creating powerful weeds and degrading the soil — hasn’t caused the big chemical companies to back off their plans to create genetically engineered crops.
Far from it.
Let’s try that again, with a new chemical
In late December 2011, the public learned that Dow AgroSciences LLC had applied for federal approval to sell its solution to the Roundup seed-weed merry-go-round: A GE corn that would work in concert with a different chemical known as 2, 4-D.
Pesticide watchdogs perked up. They know 2, 4-D as an older generation herbicide that, unlike Roundup, was never promoted as safer and was a major component in the infamous defoliant, Agent Orange, used to blot out jungles during the Vietnam War and suspected of contributing to a variety of veterans’ ailments. Studies have found an increased risk for Hodgkins lymphoma, Non-Hodgkins Lymphona and certain leukemias among people exposed to Agent Orange. Some of those findings led to a private settlement in the 1970s awarding veterans help with their Agent Orange-related health issues.
Industry advocates, though, say 2,4-D on its own is safe for homeowners and farmers to use on their lawns and fields. They note that it has been submitted to rigorous testing and studies on carcinogenicity have often been inconclusive. Some of those studies show that 2,4-D does not cause cancer.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) puts it another way, 2, 4-D has not been proven to cause cancer. The agency, charged with defining the toxic effects of pesticides and herbicides and setting safe thresholds, has reviewed numerous studies done on 2, 4-D over the years, concluding that 2, 4-D is “not classifiable as to human carcinogenicity.”
Studies have found associations between certain cancers and exposure in the factory or fields to this type of herbicide, including one study of farmers in Nebraska who used 2,4-D and suffered high rates of non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.
Setting aside the debate over whether 2, 4-D triggers cancer, the chemical is indisputably toxic with numerous studies showing it causes retinal degeneration, impaired reflexes, prostration, myotonia, ataxia and other conditions among lab animals tested.
The EPA also allows there’s “concern” that scientists don’t know much about how 2, 4-D affects the body’s endocrine system, an area of new study prompted by emerging science showing that small regular doses of certain chemicals can alter human biology. This line of research suggests that 2,4-D could have “endocrine disruption potential,” meaning it would affect the hormonal systems of humans, according to the EPA’s fact sheet on the chemical.
Animal studies detailed on Extonet, a compilation of university research, show that 2,4-d has caused reproductive problems for rats and low doses administered over two years produced malignant tumors.
“Our concern is that the traces of these chemicals are everywhere, and affect the endocrine system, especially in kids,” said Mark Kastel, founder of the Cornucopia Institute, which advocates for natural farming and food systems and is opposing the new Dow Chemical corn.
“Sometimes exposures to these toxics can have catastrophic lifelong impact. It might be a triggering device, especially in the reproductive organs, causing them to develop inadequately,” he said.
Such interference with human biology could cause later-life cancers or human infertility, which has been rising.
These new potential health effects, along with the known problems caused by pesticides, suggest a cautionary approach, according to Kastel and other advocates for organic farming. Yet, US policies embrace chemical agriculture, they say, seemingly for fear of facing down corporate giants like Monsanto and Dow Chemical, and in the process making Americans guinea pigs in a vast food system experiment.
“The question is: Why are we moving toward technologies that seem to add to dependencies on pesticides?” asks Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides.
Chemical farming and the Monsanto Fail
The answer to Feldman’s question from the chemical industry has been that biotech farming squeezes more yields from less land, and therefore allows American farmers to “feed the world.”
Many farmers do report higher output with GE crops — initially. But over time, the promise of high yields erodes. The rain of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides wears out the soil, and promotes super weeds. And that’s not counting the collateral damage to the river systems and water supplies. Each farming season, the fertilizer and pesticide runoff from America’s heartland pollutes rivers and produces marine life-killing algal blooms as far away as the Gulf of Mexico. There one food system does combat with another as the algal blooms choke off shrimp and oyster production.
If biotech farming bursts from the gate like a hare, organic production is the tortoise. It may take a couple years to work the soil back to health with compost and natural fertilizers, but then, studies show, organic methods can produce robust yields.
Even if those yields aren’t quite up to the level of those produced by GE farming — and some studies show they are — Kastel argues that Americans should be looking at the tradeoffs. “Maybe you can grow more bushels per acre, but if the food is less healthy, the ground is less healthy, you’re putting toxics into our water and air, is this good?”
One person commenting on Dow’s 2, 4-D proposal portrayed the contrast in the two farming approaches this way: “The only thing you used to need on a farm was a hat to keep the sun off your face, a tobacco chew for the dust. Now you need a whole suit and respirator.”
Chemical farming has another insidious side, it threatens organic farms as sure as if it were an anvil hanging overhead, according to Feldman. When the federal government bows to chemical companies, it fails in its obligation to protect organic farmers, whose fields can be contaminated by pollen from engineered crops nearby, he said.
The government revealed how it favors chemical companies last year when it approved GE alfalfa, a crop that has never needed pesticides to grow well, he said. In doing so, it put organic milk at risk, because organic dairy operations depend upon organic alfalfa to feed their herds. If the GE varieties contaminate the organic alfalfa fields, organic dairy farmers could face feed shortages, and that would directly consumers, who’ve been buying more organic milk every year.
“If you go to Monsanto’s website, they will teach you that GE foods are going to help us feed the world, have lower impacts on the environment, and increase our yields, George Kimbrell, an attorney for the Center for Food Safety told an audience last spring. “The most recent myth is that they are going to help us solve global warming. The most basic myth is that GE is the same as conventional breeding. None of these claims are true.”
The reason GE systems fail, Kimbrell told those gathered at a Beyond Pesticides meeting, is that this type of breeding goes far beyond conventional cross-breeding to improve plants: “Basically it’s gene splicing using recombinant DNA technology. It’s inserting a gene from a species that would never breed in nature into another species. So you have a flounder [fish] gene that goes into a tomato.”
“The most prevalent form of GE crops are Roundup Ready. They use a soil bacterium gene, which Monsanto found in the wasteland of its backyard, that was the only thing alive that could survive all the polluted chemicals and [the] Roundup that was coming out of its factory. They took the genes from it and inserted it using a virus into plants. Lo and behold, the plants became resistant to Roundup as well.”
Kimbrell says that 80 percent of GE crops are “pesticide promoting,” meaning they do not increase yields, but they do increase the use of pesticides – such as Monsanto’s cornerstone product, Roundup.
When this manipulation fails after a few years, and the weeds resist the chemical drenching farmers must up the ante, using more and more herbicides each growing season.
The evidence of this vicious cycle is in the numbers, says Feldman, explaining that US farmers now use more than 10 times the Roundup they used in 2000.
Environmental and food safety advocates say this system cannot hold. In addition to the damage to soils and waterways, they believe the ever mounting use of GE crops and their attendant pesticides and herbicides is creating less healthy food in two ways:
- It leaves pesticide residues on the crops, and even though those are set to remain below certain levels, the thresholds are not indisputably safe).
- The crops are engineered in ways we don’t fully understand.
This latter issue, of genetically modified food has not been well studied, and pronouncements range from “it’s completely safe” to it’s fundamentally a new food, the product of gene manipulation and potentially capable of interfering with human gene replication (and therefore triggering disease).
Dow AgroSciences points to approval by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for its GE products as showing that the foods produced are safe. For instance, in a statement about its recently approved GE corn and soybeans, bred to work with Dow’s “Enlist” weed control system, a spokesman noted that the FDA considers the crops to be “not materially different in any respect relevant to food or feed safety from corn varieties on the market.”
Organic advocates say that’s hollow assurance from companies that have engineered not just the plants, but a cycle of profiteering in agricultural chemicals.
While the debate over whether GE crops are safe or harmful continues, the effects of pesticide residues on fields, farmers and food is more clear cut, organic advocates say.
“The problem with all these pesticides and herbicides is that they’re designed to kill,” says Kastel. “Is it any surprise that they’re dangerous?”
- The public has until February 27 to comment on the Dow’s application for it’s new GE corn, which is resistant to 2, 4-D. People can read the petition and get directions for comments at this federal government website.