Last summer, June 17 to be exact, one of the volunteers on Margot McMillen’s organic farm in Auxvasse, Missouri noticed something funny about the grapes.
When McMillen and her husband saw the vines, they thought it was a fungus or a bacteria or virus, so they did what they always do when that sort of thing happens and mixed up a mild vinegar solution to spray on the plants.
“It usually impedes it or maybe stops it,” says McMillen, who’s run Terra Bella Farm for more than a decade. “It usually has some effect you notice pretty fast ... It’s not a complete cure but at least you feel like you’ve gotten a hold on it.”
Little did the couple know they would lose their entire grape crop that year. That year they joined a growing group of farmers across the nation losing crops to herbicidal drift from nearby (or not so nearby) conventional farms growing genetically engineered, herbicide-resistant crops. The biotechnology behind these crops has created a culture of single tactic weed management that has placed farmers on an “herbicide treadmill,” using more chemicals than ever as weeds have developed resistance to the gold standard of herbicides, Monsanto’s Roundup.
Now we’ve entered the era of “superweeds” that have become resistant to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup. In response to this rash of glyphosate-resistant weeds, Big Ag companies are stepping up their game and developing crops that are genetically modified to have resistance to multiple herbicides. Environmentalists, activists, scientists and farmers across the nation have cried foul, stating that the new crops will do nothing but increase dependence on herbicides and the chance of even more herbicide resistant weeds.
And those are just the environmental hazards.
But Big Ag denies there’s a problem, and it looks like U.S. regulatory agencies agree, one by one giving companies the green light to move forward with pesticides known to cause cancer, disrupt hormones and destroy non-GMO crops.
Today, the treadmill is moving faster as companies try to stay ahead of the curve. It’s market-share chemical warfare.
For nearly 20 years, Monsanto has secured its place at the head of the agricultural biotech table with their series of Roundup Ready seeds, genetically engineered crops able to withstand being doused with the herbicide glyphosate multiple times a year — crops live, weeds die. Simple as that. Soybeans, corn, alfalfa, cotton, spring and winter canola, and sugar beets are all part of the Roundup Ready catalog.
“In 1997 or thereabouts, with the advent of [Monsanto’s] herbicide tolerant technology, a lot of growers figured they’d died and gone to heaven,” says Garry Hamlin, a spokesperson for Dow AgroSciences, another of the key companies in the Big Ag world. “It was transformative. It became such a big and overwhelmingly attractive option for them, even with other methods for weed control, they were inclined to do the same thing over and over.” Namely, plant Roundup Ready crops and drench their fields in glyphosate.
This has made Monsanto the world’s largest seed company and a household name in the debate over the safety of genetically modified organisms. According to research from the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, Monsanto currently controls 26 percent of the global seed market. Stateside you’ll be hard pressed to eat anything containing corn or soy that wasn’t grown from Monsanto patented seeds. In 2013, the company claimed $14.9 billion in global sales — the lion’s share of it from their glyphosate-resistant crops.
But nature’s got a funny way of outsmarting humans.
“As you know,” continues Hamlin, “when you repeat the same playbook, whether it’s antibiotics or herbicides, you create selective pressure that nature is going to work around, and it’s going to create resistance. In 15 years this is essentially what farmers did,” he says.
Glysophate-resistant weeds are now covering more than 60 million acres of farmland across the nation according to a 2013 report from the agrichemical consultant firm Stratus. It’s within this chaos that Dow — who, by comparison, made only $7.1 billion in global sales last year — may have found a way to tip the market scales in their favor. In January of this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in a Draft Environmental Impact Statement, said they were in favor of approving Dow’s new genetically engineered corn and soybean seeds, designed for resistance against their signature herbicide, 2,4-D.
In the executive summery of the impact statement, the USDA seems to predict catastrophe of apocalyptic proportions should Dow’s 2,4-D crops not come to market. Farmers are “expected” to drastically increase field tillage, which “could” cause increased erosion, negative impacts on soil quality, degrade air and water quality, increase greenhouse gases from more tractor use (thus exacerbating climate change) and threaten biodiversity.
But glyphosate’s not out of the picture, and the seeds are only half of the equation. To complement their new seeds, Dow has also developed a combination herbicide containing 2,4-D and glyphosate — together they call the seed-herbicide combination the Enlist Weed Control System. With the Environmental Protection Agency’s initial nod of approval for the herbicide in April, Hamlin says that Dow is anticipating full approvals for both the 2,4-D tolerant seeds and Enlist Duo herbicide in time for the 2015 growing season. Canada has already approved the seeds and herbicide for use.
“You understand we’re not trying to replace glyphosate tolerant crop technology — we’re trying to make it sustainable,” says Hamlin.
“Sustainable” includes a variety of weed management practices, according to both Hamlin and the USDA. Farmers should choose to rotate crops and herbicides, use cover crops, scout for weeds and conduct some tilling to prevent weeds from flowering.
But, reads the USDA impact statement, “The extent to which growers will adopt best management practices is unknown and therefore it is difficult to accurately predict the extent to which 2,4-D resistant weeds will become a problem.”
The USDA admits that 2,4-D is already the third most widely used herbicide in the U.S. and if resistance to 2,4-D emerges, farmers would need to modify their management practices — changes that could “increase the complexity and cost of weed management programs for these growers.”
So, the feds predict immanent apocalypse if 2,4-D tolerant seeds aren’t approved, but the USDA can’t say exactly what will happen if they are approved. Circular logic abounds.
Furthermore, while the EPA hasn’t set forth hard fast rules on post market management, Hamlin says that both the EPA and Dow will have a hand in stewardship. In other words, the very company that makes the herbicide will play a role in making sure farmers use a variety of tactics to manage weeds.
As is the case with Roundup, Enlist will allow farmers to spray their entire crop (as opposed to spot treating weeds) with large amounts of 2,4-D multiple times a season without killing the crop. Assessments vary, but the Environmental Working Group estimates that if the EPA green lights Enlist Duo herbicide for commercial use, the use of 2,4-D nationwide could more than triple by 2020, leading to accelerated herbicide resistance and exposing communities near 2,4-D-resistant corn and soybean fields to eight times more 2,4-D than today’s current rates.
This in addition to other herbicides that are already being used on crops and in weed management programs for state and county roads, open spaces and ditches.
Hamlin argues that 2,4-D has been registered in the U.S. since 1948 and is currently registered in about 70 different countries worldwide. Currently regulated herbicidal mixtures include 2,4-D and picloram, otherwise known as Agent White, one of the “rainbow” herbicides used to defoliate dense forests in Vietnam. In addition to these regulated formulas, says Hamlin, farmers have had the freedom under the label use conditions to mix herbicides in their spray tanks.
“One of the major problems with this particular herbicide and other mixtures that are out there is that the EPA is only required to go through and look at each active ingredient individually, they aren’t required to look at the combinations of active ingredients,” says Genna Reed, a researcher at the nongovernmental consumer rights group Food and Water Watch. “I think there’s a little over 1,000 actual active ingredients [in all commercial herbicides], and then there’s tens of thousands of [various herbicides], mixes of those ingredients. And all of those products aren’t regulated individually, they are regulated by the active ingredient [in them], which means 2,4-D and glyphosate, how they work together and what that impact will be on health and the environment, is completely unexplored.”
Reed explains that it’s not just the active ingredients that she and other environmentalists are concerned with, but the inactive ingredients as well, which make up about 50 percent of most formulations. Regulatory agencies don’t require chemical companies to list these inactive ingredients on labels.
“That’s another very scary thing because a lot of the chemicals that go into these herbicide mixes that aren’t the active ingredient are usually … petroleum derived chemicals,” says Reed. “Anything that sort of helps these chemicals to work and is petroleum derived is probably not great for human exposure just generally.”
As for human health, research is scant and often contradictory. A significant number of studies — including those conducted by the EPA — have linked 2,4-D with an increase in non- Hodgkins lymphoma as well as different developmental and reproductive issues in rats.
Part of the research issue is the way herbicide registration is conducted by the EPA. Once a pesticide is registered, it’s registered for 15 years. During this 15 years there is no requirement for further testing. 2,4-D was last reviewed as a carcinogen by the EPA in 2004 before it was reregistered in 2005.
“It’s curious that there’s not much research on herbicides,” says Reed. “I think people view herbicides and pesticides, and people know what they are — they kill things. But we need them for certain things. On every label there’s the amount that can be used safely. 2,4-D used in moderation is okay. It was a great tool to have. What’s going to be happening now is this new generation of growers who will be using it indiscriminately and eliminating it as this useful tool and making it a health issue. Once weeds become resistant to 2,4-D like glyphosate, we’re running out of herbicides — there are none in the pipeline, so all we’ll have is combinations of herbicides.
“One of the major problems we see with university research in this country, is a lot of it is funded by industry,” continues Reed. “Some of our big land grant universities, which we would rely on for our best research on the agricultural industry, are often influenced heavily by companies making these products.”
In fact, Food and Water Watch published a 20-page report in April 2012 that detailed corporate influence over agricultural research, showing a scary trend that seems to have turned independent university research into a corporate R&D machine.
While Dow seems to be climbing out from Monsanto’s looming shadow, Monsanto is still firmly in the game.
While slightly behind Dow in the approval process, Monsanto is working to bring their newest creation to the market, Roundup Ready 2 Xtend soybeans and cotton, which, as the name suggests, will be tolerant to glyphosate and another herbicide known as dicamba.
John Combest, a spokesperson for Monsanto, echoes sentiments from Hamlin that the two agricultural giants aren’t in competition, but are trying to create synergy that will ultimately help farmers.
“We’ve learned a lot more since the mid-90s about how plants select for herbicide tolerance. These are things that folks in the academic world would tell you. It’s absolutely essential that farmers have diversified weed management practices,” says Combest, including using technology from competing companies like Dow.
But is synergy between two Goliaths better for the Davids of agriculture?
While studies on human health may be lacking and research by universities questionable, environmentalist fears aren’t just speculation and conspiracy theories. Farmers around the nation have reported losing crops due to herbicidal drift — just like Margot McMillen’s grapes in Auxvasse, Missouri.
McMillen says a friend encouraged her to figure out what was going on with the sickly grapes, so McMillen sent some pictures of the vines to the Missouri Wine and Grape Board who responded quickly that it looked like herbicide damage.
Her farm, Terra Bella, does sit among conventional farms growing genetically engineered crops where chemical herbicides are used. When McMillen spoke to her neighbor about what she thought was happening to her grapes, he told her that he was indeed using 2,4-D and dicamba to manage his weeds.
The grape board theorized that herbicide was drifting onto McMillen’s farm when her neighbor lowered the boom on his industrial crop sprayer, releasing an extra cloud of herbicide “like a sneeze,” says McMillen. Their neighbor began lowering the arm of the sprayer in his fields instead of across the street from McMillen’s farm.
But this year it happened again, this time to McMillen’s tomato, pepper and potato plants, as well as more grapes. As it was before, the plants were contorted in bizarre ways. McMillen had the plants analyzed by professors from the University of Missouri who said the damage looked consistent with patterns created by the herbicide 2,4-D.
“The university professors that analyzed this for me told me 2,4-D makes a plant’s growth system go haywire. Parts of the plant grow faster, so maybe the stem part doesn’t get strong as it could be,” says McMillen. “So you get all this weird looking produce. Every plant seems to react differently. Tomatoes and grapes are particularly susceptible. The leaves look like onionskin — they get papery.”
David Trinklein, an associate professor in the division of plant sciences at the University of Missouri — Columbia, was one of the university professors who consulted McMillen about her damaged vegetables. He explains that 2,4-D is classified as a synthetic version of auxin, a naturally occurring growth hormone in plants.
“Auxin causes a tree to stretch upward towards the light,” Trinklein says. “In nature that’s a defense mechanism so it isn’t towered over by other plants. But synthetic auxin makes plants grow themselves to death, if that makes any sense — weeds turn into vines and quickly die. Most dandelion sprays that people use in their yards have a 2,4-D base, so you’ll notice you get weird leaves for a couple of days and then they die.”
Trinklein says that tomatoes and grapes are extremely sensitive to even small amounts of 2,4-D, which is why something seemingly small like drift from a neighboring field can wreak so much havoc.
Trinklein admits that, at least anecdotally, he’s seeing more and more herbicide damage. He doesn’t know if that’s because people are more likely to report it now or more people are gardening or we’re just using more herbicides. He told McMillen that his department has had several reports of 2,4-D damage to grapes.
He’s very concerned that the 2,4-D resistant crops will increase the problems.
“I only know that we are going to see a lot more collateral damage to vegetable crops when 2,4-D is more widely used. Certainly these are compounds that are more volatile [than glyphosate],” Trinklein says.
When Trinklein says volatility, he means the chemical’s ability to vaporize into the air during warm and wet conditions. Drift has always been a major concern with 2,4-D because of its high volatility. Dow spokesman Hamlin says that the new Enlist herbicide accounts for this.
“There have been environmental drift issues with 2,4-D historically and that’s why we redid the product,” says Hamlin, explaining that a choline salt of 2,4-D replaces the old ester forms of the herbicide. “[The choline salt formulation] provides better handling characteristics, less odor, less potential for viability. It’s been reformulated to create minimum potential for drift.” He says that the USDA estimates a 90 percent reduction in drift.
“It actually is less drift prone, but there’s no guarantee that farmers are going to be spraying just that Enlist brand,” stresses Reed from Food and Water Watch. “They’re supposed to and there’s best management practices, but the problem is there’s very little monitoring of that.” And we’re back to who is in charge of stewardship — a governmental agency that seems to be too busy to conduct adequate research on human and environmental health effects, and a chemical company with responsibilities to shareholders.
So what about farmers like McMillen who have lost their largest cash crops?
“Not only is she probably going to lose this crop but she was certified organic,” says Trinklein. “Now with this accidental contamination, I think it’s five years before it can be declared organic in nature.”
McMillen reported this year’s incident to the Missouri Department of Agriculture, which is now investigating what caused the deformed plants. She’s not sure what she’ll hear.
“The state says it would only be drift within three days of application, which just means that if the guy sprayed a week ago they would say it came from him. But if you look into the literature [on 2,4-D drift] it looks like several weeks could pass between the time when 2,4-D was applied and time when crops were affected because of volatilization,” says McMillen. “It could be that it came in — and we’ve pretty much eliminated this but I want to let you know how big a deal this is — could have come in on our compost. It can even come from your water. You have to try to eliminate all of these possibilities.”
“The university, and I don’t blame them for this, but they get a lot of money from Monsanto,” McMillen says. “They want to be as conservative as they can in what they are telling us. I think that’s part of why they are saying it can only volatilize for a couple of days. Another parameter is distance, only a mile. You can look at literature and see it can travel a lot farther. The university is trying to be conservative, and I don’t blame them, they probably should. But will we ever know where this came from? I’m not sure.”
Whatever the case, McMillen doesn’t blame her neighbors. In fact, she feels pity.
“I always feel like they have been trapped in a horrible system and it’s not that they are bad people, the system just takes such advantage of them and puts them into so much debt that they feel like — well, maybe they don’t — but it seems like they might feel that they have to adopt these new technologies just to keep their heads above water. I feel very sad for them.”