Putting out fire with gasoline
This month the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved the use of the new ‘Enlist Duo’ herbicide which contains 2,4–D and glyphosate. The decision comes a month after the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) registered two new 2,4-D resistant GM corn and soy varieties for use. The approval by the USDA and now the EPA have been noted in the main stream press, from the New York Times to the Huffington Post but actually this should be front page news: 2,4-D is known to be very similar to an active ingredient in the leaf stripping chemical ‘Agent Orange’ used during the Vietnam War, and environmentalists fear that spraying it during the growing season will pose an incalculable risk to all wildlife.
What makes 2,4-D such an extreme hazard to the environment is its structure. Like dicamba (Monsanto’s dicamba resistant GM corn and soy are expected to be approved in 2015) 2,4-D is an ester, it forms a gas cloud that drifts with the wind for up to two days, sometimes even longer. Even if a farmer sprays it on a very calm day, chances are that the wind will pick up at some point and move the 2,4-D herbicide cloud along, damaging everything in its path.
Why would anyone even think about spraying something this toxic? Farmers in the US do so because they are at their wits’ end: 70 million acres of US farmland are infested with superweeds, causing an estimated damage of $ 1 billion (over £600 million).
In its press release the EPA says: ‘The approved formulation contains the choline salt of 2,4-D which is less prone to drift than the other forms of 2,4-D.’ Less prone to drift is not reassuring to anyone. Nor is the EPA’s order that 2,4-D can’t be sprayed from a plane or when wind speed is over 15 mph – this herbicide forms a toxic cloud for two days, wind speeds do change and there just is no protection. ‘Enlist Duo’ has been approved for six years initially and the manufacturer Dow AgroScience will have to monitor its use, working with farmers to prevent overuse.
Why does the EPA appoint the fox to guard the hen house?
In particular where environmental laws are concerned Big Ag lobbyists work their magic in Washington: politicians may not want to be seen to vote against legislation, but strapping a regulatory body like the EPA of funds serves the same purpose. So when the EPA says in their press release on legalising 2,4-D: ‘The decision meets the rigorous Food Quality Protection Act standard of "reasonable certainty of no harm" to human health’, the Food Standard Agency (FSA) in all likelihood has not conducted independent tests, but had to rely on studies done by the manufacturer, Dow AgroScience. Using only data on a product provided by the industry that is seeking to have it approved is common practice.
And regulators like the EPA aren’t just understaffed and underfunded they are also legally obliged to do a cost – benefit analysis. In the case of a new herbicide the argument runs like this: the superweed problem is out of control and is causing huge losses, we therefore have to approve anything that might help control superweeds even if 2,4-D harms other growers.
‘EPA has turned its back on those it purports to protect – the American people and our environment,’ said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety in a press release. It continues to say that the Center for Food Safety and otheropposition groups ‘are particularly concerned about the health risks associated with 2,4-D exposure, including non-Hodgkin lymphoma, suppressed immune function, lower sperm count, and a greater risk of Parkinson’s disease. There are also risks of learning disabilities, behavioural problems and chronic diseases in children.’ At present they are checking legal options to reverse the decision or at least delay the introduction of 2,4-D tolerant GM varieties.
Do I hear anyone say: Too bad, but that’s the US for you, it couldn’t happen in Europe, the EU doesn’t allow GM crops. Well, better think again: the EU does not (yet) allow GM crops to be grown within the EU (though there are already a few exceptions). The EU does however allow the import of GM maize and soy as cattle feed. So unless one only ever eats organic meat, eggs, milk and cheese, products from animals fed on 2,4-D resistant GM crops will be on plates in the UK soon, too. And that prospect to me is a VERY good reason to eat organic produce whenever and wherever I can and to support organisations that support organic agriculture – at the producer level, at EU level in Brussels or in the US court system.