Monsanto recently announced that it is close to receiving full approval for a dicamba-tolerant trait in soybeans. Dicamba is similar in structure and mode to herbicides like 2,4-D, a main component of Agent Orange. It volatilizes easily and can drift for miles, and more easily contaminates nearby waterways and groundwater because of its mobility in soil. Simply put, Dicamba is bad for human health and the environment, and genetically engineered varieties like this encourage its use by design, exacerbating the problem of chemical contamination in our food, water, and air that even the President’s Cancer Panel says we cannot afford to ignore.
The example of glyphosate-tolerant (Roundup Ready) crops is instructive. Remember that glyphosate use has increased by more than 318 million pounds since Roundup Ready seeds were introduced in 1996. We discussed herbicide-tolerant seed technologies as a short-lived technology in a past post, and the consequence of glyphosate-resistant weeds — referred to in a recent New York Times article as “the single largest threat to production agriculture that we have ever seen” — has taught us that pesticide-promoting seed creates worse weed problems that lead to more expensive and toxic chemical applications. Penn State University weed scientist David Mortensen estimates that use of dicamba and 2,4-D will increase by 55.1 million pounds a year because of glyhposate-resistance.
While resistant weeds harm a farmer’s bottom line and the environment alike they do create fertile ground for one stakeholder: the dominant agrochemical and biotech firms that stand to profit from toxic chemicals and patentable seeds — “solutions” to a problem their products created in the first place. And because Monsanto’s press release reports that the dicamba-tolerant trait will be stacked with the second generation Roundup Ready trait (which isn’t meeting expectations), farmers’ choice in non-stacked varieties will be reduced to stacked soybean varieties with price tags reflecting the cost of two expensive biotech traits.
And so the pesticide treadmill continues.
The President’s Cancer Panel report mentioned above lays out the “grievous harm” we face from chemicals, including agricultural pesticides (Part 2), many of which, the authors note, are not tested for causing chronic diseases like cancer. The report quotes Sandra Steingraber, acclaimed ecologist and author of Living Downstream:
I believe it is time for a new human experiment. The old experiment…is that we have sprayed pesticides which are inherent poisons…throughout our shared environment. They are now in amniotic fluid. They’re in our blood. They’re in our urine. They’re in our exhaled breath. They are in mothers’ milk….What is the burden of cancer that we can attribute to this use of poisons in our agricultural system?…We won’t really know the answer until we do the other experiment, which is to take the poisons out of our food chain, embrace a different kind of agriculture, and see what happens.