Those of you who can remember the Vietnam War will be familiar with the term “escalation.” That was when the powers in charge of our “limited military operation” were compelled to increase the size and scope of our involvement, as the enemy increased theirs.
If you remember that, then you will also remember Agent Orange, the powerful chemical defoliant, whose heavy usage resulted in close to 40,000 disability claims from US military personnel who suffered numerous maladies ranging from skin conditions to various cancers as the result of limited exposure to it. As bad as that was, it was minor compared with the 400,000 Vietnamese citizens who were either killed or maimed by the more prolonged exposure they suffered.
Both of those terms will apply to today’s story.
Bio-tech giant Monsanto has now applied for USDA approval on a new variety of genetically-modified corn that is not only resistant to its well-known glyphosate-based herbicide Roundup, but is also resistant to the far more potent and dangerous 2,4-D produced by its competitor, Dow Agro-Science. Not surprisingly, with all the friends Monsanto has in the government, the USDA appears likely to approve it.
Why, you might ask, would they develop a new variety of corn that is compatible with its competitor’s product?
Because, as many critics have long maintained, the proliferation of genetically modified crops would eventually lead to the proliferation of herbicide-resistant superweeds, such as pigweed, which is exactly what has happened. Hence, we now have a dangerous escalation of chemical warfare in the fields from which our food is being harvested.
This completely undermines the basic (and patently false) original premise behind Monsanto’s Roundup Ready™ crops. The company claimed that since Roundup was one of the least toxic herbicides on the market, and since it could be sprayed directly on the crops themselves, the proliferation of these crops was actually beneficial to the environment, because less herbicide would be required. At one time they might have actually believed that. However, their claims that Roundup is biodegradable were shown to be false. In fact, Roundup is among the top three causes of pesticide-related illness among farm and landscape workers in California, and the NY Attorney General has required them to remove the words “environmentally friendly” from the label.
So what does any of this have to do with Agent Orange? The “new” herbicide 2,4-D that Monsanto’s latest corn will be resistant to, is actually one of the two active ingredients in Agent Orange. (The other is 2,4,5-T in a 50/50 mix).
Monsanto’s genetically-modified seed program for herbicide resistance appears to be spinning out of control. This was a predictable and inevitable outcome of a cash and hubris-rich chemical company wandering into the field of biology, of which they blithely overlooked the basic principles that guaranteed that it was only a matter of time before resistant varieties would begin to evolve continuously. Now, with everything to lose, they are locked in a desperate battle to save the billions they have invested, literally throwing all caution to the wind, while we, as consumers, unless we scrupulously buy organic, have no choice but to eat the fruit of their desperate experiments.
Keep in mind that when a food crop has been developed to be resistant to an herbicide, that means farmers can spray liberal amounts of the poison directly on the food itself without killing it.
Despite the company’s initial assurances that this would not happen, proliferation of these crops has led to an increase of 318 million more pounds of herbicides and pesticides used in the past 14 years as a result of planting GM crop seeds like Roundup Ready corn and soy, much of which ends up in our bodies.
California currently has a ballot initiative, Proposition 65, that would require all GM foods to be labeled. Biotech executives have admitted that the impact of this would be devastating, considering that 70% of all foods now on grocery shelves now contain GM ingredients. Several countries including the European Union, Japan, China, Korea, Australia, New Zealand now have GMO labeling laws on their books.
Generally speaking, GMO crops offer little in the way of advantages to consumers, though they are more convenient for farmers to grow. But the biggest beneficiaries by far have been the companies that produce them.
One potentially effective alternative to this biochemical arms race that has been proposed is Integrated Weed Management (IWM), similar to Integrated Pest Management (IPM), which combines biological controls with a modest amount of chemical controls.
Image credit: Beth via Flickr creative commons (some rights reserved)
RP Siegel, PE, is the President of Rain Mountain LLC. He is also the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water. Now available on Kindle.
Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.