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The Battle Over Genetically Modified "Agent Orange" Corn

The Battle Over Genetically Modified "Agent Orange" Corn

Picture of Tammy Worth

When I heard last week about the genetically modified corn being dubbed “Agent Orange corn,” I decided I had to write about it because, frankly, it freaked me out. I’ll begin with the disclaimer that I am biased about these things. I’ve been called granola – I have an organic garden, I compost everything and my yard is full of weeds because I don’t like using chemicals.

So-called "Agent Orange corn" has been bred to be resistant to the synthetic plant hormone 2,4d, an herbicide ingredient used in the defoliant Agent Orange. Its developer, Dow AgroSciences, is trying to get FDA approval to sell the corn seeds and the herbicide under the brand name Enlist.

In trying to understand what this genetically modified corn is all about, I spoke with two people with very different perspectives: Eric Holt-Giménez, executive director of Food First, a left-leaning food policy think tank, and Mike Owen, associate chair and professor in the agronomy department at Iowa State University.

So is Enlist the nightmare environmentalists say it is or farming's future? Possibly both.

After years of using the herbicide glyphosate (Monsanto’s Roundup), weeds have become resistant to the product. To fight the weeds, farmers use Dow’s 2,4-D. This was one of the components in Agent Orange, the controversial herbicide used to kill vegetation during the Vietnam War.

Currently, 2,4-D can only be used very early or very late in the growing season, or crops are damaged along with the weeds. What Dow has done is create a type of corn that is resistant to the herbicide, theoretically allowing it to be used all season, increasing exposure. The corn, called Enlist, is in the final stages of regulatory approval.

The first concern, Holt-Giménez said, are the health consequences of increasing the usage of 2,4-D and its “toxicity.”

The product has been commercially available since 1948 and was reregistered by the EPA in 2005. Information on toxicity is provided at the EPA’s Web site. Though 2,4-D constituted 50 percent of Agent Orange, it was the 2,4,5-T, which contained dioxins, that caused the health problems attributed to the herbicide. These dioxins are assumed to be responsible for conditions including heart disease, leukemia, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, neuropathy and a host of cancers.

Owen said calling the product Agent Orange corn is a “sensationalistic incorrect characterization of what is there,” because it has been used on crops and lawns for decades. “Jo homeowner sprays it on his lawn in his flip flops drinking coffee on Saturday mornings,” he said.

Owen likens the process of genetic modification to what has been done since farming’s inception. Native Americans, he said, selected the best grains to combine and breed cultivars that would produce the best yields.

Modification today goes beyond that to target specific genes in plants that are desirable. “When you take pollen from one flower and move it onto another, it is all genetic engineering,” Owen said. “Now we just have more effective tools that more accurately and efficiently change the characteristics of the crops we grow.”

Holt-Giménez said genetic modification is not a throwback, but actually pulls farming dramatically away from its roots. Instead of cross pollinating, technology is used to transfer genetic material from one organism to another.

The result is we also create an “herbicide treadmill” with weeds resistant to herbicides, as happened with overuse of glyphosphate. Instead of using other ways of farming that control weeds naturally, we have reduced diversity and created large monocultures that force us to “go from one destructive technology to another,” he said.

“Until we address this as a structural issue, we aren’t going to be able to take advantage of alternatives that exist,” Holt-Giménez said. “It is a destructive system and GMOs and Agent Orange corn are a major part of it.”

Enlist is the perfect example of the power and scientific battles going on in food production today. And while Holt-Giménez said there are more natural answers to the problem, even this granola girl can’t help but wonder if it’s not too late to turn back the clock.

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