THE BLOG
10/16/2014 11:16 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

GMO Opponents File Suit to Block EPA Approved Enlist Duo Weed Killer

The Natural Resources Defense Council became the first environmental group to file suit in an attempt to block the rollout of the latest GMO crop and weed killer system, Enlist Duo, developed by Dow AgroSciences.

The genetically modified corn and soybean system was approved Wednesday by the Environmental Protection Agency. It won U.S. Department of Agriculture approval last month.

"When used according to label directions," the EPA said on Wednesday. "Enlist Duo is safe for everyone, including infants, the developing fetus, the elderly and more highly exposed groups such as agricultural workers."

Those statements were challenged in the NRDC's petition filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The NRDC claims the EPA ignored possible health and safety risks to both humans and monarch butterflies. It is asking the court to "review and set aside the final order".

"This short-sighted move by the EPA opens the door for the ever increasing use of pesticides that will only further endanger both wildlife and people which is why NRDC will challenge the decision in court," the NRDC wrote in its statement.

Another NGO, EarthJustice, told Reuters it too is contemplating a suit. "EPA has not followed the law," said Greg Loarie, an attorney with Earthjustice."In their view, a massive increase in the use of 2,4-D will have no impact on endangered species. They are supposed to consult with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They did not."

The Enlist Duo herbicide contains glyphosate as well as a new form of 2,4-D, which is already used on other crops like wheat and on pastureland and golf courses.

"Enlist Duo will provide a new tool to help farmers manage troublesome weeds while growing [genetically engineered] corn and soybeans," said Jim Jones, the EPA's assistant administrator in charge of chemical safety. "Both 2, 4-D and Glyphosate have long been in use in agriculture and around homes. 2, 4-D and Glyphosate are two of the most widely used herbicides to control weeds in the world." Enlist seeds and crops that grow from them are resistant to both compounds.

Both herbicides are post emergents that break down in the soil in a matter of weeks, posing no long term ecological harm. Because of the Agent Orange association, 2,4-D is one of the most extensively studied agricultural chemicals in history. It's also used by families around the world on their lawns, where their children and pets play, to no adverse effect.

According to the Reuters report cited above:

"Loarie said the EPA also failed to fully follow the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) by ensuring that pesticides will not have an 'unreasonable adverse impact' on human health or the environment. Earthjustice is threatening to sue and other NGOs are reportedly considering legal action as well."

Dangers?

Critics have tried to link the new product to Agent Orange, an herbicide used during the Vietnam War, which contained 2.4-D, but that's deceitful, the EPA said. Jones said environmentalists who call 2, 4-D Agent Orange are furthering an "urban myth," since the deadly part of Agent Orange has been banned for years and itself was contaminated. "EPA canceled 2, 4, 5-T, the component of Agent Orange that made it dangerous, in 1985," Jones said.

Opponents also regularly link 2,4-D to a host of human ailments. Panelists at the recent National Products Expo asserted that "human exposure to 2,4-D has been linked to non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, Parkinson's disease, birth defects, reproductive and immune system problems, neurodevelopmental toxic effects and thyroid problems. In particular, research has also indicated that Enlist Duo could pose even more significant health threats to children 12 and under."

The EPA stressed today that it does not rely on other people's evaluation of studies, but does its own evaluations by reviewing the raw data. "We are regulating at a level that is 100-fold lower than the dose level where NO effects occurred," they noted in a slide presentation to reporters. They even evaluated what would happen if all foods are treated with 2,4-D--100% exposure, with complete residue coverage. Even then, EPA scientists concluded, there were zero acute chronic dietary risks. The EPA issued a fact sheet to explain its findings.

2014-10-16-EPAFactSheet.png

The EPA has previously evaluated 2,4-D numerous times under increasingly stringent risk assessment evaluations and consistently found the comparatively mild herbicide safe. The Oregon State University and EPA-backed National Pesticide Information Center thoroughly reviewed the chemical and found it safe in its proposed usages. USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) endorsed the safety of the traits years ago after extensive reviews, but the final approval process slowed to a crawl in the face of activist pressures.

Pesticide treadmill?

Anti-GMO activists also challenge the herbicide on ecological grounds. They claim that the product will feed a "pesticide treadmill" and that the trait will "drift" into nearby fields, "contaminating" crops of neighboring farmers who do not want to use the new product. A yet to be published paper by Pennsylvania State University crop scientist David A. Mortensen (research is based on this 2012 paper) makes a case that new herbicide compound is quite volatile and prone to be carried in air, where it could do damage to non-target plants making "it challenging to cultivate tomatoes, grapes, potatoes, and other horticultural crops without the threat of yield loss from drift," they write. They also fear that if you're a farmer determined not to use a stacked 2,4-D/Roundup seed, you could be forced to if your neighbor's 2,4-D spray keeps knocking down your corn.

The EPA evaluated those fears and found them exaggerated. Dow spent considerable research time developing a version of the chemical to minimize drift. Garry Hamlin, a spokesman for Dow AgroSciences, says the Enlist Duo herbicide is actually designed to reduce drift and evaporation.

The product was developed in part because of the inevitable development of resistance to weeds, what critics of modern agriculture and GMOs call, erroneously, "super weeds." Weed management is one of the central challenges of agriculture. Modern single mode chemicals were first developed in the 1950s and 1960s because they were a dramatic improvement over mechanical tillage, an extension of the plow, which is used by most organic farmers today. But over time, weeds mutate to resist both mechanical tilling and chemical applications, requiring ever more sophisticated management systems.

The primary weed control system used in the United States is based on glyphosate--Monsanto's Roundup. Introduced in 1996, Roundup Ready crops now account for 94 percent of the soybean crops and upwards of 70 percent for soy and cotton, USDA figures show.

The Dow Chemical product will post a direct challenge to Monsanto, which markets the Roundup Ready system. Glyphosate is now off patent. When finally approved, Dow will be in a position to sell the 2,4-D-tolerant seed itself, license the genetic trait to other seed makers such as Monsanto (the companies already license traits from each other) and selling the Enlist Duo herbicide.

Resistance to glyphosate has grown over the years in some regions, but not all, depending on how farmers have used the product. In Australia, for example, there are fewer signs of glyphosate resistance and the incidence of Round-up resistance in the US is slowing, according to the USDA, despite the near hysterical reporting by some reporters and NGO sites.

What about the charge that the dual herbicide Enlist Duo will result in a dramatic increase in pesticide use? Activists frequently attack glyphosate as dangerous to humans and the environment, exaggerating its toxicity. In fact, it's one of the most mild herbicides used in modern agriculture (it's toxic rating is less than that of table salt), is not carcinogenic and is biodegradable. Glyphosate use which has held steady for years according to Penn State's Mortensen, will not go up and may actually decrease. It's also not "drenched" on farm crops as reporters and NGOs repeatedly state. The facts, as reported by the USDA, are just the opposite. It's sparingly used, as Dave Walton, a farmer, noted in his post at the Genetic Literacy Project.

Planting season has arrived in Iowa, and I've been applying herbicides to prepare for planting. On our no-till ground--the most sustainable form of agriculture, and it's been made possible by the use of GM crops--we use a combination of glyphosate, 2,4-D, and depending on crop either metalachlor for corn, or on soybeans it's a pre-packaged mix of chlorimuron, flumioxazin and thifensulfuron. On our tilled ground, we leave out the glyphosate and 2,4-D, as it's not needed because tillage kills the weeds that are present.

So, what about this drowning we've been reading so much about? On our corn ground, before planting we apply 16 ounces of Glyphosate, 8 ounces of 2,4-D, and 48 ounces of metalachlor per acre. To put that in perspective, it's a little more than half a gallon of herbicide spread out over an acre, or roughly the size of a football field. ... We're not "drowning" plants in pesticides; we're using what amounts to eyedroppers. What we do is a misting and not a "dousing".

Won't Enlist Duo lead to increased use of 2.4-d? There will be an increase, that's certain. But unless you equate the very woods "chemical" or "pesticide" with "danger" and "harm" and "death"--a simplistic knee jerk reaction absent supportive evidence, according to thousands of studies and reaffirmed in the EPA approval document--there are no serious threats to animals or humans.

"The EPA said its scientists used "highly conservative and protective" assumptions to evaluate the human health and ecological risks of Enlist Duo and that usage as approved will protect the public, agricultural workers, and endangered species," the Reuters report notes.

Just in case and apparently in response to critics of Enlist Duo, EPA's approval document requires Dow to closely monitor applications to ensure that weeds are not becoming resistant to Enlist Duo. EPA is also ordering a 30-foot in-field "no spray" buffer zone around application areas and has also banned use when wind speeds are over 15 miles per hour.

The EPA approved the GM corn and soybean system only for six years rather than the typical fourteen years, and is initially allowing use in only six growing states: Wisconsin, Ohio, South Dakota, Indiana, Iowa and Illinois. It kept open its decision on ten other states pending public comments over the next month. As the Reuters report also notes, "EPA said the approval lays out a template of new requirements for future approvals of herbicides designed for use with genetically modified crops."

Criticism unlikely to abate

Ironically, the central criticism of activists holds some validity: This new stacked herbicide resistant product is not a silver bullet to weed problems. Modern single mode chemicals were developed because they were a dramatic improvement over mechanical tillage, an extension of the plow, which is used by most organic farmers today.

The current challenge of herbicide resistant weeds and the increasing use of herbicides is a real issue, but we need practical solutions, not just hand-wringing, or worse, hand-waving, as is the norm among those ready to criticize what they don't understand while offering no practical alternative solutions.

"We don't need pesticide-resistant GMOs to control weeds. There are natural ways to fight them," said Bill Freese, a science policy expert at the Center for Food Safety. "The GMO industry likes to put a warm fuzzy glow on GMOs but we don't see much use for them at all," he argued.

John Kempf, a farmer and CEO of Advancing Eco Agriculture, a soil nutrition consulting firm, said GMOs fail to match the claims of proponents. "They don't increase crop yields and they increase the resistance of weeds to herbicides," he said. "We should use the science of nutrition for the soil instead of the science of GMOs."

Easier said, than done. It's not clear what they are advocating for. What about the organic farmer's use of organic tilling? Tom Philpott, in an article posted today in Mother Jones, offers his fantasy-land package of solutions:

... a simple program called Integrated Weed Management could rescue US farm fields from Roundup-resistant superweeds without recourse to more herbicides. The approach relies on low-tech techniques like crop rotation, cover crops, tillage, and targeted herbicide applications. IWM would mean bringing skill and thought back to farming, and it would push farmers into planting more crops than just corn and soy.

If only farming was so simple. Any wonder why farmers aren't clamoring to return to the 1950s? In contrast, farmers are turning toward no tillage, which the USDA reports is encouraged by the use of GMO herbicide resistant crops and the ecological benefits they offer.

Pesticide scientist Steve Savage calls the invention of the plow and the subsequent development of the mechanical tillage based system promoted as a miracle solution by anti-modern agriculture activists "one of the most environmentally destructive inventions in human history." Why? Because it leads to erosion, water runoff, increased evaporation of water and the breaking down of the soil--an ecological time bomb.

Instead of using targeted chemicals, tillage farmers chop up targeted weeds. But that creates its own set of problems. The chopping up of the targeted weeds opens niches in the environment that stimulates the growth of other weeds by decreasing their competition and making their environment more favorable. New 'superweeds' fill that niche. Chopping weeds also does not prevent the development of super weeds. Weeds, like the Canadian thistle, eventually evolve to regenerate from chopped pieces rather than from seeds.

From a sustainability perspective, organic-farming based mechanical tillage would be a major step backward, and would also result in a dramatic drop in yield. The honest reality--something you would never read from distorted, hyperbolic accounts by ideological activsts--is that weeds are a bitch. There is no magic system that defeats evolution. Will Enlist Duo solve the farmers' weed problems? Of course not. But challenging reasonable and comparatively safe solutions without offering alternatives is worse than cynical--it's destructive.

Update, 6:20pm EST 10/17/2014: This post has been updated since its original publication to reflect the Natural Resources Defense Council suit officially being filed, and to attribute reporting and interview quotes to Reuters.

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Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, is a Senior Fellow at the World Food Center, Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy, University of California-Davis. Follow @JonEntine on Twitter