Genetically altered seed is not new. Monsanto developed the herbicide Roundup (glyphosate) and put it on the market in 1976. They later developed a seed that was resistant to the herbicide and the seed began being used extensively after 1996, and continues to be in widespread use. Dow AgroSciences and other companies have also developed genetically altered seed that is on the market. Corn seed has been genetically altered to be resistant to corn borers and root worm as well. But Dow AgroSciences is the first to want to market a seed that is resistant to 2,4-D.
The long-term use of the glyphosate has led weeds to become resistant. Especially troublesome, is the Palmer amaranth, or pigweed as it is more commonly known. Last year, 28 species of Roundup resistant weeds were identified. This development has opened discussion on how to control herbicide resistant weeds. Dow proposes to use their seed to allow early application of 2,4-D, an older, broader spectrum herbicide.
The Center of Food Safety is leading a campaign against the 2,4-D resistant seed. They have dubbed the seed as "Agent Orange corn," because 2,4-D is one of the ingredients in Agent Orange. Agent Orange became infamous during the Vietnam war. Agent Orange was used to carpet bomb jungles, and the ill effects of the chemical surfaced among the population in Vietnam as well as in returning soldiers. The Center for Food Safety promotes organic agriculture.
According to the Associated Press, scientists don't believe 2,4-D is the culprit in Agent Orange, rather it is other defoliants found in Agent Orange.
Another argument by the Food Safety is that weeds will again develop a resistance to 2,4-D, just as they did to glyphosate. The fear is that as herbicides become less effective, farmers will return to plowing or turning over the soil before planting to kill the weeds. This causes problems with erosion and runoff.
Garry Hamlin, a spokesman for Dow AgroScience, counters that regulators have reviewed the safety of 2,4-D several times since it was introduced in 1947, and it continues to be widely used in the U.S. And in 70 other countries around the world. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last reviewed the safety record in 2005.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's plant-inspection agency concluded that the greatest risk from the new seeds developed by Dow AgroSciences was increased use of 2,4-D, which could hasten the evolution of weeds resistant to it. But, the agency said resistance could develop anyway because 2,4-D is the third most-used weed-killer in the nation.
Darrell Pyle, a partner in Kelley and Pyle Farms in the Essex area, says their farm has around 2,000 acres in corn. He uses Monsanto seed. He says he does have problems with pigweed because Roundup is not effective on the weed. He adds that he uses the genetically altered seed "more to control insects" than for weed control.
He does see that many weeds are resistant to herbicides.
"I'd be for anything that will help with our weed problem," Pyle says.
Still, he doesn't think 2,4-D is the answer in this geographic area. There is a lot of cotton grown in the Bootheel, and that doesn't go well with 2, 4-D.
"Cotton and 2,4-D don't go together because it is so toxic to cotton," said Pyle.
Pyle says he uses it early, before cotton is planted. He also says that while 2,4-D is effective against broadleaf weeds, it is not effective against grass.
Jason Mayer, a farmer in the Dexter area, says he too uses genetically altered seed. He explains that seed is constantly being genetically altered, and for more applications than just resistance to herbicides. Chemical companies first developed a seed that made corn resistant to the corn borer, and later for the root worm which has not been a problem in the Bootheel. But the corn borer has. The seed makes the corn leaf toxic to the corn borer, which means using less insecticide to control the problem, according to Mayer. He too, uses 2,4-D to kill broadleaf weeds prior to planting. He would not use it later because of its effect on cotton.
Tom Hampton, a farmer west of Dexter, says he is also concerned about the effect on cotton. He says 2,4-D is especially toxic to cotton, and any overspray when corn and cotton fields are in close proximity could cause "big problems." That is one of his chief concerns.
Actually, Hampton does not use genetically altered seed. He uses "old-fashioned" seed because he can get extra premium (higher prices) for his corn. Most of Europe and other areas in the world do not allow genetically altered corn to be imported. Hampton says he uses Atrazene (an older herbecide) either before planting or after the corn "is 21 inches tall."
David Shaw, vice president for research and economic development at Mississippi State University in Starkville, and past president of the Weed Science Society of America, agreed that growers have to change the way they farm in order to integrate more weed control techniques in a more sustainable practice. But Shaw also wants the USDA to approve Dow's petition.
To manage weeds right, he said, "we have to use every tool in the arsenal, including crop rotation, tillage and herbicide rotation," he said.
A seed with 2,4-D resistance is just another tool, he added.
"We have to give farmers different options so that they don't use just one thing," Shaw said.
Advocates have also raised concerns about possible health risks from increased use of 2,4-D and the chemical's tendency to drift beyond the area where it is sprayed, threatening neighboring crops and wild plants.
Dow AgroSciences has attempted to address that by developing a new version of 2,4-D and new equipment to use with it, Hamlin said.
The seeds and new 2,4-D have been approved in Canada but not yet sold there. The company has targeted their release in the U.S. for 2015, pending approval by various federal agencies.
The EPA plans to release a report in the coming months, and the two agencies are expected to make final decisions simultaneously on use of the chemical and seeds. It was not clear when that would happen.
Associated Press writer M.L. Johnson contributed to the article.