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Will resistance to 2,4-D corn help weed scientists see past corporate cash?

Marcia Ishii-Eiteman's picture
Marcia Ishii-Eiteman
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Farmer with corn hand 2, 4-DI’ve been hearing through the grapevine that the U.S. Department of Agriculture was startled by the public uproar over Dow AgroScience’s application for approval of its controversial new GE corn, designed to be used with the infamous and highly hazardous weedkiller, 2,4-D.

By quietly opening the public comment period on December 21, 2011, the agency had apparently hoped to slide this one by without attracting public attention. Instead, a vocal and growing movement of people from all walks of life has emerged to challenge the Big 6 pesticide/biotech companies’ introduction of this new generation of toxic pesticide-seed combinations.

Well over ¼ million people signed various petitions this spring, urging USDA to reject Dow’s application for approval of its 2,4-D corn. Medical doctors and health professionals oppose the new crop, as do over 150 farm, labor, environmental, business and consumer groups. And over 2,000 farmers and farm businesses have organized a farmers’ coalition to protest 2,4-D corn and other similar products, sending in their own letter to the agency.

In an OpEd published in St. Louis Today, Iowa corn and soy farmer George Naylor and Missouri organic farmer Margot McMillen said:

Our nation's farmland and countryside already are sprayed with too many toxins. If the USDA gives Dow permission to market this high-tech seed, even more hazardous chemicals will cover our countryside, pollute our air and water and destroy neighboring crops. It's time to stop this cycle of production of GE seeds and herbicides before everything and everyone is drenched in toxins.

The alternative to being "drenched in toxins?" A decisive shift towards sustainable, ecological farming.

Ecological weed management. It can be done....

This week, weed scientists gathered in Washington D.C. for the National Academy of Science’s “National Summit on Strategies to Manage Herbicide-Resistant Weeds.” The major focus of the forum was the development of a “coordinated strategy” to handle the epidemic of superweeds resistant to RoundUp (glyphosate) and other weedkillers that now infest over 14 million acres of American cropland.

Weed ecologists have long been demonstrating the efficacy and profitability of non-chemical or ecological weed management. This cutting edge approach to weed management includes an array of techniques and practices that are grounded in ecological sciences and principles, reduce weed populations and prevent the evolution of herbicide resistance. Established tactics include crop rotation, planting cover crops, selection of competitive crop cultivars, mulching and minimal tillage (i.e. occasional inter-row cultivation over a multi-year rotation), advanced fertilization techniques that favor crop over weed, and conservation of weed seed predators.

Long-term cropping systems research at The Rodale Institute has demonstrated the efficacy and productivity of organic systems that have eliminated chemical herbicide use entirely, while regenerating the ecological health of soil, water, farm and landscape. Iowa State University scientists have demonstrated the ability of integrated weed management (IWM) in corn to reduce herbicide inputs by up to 94%, while obtaining profits comparable to conventional chemical-based systems.

....but will we?

Unfortunately, many weed scientists — including the Summit’s chair and others — have long and close associations with the Big 6 pesticide companies, which makes it very difficult for them to think independently of their corporate sponsors and/or former employers. It remains to be seen whether the academic community and  regulators who attended the Summit will confine themselves to the same herbicide-resistant crop paradigm that got us into this predicament, or whether they will dare to embark on a path of sustainable, ecological weed management.

In the coming months, USDA will decide whether or not to approve Dow’s 2,4-D corn. Meanwhile, Congress will decide whether or not to fund crucial conservation programs in the Farm Bill. These two decisions will demonstrate whether our elected officials and policymakers will commit to the path of sustainable agriculture that so many people so clearly want, or deepen American agriculture’s crippling chemical dependence.

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