Inside Organics Blog

Approval of new GM crop-herbicide combo leads country in wrong direction

By Harriet Behar, MOSES

As organic farmers and supporters, we know instinctively and from experience that our method of agricultural production is the right direction for a healthy future. Organic can be a source of great optimism for those who produce and consume its products, but it seems there are always dark clouds on the horizon.

Our rivers, streams, and groundwater are being polluted with agricultural chemicals. The biological life in our soils—the source of nutrient transfer to our crops—has been damaged greatly by these chemicals. They’re impacting the pollinators and beneficial insects we rely on for growing food, too. Rather than recognizing the damage caused by these chemicals, the prevailing agricultural system in our country continues to pour money into developing more toxic herbicides and insecticides and genetically modifying crops to pair with them.

Just last month, Dow AgriScience received approval for its Enlist system—new genetically modified corn and soybeans and Enlist Duo, the partner herbicide that contains glyphosate (Roundup is one brand name) and 2,4-D. The EPA and USDA paid lip service to the environmental problems caused by GMOs in agriculture, but went ahead with granting approval.

This is a big blow to those of us who know that this type of technology does not build a strong foundation for a sustainable future. Everyone, including the companies that promote and sell these products and the government agencies that approve them, knows that this type of technology is inherently flawed. Weeds or insects will continually build resistance to any toxic material used to kill them. This is the way of nature.

GMO technology is like a hamster on a treadmill—no matter how fast the hamster runs, it doesn’t actually get anywhere. The GMO agricultural scientists are running as fast as they can to stay ahead of weed resistance, but they are going backwards instead of forwards. 2,4-D, a very toxic herbicide (a significant component of Agent Orange), has been around since the 1940s. There are weeds that already are resistant to 2,4-D—they provided the genes needed to develop the 2,4-D-resistant corn and soybeans. This new product is doomed to fail from the start, with pre-existing resistant weeds and the likelihood that more weeds will develop resistance as farmers spray an increasing amount of 2,4-D and glyphosate on fields across the country.

EPA Deputy Administrator Jim Jones acknowledged this when he said, “EPA shares the concern of many farmers and environmental groups that the resistance to glyphosate experienced by growers will simply be repeated by 2,4-D, contributing to a pattern of increased herbicide use.” Dow, too, noted weed resistance when defending its reason for developing Enlist Duo, saying about 70 million acres of weeds are no longer controlled by glyphosate, double the amount identified in 2009.

In the USDA’s news release announcing the approval of these new genetically modified crops and the partner herbicide blend, Secretary Vilsack said, “We must continue to identify ways to encourage producers to adopt diverse tactics for weed management in addition to herbicide control.” The USDA is soliciting grant proposals for “conservation systems” that would address herbicide-resistant weeds, and developing Best Management Practices. While this acknowledges the problem, the mitigation proposals do not actually address it.

In granting approval last month, the EPA put restrictions in place it believes will help to avoid drift of this new herbicide blend. The restrictions limit application to ground-only and not when the wind speed is over 15 mph, and require a 30-foot in-field buffer zone around the application area. The EPA has also stated it is imposing a new, robust set of requirements on the registrant. These requirements include grower education, extensive surveying and reporting to the EPA, and remediation plans. The registration of this new herbicide will expire in six years to allow the EPA to revisit the issue of resistance. In the future, the agency intends to apply this approach to weed resistance management for all existing and new herbicides used on herbicide-tolerant crops.

We will have to wait and see how this all plays out, but the track record is not good. Farmers who planted GM corn with Bt embedded in its DNA were supposed to plant 20% of their corn acres to non-GM corn as refuges. The USDA has admitted that there was not enough oversight and that the 20% requirement wasn’t done. Who will be doing the oversight on the EPA requirements? There are numerous pesticide drift incidents every year in every state, and wind-speed spraying requirements are not consistently followed now. Why should we assume the letter of the law will be followed for this new product? Plus, these restrictions do not address the many negative effects on human and environmental health caused by the heavy use of herbicides and insecticides in our ecosystems.

Just imagine if all of the money spent on developing these GMOs and accompanying herbicides was put toward understanding systems that avoid the use of toxic materials and instead work to mimic the processes already succeeding in nature. The minuscule percentage the U.S. spends on organic agricultural research compared to the overall agricultural research budget would need to be increased by a thousand times. If there truly were a commitment to change, we would be so much further along in developing a sustainable system of agriculture that can feed the world.

Dow has stated its profits will greatly increase due to this new herbicide and GMO approval. However, organic producers have shown that farming within the natural systems, rather than working to destroy them, can be profitable as well. Farming is a business, but it can be done in both an economically viable and environmentally beneficial way.

As organic farmers, we can lead by example, promoting environmental health on all of our acres. Our farms are refuges, places where the milkweed can grow and provide food for the once-numerous and now-threatened monarch butterfly (whose numbers have plummeted 90% over the last 20 years). By not using toxic materials such as neonicotinoids and other insecticides, we promote clean water for waterfowl, fish and other aquatic species. By continually improving the organic matter and diversity of biological life in our soils, we increase the health and yields of our crops both now and for the future.

Organic farmers are environmental heroes. We deserve more positive recognition and financial support as we develop a long-term environmentally beneficial agricultural system. Our planet desperately needs the numbers of organic farms to exponentially grow and prosper.

It is time for everyone to recognize that we need to measure progress not only in monetary terms, but also in environmental impact. Environmentally damaging activities need to be replaced not with environmentally benign activities, but with environmentally beneficial ones. We need to turn the tide; the status quo is not acceptable.

Harriet Behar is an organic farmer and a MOSES Organic Speciaist. She serves on state and national committees, providing the organic farmer perspective.

From the November | December 2014 Issue

Leave a Reply