A Cornfounding Situation: Bioengineering Brought Us Super Weeds, Now Wonder Worms. What is Next from the Labs of Monsanto and Dow?

Some big questions remain.

Some big questions remain.

Advocates for genetically modified crops have never relied on logic to advance their cause. And the same holds true for the government officials who give their blessings to new bioengineered plants. Just look at what has been playing out in the corn industry over the past month or so.

Just before Christmas, the U.S. Department of Agriculture took steps toward approving a new variety of corn engineered by Dow AgroSciences that would survive being sprayed by the herbicide 2,4-D, a component of the notorious weed killer Agent Orange. The chemical may be a carcinogen and causes reproductive problems, neurotoxicity, and immunosuppression, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Gary Hirshberg, the chairman of Stonyfield Farm and a long-time crusader for organic agriculture, called the USDA’s move “diabolical” in a recent telephone conversation with me. The agency will make a final decision after a public comment period ends at the end of February.

The reason Dow wants to market the new corn is that weeds in at least 26 states have become resistant to glyposate, a less-toxic herbicide commonly sold under the trade name Roundup. So farmers need corn that can survive being sprayed with a more powerful herbicide, while the weeds growing alongside the corn die — or at least that’s the plan.

For now, 2,4-D still works on weeds, but scientists speculate that — just as they did with Roundup — weeds will inevitably become resistant to 2, 4-D, creating an increasingly vicious cycle as bioengineers come up with crops that can survive applications of ever more toxic herbicides. It’s a neat trick. The companies will profit from problems that their products create.

In a recent issue of the journal Bioscience, a group of researchers led by David Mortensen, a specialist in weed ecology at Penn State University, reported that the introduction of the new 2,4-D-resistant crops was likely to “increase the severity of resistant weeds.” The researchers also concluded that the new crops would result in a significant increase in the use of herbicides.

Regulators at the USDA would have done well to consult with their colleagues over at the Environmental Protection Agency. A month before the USDA opened the door to approval of Dow’s new GMO corn, the EPA took agri-giant Monsanto to task for “inadequate” monitoring. Scientists found signs that rootworms in four states were developing resistance to Monsanto corn that was engineered to produce a natural bacterial insecticide that normally kills caterpillars and worms.

First Super Weeds, now Wonder Worms. What marvel can we expect next from the laboratories of Big Ag?

Check out the OnEarth blog, where this post first appeared.

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