USDA Recommends Deregulation of 2,4-D Resistant GMO Crops: What’s the Big Deal?

Biohazard-suited-person holding ear of corn

Last week the USDA released a Draft Environmental Impact Statement on newly developed 2,4-D resistant genetically modified corn and soybean traits. As the internet exploded with pro-biotech advocacy celebrating the move towards deregulation of yet another GMO product line, I couldn’t help noticing the number of straw men participating in the debate! Just so the ‘no thank you’ side of the unfolding 2,4-D debacle is fairly represented, here’s why some sustainability enthusiasts don’t consider this potential ‘alternative’ even a little tiny bit preferred.

Surprise! USDA Does What Biotech Industry Wants

Last Friday the USDA moved forward towards deregulating 2,4-D resistant Enlist GMO corn and soybean seeds, made by Dow AgroSciences. Like every other biotech product submitted for its consideration since the 1990s, the USDA recommends full deregulation of the Dow’s new Enlist seeds as the ‘preferred alternative.’ The newly minted seeds resist 2,4-D and several other herbicides. Dow intends for Enlist to compete with Monsanto’s Roundup Ready line, which has facilitated some really amazing Roundup Ready superweeds but otherwise has become decreasingly helpful to growers.

The USDA has a long history of prioritizing the goals and objectives of agricultural chemical companies, and their approach to deregulation of Dow’s new GMO crops don’t look likely to diverge from that well-worn track.

GMO Problems

If you haven’t been following the issues surrounding genetically modified crops over the last few years — first of all, I’m glad you’re starting to do so! Welcome to EDB! — let’s recap, to bring you up to speed.

Genetically modified crops rely on heavy fossil fuel inputs for their manufacture, testing, transport, marketing, and application, and depend on monoculture farming that increases both pest problems and soil erosion. Herbicide-resistant GMO crops lead to escalating herbicide use and — since evolution is a thing, and both plant and insect pest species tend to do it very rapidly — the rapid emergence of resistant weeds (or with crops like Bt corn, resistant rootworms). Then — happily for chemical companies like Dow and Monsanto, but unhappily for farmers and everyone downstream — growers have to up the poison-ante, and use more or additional poisons to take care of the pest problem that last year’s GMO-superstar-seed promised to alleviate.

Unfortunately once new genes are released into an ecosystem, we’ve seen over and over that the outcome can’t be planned, controlled, or retracted. Even some genetic engineers view this contamination as a deeply troubling and potentially dangerous problem. We keep finding GMOs where they absolutely should not be, like in a random wheat field or in exported corn that’s not supposed to be from genetically modified seed. Worse yet, GMO crops bring genetic contamination to their whole surrounding environment; traits inserted into food or cotton crops by Monsanto or Dow routinely also manifest in wild plants around those fields, with completely unpredictable environmental outcomes.

The unlimited political power of global megacorporations like Monsanto also draws concern from ethics-minded eaters — biotech-dependent agriculture represents a devastatingly sophisticated method by which money can be extracted from poor farming communities. In addition to the corporate dependency intrinsic to the GMO-driven agricultural model, biotech companies are also notorious for bullying farmers, bribing government officials, attempting to prevent journalists from disclosing harmful effects of their products, and overtly usurping democracy to prevent any and all regulation of GMO foods and crops.

The corporate entities who profit from new biotech products are also the ones exclusively charged with investigating whether they’re a good idea or not. And guess what?! It turns out that (in the opinion of the companies who sell GMO seeds) they are always a really super-great idea!

Unfortunately that doesn’t usually reflect reality: when it comes to world hunger, pest problems, herbicide and pesticide usage, or sustainability, biotech-reliant agriculture has either failed to yield promised results or has made existing problems worse. In terms of economics, global climate change, accountability and transparency, biodiversity, world hunger, and environmental stewardship, an agricultural system reliant on biotechnology products has worked hard to earn skeptical resistance from conscientious consumers, growers, and residents of our increasingly distressed planet.

Because of these and other concerns, public demand for both GMO labeling and organic food is skyrocketing right now. While the biotech industry’s regulatory BFFs push GMO apples, GMO salmon, GMO pigs, GMO EVERYTHING they’re asked to push, the rest of the world and the U.S. public wants less GMO foods.

Genetically modified crops bring a particular problem set to the table; so when we talk about adding a new poison-resistant genetically modified food crop to the modern agricultural scene, let’s not pretend that 2,4-D stands alone awaiting our inspection.

2,4-D Inspected

With all those things in mind, let’s consider the 2,4-D resistant crops that the USDA is so keen to deregulate.

Developed in the 1940โ€ฒs, 2,4-D was one component of the weaponized defoliant known as Agent Orange. By itself, 2,4-D has been shown to double the incidence of birth defects in children of pesticide applicators. It is  suspected to increase incidence of non-Hodgkins lymphoma. 2,4-D is also reported to negatively effect endocrine and immune function, and to impair respiratory and central nervous system function. According to one toxicity summary, at high levels of exposure 2,4-D acts as a central nervous system depressant that can cause severe health problems:

[High rates of exposure to 2,4-D] can cause stiffness of arms and legs, incoordination, lethargy, anorexia, stupor, and coma (EPA, 2007). It is also a respiratory system irritant that can cause prolonged difficulty breathing, coughing, burning, dizziness, and temporary loss of muscle coordination (EXOTOXNET, 1996). Other symptoms of 2,4-D poisoning include irritation, inflammation, itching, and headache (CDC NIOSH, 2005). The primary target organs of the chemical are the eye, thyroid, kidney, adrenals, ovaries, and testes (EPA RED Decision, 2005).

Long-term animal studies of 2,4-Dโ€™s chronic exposure have shown effects on the blood, liver, and kidneys (EPA, 2007). Studies have also revealed slight chronic symptoms including a reduction in weight and changes in blood chemistry (NPTN).

It is observed to be a developmental toxicant. Some observed effects are increased gestation length, skeletal abnormalities, and effects on the thyroid and gonads (EPA RED FACTS, 2005).

Unsurprisingly, 2,4-D is also toxic to birds, bees, and fish.

According to a Des Moines NBC news affiliate, Dow itself predicts that 2,4-D use will likely skyrocket if the USDA follows through with deregulation (or even if it doesn’t):

A Dow estimate in the statement forecasts 2,4-D use would increase between 75 and 300 percent by 2020, even if USDA maintains regulation on Enlist corn and soybeans. If deregulated, use increases between 200 and 600 percent, according to the forecast.

Based on recent history, deregulation and widespread cultivation of herbicide resistant crops generates two predictable effects: increased use of that herbicide, and rapid emergence of ‘superweeds’ resistant to that poison. Adding 2,4-D to the mix of poisons permeating our farmland, ground water, and farm workers offers financial rewards to its manufacturers, but precious little else to anyone else — we’ll be right back here in a couple of years, needing a new GMO seed and toxin to battle weeds resistant to 2,4-D.

This particular USDA move has broader implications than simply deregulating one new GMO trait; it would also clear the way for stacked-resistance GMO crops engineered to resist both Roundup and 2,4-D, so that growers can douse the same field with infinite quantities of TWO poisons instead of just one. Then we’ll need a new GMO seed-toxin combo to battle DOUBLY resistant superweeds.

And so forth and so on forever and ever, locked into a continually escalating poison war against our own food and our own habitat.

Meanwhile we’re still burning through those fossil fuels, making things harder for already-troubled bees, eroding topsoil through a farming system completely reliant on monocropping, and supporting the biotech industry’s monopolization of the global food supply.

To 2,4-D deregulation dissenters, every bit of that picture looks pretty ugly.

So Basically

Deregulating 2,4-D would exacerbate rather than relieve ongoing problems within our food system. For many consumers, environmentalists, and scientists, many reasons exist to object to biotech-reliant agriculture in general and 2,4-D deregulation in particular.

But by all means, let’s not talk about any of that!

Straw Men and Logical Fallacies

A logical fallacy is a mistake in reasoning — a flawed frame, skewed to bend the picture to illustrate an argument that otherwise would fall apart. Reading coverage of USDA’s move to deregulate yet another GMO seed enabling unlimited quantities of yet another poison to be dumped on our food crops, a couple of persistent fallacies routinely masquerade as pro-biotech arguments.

These are my favorites — perhaps because I see them so frequently in pro-GMO advocacy campaigns:

  • Straw man fallacy — misrepresenting your opponent’s argument, to make it easier to attack.
  • Burden of proof fallacy — asserting that the burden of proof lies not with the person making a claim, but with the person challenging or questioning that claim.
  • Ad hominem fallacy — attacking your opponent’s character or personal traits to undermine their argument, rather than addressing points they raise.

Forbes recently ran an article to helpfully illustrate my point, titled Pollan, Marion Nestle Lead Activist Hype Of Discredited Link. Can you spot the two fallacies already on parade, right in the headline?

Here’s an excerpt:

According to scientists, itโ€™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, itโ€™s โ€œAgent Orangeโ€.

Thatโ€™s factually untrue. As agricultural scientist Steve Savage has written on the independent website Biofortified, โ€œAgent 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 wasnโ€™t what made Agent Orange a danger back in the 1960s.โ€

Hellooo, Mr. Straw Man! I was expecting you, please come on in and make yourself at home (since I see you’re going to anyway).

The objections that opponents have to 2,4-D deregulation don’t begin and end with its presence in Agent Orange. Please refer to, well, everything I just said above.

The author goes on to assert that:

Invoking the problem of superweeds is often a crafty surrogate for attacking GMOs (one of Pollanโ€™s favorite tactics)โ€“typical of the way ideologues rather than scientists or independent journalists evaluate a complex problem…

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 [regarding Agent Orange use].

So critics of 2,4-D deregulation are crafty but simple-minded crusading activist ideologues, who don’t understand science or journalism. Yes, that completely sounds like a reasonable counter-argument to the points Pollan and Nestle about biotechnology-dependent food production and 2,4-D deregulation.

Also — quick reminder! — the whole Agent Orange thing isn’t the crux of the issue, despite attempts to paint it such. See above.

The argument that ‘no one has proven GMO foods to be dangerous’ hasn’t popped up yet in coverage of the new and apparently-soon-to-be-deregulated 2,4-D resistant food crops; but rest assured that it will. I’ll bet you dollars to vegan donuts it turns up in comments to this very post! Here’s another quick reminder: if I’m claiming something is safe for people to eat, it’s my job to prove that — BEFORE feeding it to people. It’s not ‘True Until You Disprove It’ — that’s sloppy logic and sloppy science.

For the Record

Most things in the world aren’t all good or all bad. If there’s an appropriate and positive use of biotechnology in agriculture, I’m convincible. A scientific world view requires an open mind, and if the evidence argued that a specific genetically modified food did more good in the world than harm — that is a hypothetically possible premise, and I would consider that evidence with interest.

But based on observable evidence since the biotech monopolization of our food system in the 1990s, in its current form — with unchecked political manipulation of our legislative and regulatory systems, with exemption from fair and accurate labeling of biotech products, with industry allowed to prevent independent or unflattering research of their products from seeing the light of day, with no data anywhere ever regarding potential human health effects related to GMO consumption, with subsidization of environmentally unsustainable farming practices to the near-exclusion of alternate approaches — we’ve allowed the emergence of a food system in which profit motive trumps objective investigation.

In its current form and with current levels of short-sighted profit-driven nonregulation, the biotechnology industry is driving us down an unsustainable and trouble-littered road — we need to pull over for a map-check PDQ.

Biotech advocates can call GMO opponents and or 2,4-D critics any names they like, or misrepresent their arguments and pretend Agent Orange is the hot issue when it’s not: it won’t change any of the reasons increased reliance on GMOs and their related chemistry don’t present a positive or sustainable path forward. We’re going in the wrong direction: what we need isn’t deregulation of 2,4-D resistant GMO seeds — it’s a whole new road, a less short-sighted travel agent, and public good (rather than corporate greed) in the driver’s seat.

Given the monstrous political power and bottomless advertising budgets of those who control U.S. food policy at this point in history, that’s a tall order.

So read all you can about these issues, consider them critically, and share what you find: vital things like the global food supply shouldn’t be left to straw men to defend.

Image credit: pesticide corn photo by Marcin Balcerzak, via Shutterstock.

Written by tanyas

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