Picture of Marcia Ishii

Marcia Ishii

When Dow pushes, agencies jump

“This pesticide is toxic to fish and aquatic invertebrates. Do not apply directly to water… Drift or runoff may be hazardous….The use of this chemical…may result in groundwater contamination.” Does this sound like a green chemical of the future, something that you’d want drifting over fields, rivers, streams, schools and homes? Not so much. But our Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may disagree.

EPA has been stumbling hard and making some bad decisions lately, including this latest announcement: the agency intends to approve Dow AgroScience’s new formulation of the highly toxic herbicide, 2,4-D — to be used with the corporation’s genetically engineered (GE) 2,4-D resistant corn, cotton and soybean seeds.

EPA’s announcement opens a 60-day comment period. This follows closely on the heels of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) proclamation earlier this year that it plans to approve Dow’s 2,4-D crops — and quickly “clear” its pipeline of other GE seeds awaiting approval.

Agencies play hot potato

Sadly, we’ve come to expect the worst from USDA. After all, the agency has happily rubber-stamped its approval of over 100 GE seeds since 1992, never rejecting an industry petition once. But it's time for EPA to get some gumption here and stand up for what’s right. They've done it before, they can do it again!

As I’ve said before, USDA’s impending approval of 2,4-D-resistant corn and soy is likely to have far-reaching and disastrous consequences for American farmers, businesses and rural communities’ health. But only if EPA caves to USDA and industry pressure, and opens the regulatory spigot on Dow’s new formulation of 2,4-D. This is why EPA’s decision has become so critical.

USDA has already acknowledged that approval of the GE seed would spur a likely increase in 2,4-D use, but argued that it was not responsible for the pesticide piece of Dow’s GE-pesticide package commercially known as “Enlist,” only the seed part. Instead, USDA asserted — swiftly passing along the chemical hot potato —that EPA in fact holds responsibility for determining the fate of Dow’s new 2,4-D product.

When asked by members of a House appropriations committee what EPA is doing to help get new "weed controlling" seed products (aka GE 2,4-D seeds) to farmers, EPA administrator Gina McCarthy replied that the agency is working hard to cooperate with USDA and expedite “positive decisions.”

Farmers do need good tools and assistance in transitioning off of obsolete pesticide-intensive practices. If USDA were to get serious about investing in ecologically resilient and sustainable farming practices, it could do a lot more.

As for EPA, the agency’s responsibility first and foremost is — as described in its mission statement — to ensure that “all Americans are protected from significant risks to human health and the environment.” You know, like widespread exposure to 2,4-D.

Drifting soon over a field near you

2,4-D is a reproductive toxicant, suspected endocrine disruptor and possible carcinogen. Children are particularly susceptible to its effects. If EPA approves Dow’s new 2,4-D formula, use — and therefore exposures — will go up. Agricultural scientists warn that widespread planting of Enlist corn could trigger as much as a 25-fold increase in use of 2,4-D on corn, from an estimated 4.2 million lbs. at present to over 100 million lbs. by 2019.

Recognizing a potential public health disaster looming on the horizon, 70 physicians, nurses and other health professionals have already urged EPA to reject Dow’s application for new uses of 2,4-D on genetically engineered corn.  

American farmers, too, are deeply concerned that Dow’s Enlist corn system will threaten their crops and therefore their livelihoods. Drift from 2,4-D is already responsible for more episodes of crop injury than any other herbicide, and its vastly increased use promises still more damage to crops like non-GE soybeans and cotton, vegetables and fruit.

While Dow says it has developed a new formulation less prone to drifting for miles, the older highly volatile formula is still widely available and its lower cost creates a powerful market incentive to continue its use. And we know from experience that regardless of idealized “best practices,” drift happens.

Reclaim our democracy

By steadily purchasing seed companies and consolidating over the past two decades, the "Big 6" pesticide companies — Dow among them — have amassed monopoly control not only over pesticides, but also over seeds. This market power has translated directly into unprecedented levels of political power and influence in Congress — and over our public agencies, with biotech industry lobbyists spending over half a billion dollars to essentially buy the policies they want.

This corporate take over is happening, not only in agriculture, but in virtually all sectors: food, health, energy, communications, the list goes on. What these companies haven’t reckoned with is that ordinary Americans cherish a funny notion: namely, that democracy is for people.


Photo credit: iStock/fotokostic

Picture of Marcia Ishii

Marcia Ishii

Marcia Ishii is director of PAN’s Grassroots Science Program and a Senior Scientist with a background in insect ecology and pest management. Her campaign work focuses on supporting and strengthening agroecology movements and policies in the U.S. and globally, in addition to challenging corporate control of our food and seed systems. Follow @MarciaIshii

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