Battle against GMOs: Update
19 Mar, 2012
Since 2006, Bill Freese has been the Science Policy Analyst for the Center for Food Safety (CFS)—a nonprofit organization leading many legal and scientific battles against genetically modified organisms (GMOs). He recently sat down with Organic Connections to share his considerable insight into the latest developments in the push for labeling and eventual eradication of GMOs, of which he and CFS are an integral part.
Dow 2,4-D-Resistant Corn
The most alarming news that has emerged in recent months is the impending USDA approval of Dow Chemical’s 2,4-D-resistant corn. 2,4-D is a highly toxic herbicide, and approval of this strain would mean increased 2,4-D use.
“2,4-D was one of the very first herbicides, introduced in the 1940s,” Freese said. “It was originally looked at in the context of World War II, during which the military was searching for herbicides—which had just been discovered at that time—to destroy the rice crop in Japan. Twenty years later in Vietnam, 2,4-D was combined with 2,4,5-T to make Agent Orange. Millions of gallons of Agent Orange were sprayed all over Vietnam, causing immense health harm to Vietnamese and to US soldiers. This is a bad-news herbicide.
“It’s associated with a number of diseases such as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which is cancer of the immune system. Farmers especially who are exposed to it have higher risks of disease, including Parkinson’s disease, for which links have been established. 2,4-D is also an endocrine disrupter.”
Another major threat from the approval of 2,4-D-resistant corn is to neighboring farms. “2,4-D is very volatile and it drifts a lot,” Freese explained. “When you spray a herbicide it can drift hundreds of yards, and in some cases even more, to land on a neighbor’s crops. In the end 2,4-D is going to kill a large number of crops that aren’t resistant to it. There are many growers who are concerned about this because, with 2,4-D-resistant crops, there’s going to be a big increase in 2,4-D use. Already 2,4-D is the most frequently reported cause of crop injury from drift. With the introduction of 2,4-D corn, those crop injury episodes are going to skyrocket.”
In a terrible case of irony, 2,4-D-resistant corn is being touted as a solution for farmers who are plagued by “superweeds” that have grown resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. “We’ve got a whole epidemic of Roundup-resistant weeds due to the widespread planting of Roundup Ready crops and the increase in use of Roundup,” Freese continued. “These 2,4-D crops are being introduced as the supposed solution to Roundup-resistant weeds.
“What they’re not telling farmers is that they’re going to rapidly have weeds that are resistant to 2,4-D as well. In fact, they’re trying to gloss over the whole situation and say it won’t happen, when we know there’s good science that says it will. You can see where this leads: first it’s Roundup resistance, then it’s 2,4-D resistance; Monsanto has dicamba-resistant crops, and all of these companies have herbicide-resistant crops that they’re working on. I call it a ‘chemical arms race with weeds’—you make crops with more resistances to more different types of herbicides, and then the weeds develop multiple resistances.”
Dow 2,4-D-resistant corn will be a commodity corn, which means it won’t be sold as fresh corn; but it will be used in processed foods consumed by humans, as well as in cattle feed.
This crop is up for approval with the USDA, and they are currently accepting comments from the public. “If the past is any guide, the USDA will approve the corn,” said Freese. “Their initial environmental assessment, for what it’s worth, is open for public comment until the end of April. We need to get as many comments as possible to make approval harder to do. And we’ve already announced that we’ll challenge any approval in court.”
Monsanto Sweet Corn
Another campaign being run through the Center for Food Safety is urging consumers to protest the possible acceptance of Monsanto GMO sweet corn for sale in Walmart stores. If acceptance occurs, this would be the first broad launch of fresh GMO corn into the marketplace.
This corn has been genetically engineered to contain Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, a naturally occurring bacterium that, in concentrated compounds, is used as an insecticide. The corn has been bred with the additional trait of being resistant to Roundup herbicide.
“The insecticidal proteins in Bt corn could cause allergies and have not been assessed adequately,” Freese warned. “In fact advisors to the EPA said, back in 2000, that these proteins could be causing food allergies and we really needed more study. The EPA basically just ignored that warning and has pretty much not funded research into this question. The very little research they did fund, with a scientist named I. L. Bernstein, found that workers had developed signs of allergic reactions to Bt proteins used as sprays. He said that Bt corn could be causing the same problems and that additional testing was required to investigate this further. The EPA never gave him any more funds. The EPA likes Bt corn a lot because they feel it reduces chemical insecticide use, and that’s why they’ve mostly shut down looking closely at it for health impacts.”
What problems do the Roundup Ready traits cause? “This trait allows farmers to spray the herbicide directly on the crop,” Freese said. “If you do that with a conventional variety, you kill it, especially with a herbicide as potent as glyphosate [the active ingredient in Roundup]. You can have greater levels of herbicide residues on the crop than you would with a conventional variety. In several cases with herbicide-resistant crops, companies have gone to the EPA to get an increase in what they call ‘tolerance’—the legal maximum amount of residue that can be on a crop. With the herbicide-resistant varieties, the companies have often gotten the EPA to grant tolerance increases.”
Public protest could definitely keep Monsanto GMO sweet corn from making it to market. “I think that the supermarkets and the food processors are very concerned about public opinion,” Freese remarked. “They’re constantly trying to appeal to the public; so the more public concern that is shown with Walmart and other companies, the better our chances of stopping this and future genetically engineered crops.
Importance of Labeling
“Right now, GMO corn is already used in highly processed foods,” Freese pointed out. “I think that’s one reason the biotech companies are so opposed to labeling of GMO foods, because this would get the word out to people. It really does take you right to the whole labeling issue and how we need labeling so that people can make their own decisions
“People need to be able to know what’s in their food. More and more they also want to know how the food is produced. Maybe they would see a label on a food product and say, ‘You know, I don’t want to support that kind of agriculture; it has GM ingredients.’”
As we have been reporting, public awareness is higher than ever before on GMOs, and the USDA, EPA and other government agencies will soon be forced to face the truth about them. Until then, it is up to us to continue making our voices heard through our food choices and votes.
For more information on specific GMO topics, as well as campaigns to prevent them and how you can take part, visit www.centerforfoodsafety.org.