Fifteen years ago, Iowa farmer George Naylor faced a huge business decision.
Chemical giant Monsanto Co. was offering new corn and soybean seeds genetically engineered to resist glyphosate, a herbicide best known as Monsanto's "Roundup." The "Roundup Ready" crops could withstand heavy doses of the chemical, eradicating weeds and making it easier to farm.
Naylor, who has been farming 470 acres since 1976, opted against the technology, fearing its unknown long-term effects.
But agribusiness went the other direction. The use of Roundup skyrocketed. There has been an increase in the use of the chemical by 46 times what was previously used, according to some calculations, and weeds that since developed a resistance to the herbicide have rendered the chemical useless across large swaths of the Midwest.
Now, Dow AgroSciences LLC is asking the Department of Agriculture to sign off on a new genetically engineered corn seed that is resistant to not only glyphosate, but also 2,4-D, a World War II-era chemical that has been associated with a host of serious health problems.
Naylor fears that if the corn is approved, the use of 2,4-D will also shoot up, eventually leading to weeds that develop their own resistance to the chemical. Industry, he said, is on the verge of stepping onto a treadmill where stronger and more toxic chemicals will be used to combat increasingly resistant weeds -- at the expense of the environment and farmers' health.
"It's a big turning point for agriculture," Naylor said. "If they are going to keep going down this road by coming up with a quick fix to the problems they created in the first place, then the problems are just going to compound.
"My neighborhood and a lot of farm neighborhoods are just going to be sacrificed zones," added the farmer, whose efforts against genetically engineered corn were chronicled by Michael Pollan in his 2006 book "The Omnivore's Dilemma." "There is going to be stuff in the air all the time."
Dow AgroSciences filed its petition with USDA last December to little fanfare. In February, the agency extended the public comment period through the end of next month.
Experts predict that if USDA approves Dow AgroSciences' petition, the use of the chemical would jump to at least five to seven times its current levels. That is particularly worrisome, public health advocates say, because unlike the relatively safe Roundup, 2,4-D -- which made up half of the notorious herbicide Agent Orange used during the Vietnam War -- is linked to birth defects, reproductive disorders, hormonal issues and non-Hodgkin's lymphomas and several other cancers.
Most troubling and also unlike Roundup, 2,4-D is much more prone to drift, they say. That poses a greater threat to human health, and it could also threaten crops such as tomatoes, lettuce or cherries. The Center for Food Safety says 2,4-D is 300 times more toxic to emerging seedlings than Roundup.
"Farmers and homeowners who haven't had to deal with the serious problem of 2,4-D drift are going to be in for a rude awakening," said Gina Solomon, a scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which wants to ban the herbicide.
On top of that, USDA's approval would likely lead to other 2,4-D-resistant crops at a time when the public is becoming increasingly skeptical of genetically engineered food, said Gary Hirshberg, the CEO of Stonyfield Farm, the organic yogurt company.
"It's the tip of the iceberg," said Hirshberg, who has lobbied Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack against the petition, in an interview.
"There will be many more 2,4-D-resistant crops forthcoming. It's akin to what we would call nuclear proliferation in another life. We're just upping the ante, and I don't see where it ends."
'Multiple layers of action'
To be clear, it is legal to use 2,4-D on corn, a point Dow AgroSciences is quick to make. It is widely used on wheat, which has a natural resistance to the chemical, and is an active ingredient in many "feed and weed" products commonly sold at home gardening stores.
U.S. EPA decided in 2005 to continue registrations of the herbicide, as have 70 countries. EPA will, however, reconsider 2,4-D's status in 2013, according to a spokesman.
Just as Naylor and public health advocates say the petition is a critical moment for genetically engineered crops, Garry Hamlin, a Dow AgroSciences spokesman, also portrayed the petition as coming at a "critical juncture" for agriculture.
To Hamlin, though, the issue is whether farmers will have access to the tools needed to keep weeds at bay while expanding the food supply.
"Weeds are always going to adapt; nature is going to adapt. That's clear," he said. "That's why you need multiple modes of action."
After 60 years of use, he continued, 2,4-D has been widely studied.
Acknowledging concerns about air drift, Hamlin said Dow AgroSciences' 2,4-D is formulated to "significantly reduce the potential for this to move off target."
He also took issue with some concerns raised by environmentalists, labeling them impractical. Without the Enlist Weed Control System, he said, many farmers won't be able to clamp down on the growing weed problem. There are currently more than 20 weed species that have developed a resistance to Roundup.
"You have to ask yourself, what is it that we'd like farmers to do that they'll do?" Hamlin said. "The solution is not to throttle back technology."
Dow AgroSciences wants to have the product ready for farmers by the 2013 growing season. And for John Davis, a corn, soybean and wheat farmer in Delaware, Ohio, the launch "can't get here soon enough."
Davis has seen the system in action and said that the air drift issue has been addressed. That is extremely important, he said, because his 4,500-acre farm is near a water source for Columbus, Ohio.
Because of his weed problem, Davis said the product will help his farm's bottom line. He did, however, recognize the concern that agriculture may be on a cycle of increasingly engineered crops and increasing use of pesticides.
"I think we are kidding ourselves if we didn't think there was a potential down the road," he said. "But I think we learned a lot from the glyphosate products."
Farmers and industry should have learned a different lesson from Roundup, said David Mortensen, a Pennsylvania State University professor who has written one of the most-cited works on the issue.
Mortensen, like Hamlin, said weeds will continue to adapt and get stronger, but Mortenson contends that the solution is not "gene pyramiding," where crops are more and more engineered to withstand multiple chemicals.
"We're going to be back to where we are right now in five to 10 years with a more complicated resistance problem," he said.
This "treadmill" for agriculture, Mortensen said, must be paused.
"The idea that we're going to solve this resistance problem by leaning on herbicides is really shortsighted, and I see it losing its efficacy very quickly," he said.
But the treadmill is very good business for chemical companies. In fact, a June 2010 Wall Street Journal article quoted John Jachetta, then a scientist with Dow AgroSciences and president of the Weed Science Society of America, saying glyphosate-resistant crops represent a "very significant opportunity" for chemical companies. "It is a new era," he said.
Public health groups are turning to legal measures to stop the 2,4-D petition. NRDC filed a petition with EPA in 2008 seeking to ban the chemical. The group then sued the agency last month to force it to take up that petition, and an EPA spokesman confirmed that the agency is now considering it (E&ENews PM, Feb. 23).
Similarly, the Pesticide Action Network, the Union of Concern Scientists, the Center for Food Safety, and Food and Water Watch are collecting public comments to submit to USDA in opposition to the company's petition. So far, their efforts have collected more than 15,000 signatures, according to a spokesman.
A USDA spokesman declined to comment on the 2,4-D petition.
If Dow AgroSciences' petition succeeds, it would likely guarantee that biotech corn -- the vast majority of which is bioengineered to resist glyphosate, other herbicides or insects -- would remain widely present in food available to Americans.
And that has raised the ire of many health advocates who have launched a broad campaign against genetically engineered crops.
Hirshberg's Stonyfield Farm is part of 500 organizations behind JustLabelIt.org, a campaign calling on the Food and Drug Administration to require companies to list genetically engineered ingredients. The group filed a petition with FDA to that effect last October and is encouraging the public to submit comments on its behalf.
The deadline for comments is the end of the month. So far, more than 900,000 have been submitted on the group's behalf. The group is hoping for 1 million.
"We've tapped into a gusher," he said.
The effort gained the backing of 55 lawmakers on Capitol Hill this week -- 54 Democrats and one Republican -- who sent FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg a letter urging her to adopt the petition.
"FDA has a clear opportunity to protect a consumer's right to know, the freedom to choose what we feed our families, and the integrity of our free and open markets with this petition," the lawmakers, led by Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), wrote (E&E Daily, March 13).
Advocacy groups in California are also collecting signatures to put a labeling initiative on the November ballot (Greenwire, Feb. 16).
Turning back to 2,4-D, Charles Benbrook of the Organic Center said their efforts are an attempt to reverse industry's direction.
"Both the pesticide industry and farmers are going to double down on chemical methods to solve the problem," he said. "It's akin to pouring gasoline on a fire to put it out."
Correction:The story's original headline described the herbicide as "notorious," which may have led readers to believe the chemical in question was another component of Agent Orange, the now-banned herbicide 2,4,5-T.